Image Credit: AP

It is the sad truth that even the greatest of men one day must accept that no one stays young forever and age catches up with us all.

It is disheartening to hear that the once seemingly impervious football legend Pele is now a frail figure of a 79-year-old man who is ashamed to go out in public due to failing health.

According to his son, Edinho, Pele is “depressed” and barely leaves home anymore because health problems have left him struggling to walk.

Last week, Edinho revealed that Pele is embarrassed about his physical condition, given that he was once regarded as the greatest athlete on the planet.

“He’s pretty fragile in terms of his mobility ... and that makes him suffer a kind of depression,” Edinho said of his father, who now must get around in a wheelchair or with the aid of a walking frame.

“Just imagine, he’s the ‘King’ and now he can’t walk normally. He gets very shy, very embarrassed about that.”

200211 Pele
Brazilian football great Pele arrives at Guarulhos International Airport, in Guarulhos some 25km from Sao Paulo, Brazil, on April 09, 2019. Image Credit: AFP

He should know that what he achieved has already made him immortal in the minds of football fans around the globe.

He was revered by youngsters and adults alike during his playing days from the 1956-1977 and he is still the only player in history to win three Fifa World Cups (1958, 1962 and 1970).

Even now, the kids who dream of growing up to be the next Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo know his name.

The current crop of pretenders to his ‘Greatest of All Time’ throne all have their talents, and they all have one other thing in common — they were all inspired to play the game by Pele. Messi, Ronaldo, Neymar, even the young Kylian Mbappe ... You name him and he will have cited Pele as an inspiration when he was growing up.

The man born Edson Arantes do Nascimento single-handedly paved the way for football to become a truly global phenomenon and became the pride of Brazilian football and football’s first icon — he is arguably still the biggest.

When he first burst onto the scene for Santos in the 1950s he could do things with a football never seen before. Fans in the South American country were used to his flair, skill and strength — even as a record-breaking 17-year-old — but the world collectively dropped its jaw when he showcased his unique talents on the biggest stage at the 1958 World Cup in the unfamiliar setting of Sweden.

He set the tournament alight with dazzling play, inconceivable vision and shooting power that left goalkeepers twice his age quivering.

While his body creaks and weakens with age, what he has achieved sets him apart from us mere mortals and the ‘King’ will sit on his throne inspiring future generations of superstars

- Matt Smith

Six games, six goals, a heap of records and one World Cup winners’ medal later and both a star and ‘The Beautiful Game’ were born.

The Netherlands star Johan Cruyff, who is regarded alongside Pele and Portugal’s Eusebio as one of the fathers of the modern game, once said: “Pele was the only footballer who surpassed the boundaries of logic.”

His stardom and sway was such that it could stop a war. In 1967, the Nigerian Civil War held a 48-hour ceasefire so both sides could watch Pele play an exhibition game in Lagos.

In the years of celebrity and sporting glory, one moment stands out that showed how Pele created the modern game in another way.

We all know that players these days command salaries that could fund a small nation, but they make just as much out of merchandising, sponsors and endorsements.

Pele was smart enough to get in on the act way back in the 1970 World Cup, where he completed his hat-trick of titles.

According to reports, at the beginning of the quarter-final against Peru, Pele asked the referee to delay kick-off for a moment so he could lace up his nice new shiny Puma boots, while the television cameras zoomed in on the biggest name in the game and — unbeknown to the dutiful cameramen — created a nice little promotion for the sports brand and a nice little earner for Pele.

According to author Barbara Smit, Pele was paid what would now be $800,000 for just a few moments of ‘work’. Who says footballers are dumb?

Pele retired from international football in 1974 before the World Cup and left Santos after his 19th season with the South American giants.

He followed the money to the North American Soccer League when he signed for New York Cosmos the following year. He helped raise awareness of ‘soccer’ in the States to levels that it is now luring stars such as David Beckham, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Wayne Rooney across the Atlantic for a payday before they end their careers — something else for which Pele proved to be a trailblazer.

Pele in action for NY Cosmos
Image Credit: AP

Once his playing days were over — he officially retired in 1977 — he turned his attention to helping the underprivileged, using his fame to fund charitable work in Africa and South America. He became a Goodwill Ambassador for Unesco in 1994, using his sway to promote human rights issues, before stepping back due to his health issues.

Health has always been at the forefront during various points in Pele’s life. His talent came with a price and he was often the target of heavy — some might say criminal — tackles. During the 1966 World Cup he was subjected to some brutal fouls in the matches against Bulgaria and Portugal which led to his injury and Brazil’s early departure from the tournament. He only has one kidney after doctors had to remove the other when it was damaged by a rib he broke while playing later in his career.

In 2014, he was placed on dialysis after contracting a severe urinary infection and last year he had to be hospitalised for kidney problems while visiting Paris for a promotional visit to see Mbappe.

He has undergone numerous hip operations — another price he paid for life as a footballer in the 1960s and 1970s. He never fully recovered from one of these operations, leaving him in his current condition, dependent on a walker or wheelchair.

While his body creaks and weakens with age, what he has achieved sets him apart from us mere mortals and the ‘King’ will sit on his throne inspiring future generations of superstars.

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