No.6: A 17-year-old Pele Fires Brazil To Glory (Sweden, 1958)
Making an impression as a young player is never easy. So it’s understandable that when we explore the history of the World Cup—the highest profile, most important soccer competition there is—that there is a scarcity of occasions in which a young player has inspired his team to victory.
Of course, there have been breakout moments like Michael Owen in 1998, but no side has been quite as galvanized by the influence of one player as Brazil were in 1958 by Pele.
Back then, Brazil were still chasing their maiden World Cup triumph. They’d squandered what looked to be their best chance eight years earlier when they crumbled in front of their own supporters against Uruguay, whilst in 1954, they fell foul to the mighty Hungarian side.
The man who’s full title is Edson Arantes do Nascimento was just a teenager by the time the 1958 World Cup in Sweden came around. Having broken into the Santos side at the age of 15, he was well accustomed to the rigors of professional football. He was actually the starting centre-forward for Santos just a year on from his breakthrough season, finishing top scorer in the entire division.
So for the people of Brazil it was no surprise that he was called up to the senior squad for the World Cup. Although the rest of the watching world remained unaware of this sparkling young talent. They soon would be.
Ahead of the tournament, the 17-year-old had picked up an injury and had to sit out Brazil’s first two games. but as soon as he was fit, he was straight into the side for the third game. He became the youngest player to ever start at a World Cup in doing so.
What the young Santos player did throughout the rest of the tournament was simply astounding.
What happened next?
Pele netted the only goal in the quarter-final win against Wales, a hat-trick in the semi-final against France and a brace in the final against Sweden, a game in which Brazil triumphed 5-2 to bag their first ever World Cup win.
Whilst France’s Justin Fontaine took home the golden boot with 13 goals in the tournament—a record that still stands to this day—it was Pele that made the world sit up and take notice. Not ever had people witnessed a young man blessed with such power, pace and maturity. He was a true phenomenon.
Pele’s progression didn’t halt there either. He sampled World Cup glory again in 1962, although he suffered with injury and was largely overshadowed by the elusive Garrincha. But eight years later he inspired another triumph for the Selecao, and was named the best player in the tournament as Jogo Bonito conquered the world again.
Pele won the World Cup three times in his career, a record that he alone holds. You suspect it’l be a long time before anyone matches those kind of numbers, and a very long time until a 17-year-old makes such a massive impact on soccer’s biggest stage.
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