Pele’s life off the field was as eventful as his record-breaking career on it, with three marriages and a range of trailblazing sponsorship deals which helped modern-day players fill their pockets with corporate cash.
Here, we look at a side of the Brazilian superstar that often defied his squeaky-clean image:
‘Talk to your doctor’
Pele made millions by endorsing both Visa and Mastercard, and even sandals made with recycled tyre parts.
In her book “Sneaker Wars”, Barbara Smit details how, during the 1970 World Cup, Pele struck an agreement with Puma that would earn him $25,000 for the tournament, plus $100,000 for the following four years and a cut of branded boot sales.
The deal, which broke a pact between Puma and fierce rivals Adidas not to sign Pele because of the cost of a bidding war, was made on the condition that he ties his shoelaces before the kickoff of Brazil’s quarter-final match with Peru.
He duly did, the cameras caught the moment, and he earned himself a cool $2.85 million in today’s money, without calculating what he raked in from boot sales.
However his most infamous endorsement came in 2002 when he lent his name to impotence cure Viagra, encouraging viewers from inside Rio de Janeiro’s Maracana stadium “talk to your doctor, I would!”
The same year he was named Japan’s first educational ambassador for erectile dysfunction due to his advertising campaign for the drug. Pele however claimed that he never used Viagra.
Troubled family life
Pele was often presented as safe and corporate-friendly in comparison with the sometimes unpredictable Diego Maradona, with whom he did battle over the title of best-ever footballer, but his personal life was fraught with problems.
His first son Edinho, who was born two months after his triumph at the 1970 World Cup, was in 2017 sentenced to over 12 years in jail for drug trafficking and money laundering.
In an interview that year with Bleacher Report, Edinho described how Pele — who had a reputation as a philanderer in his home country — became an absentee father once he moved the family to New York to play with the Cosmos in the North American Soccer League in the mid-1970s, leaving his first wife Rosemeri dos Reis Cholbi shortly after arriving in the US.
He later reconciled with Edinho, a former goalkeeper at Santos, the club where Pele made his name as a footballer, but his relationship with his first daughter was even more problematic.
He refused to acknowledge Sandra Arantes do Nascimento, who was born in 1964 of an affair with a maid, despite Brazilian courts ruling that she was his child in 1996 following a five-year legal battle.
Born Sandra Machado, she wrote a book entitled “The Daughter The King Didn’t Want”.
She died in 2006 of breast cancer aged just 42. Pele refused to go to the funeral, and he also never recognised her two children.
In his late 70s, Pele married for the third time in 2016, to 42-year-old businesswoman Marcia Aoki.
Pele and Aoki met in New York in the 1980s but only started seeing each other in 2010 when they crossed paths in an elevator in Sao Paulo.
Pele is remembered among anglophone film fans for his role as Corporal Luis Fernandez in “Escape to Victory”, in which a rag-tag bunch of POWs try to escape a German World War II prison camp.
That film, which also featured Michael Caine and Sylvester Stallone, was the high point of his film career. Other efforts, such as the 1983 flick “A Minor Miracle” in which a priest asks Pele to help save an orphanage, made less of an impact.
Other appearances include a cameo in “Mike Bassett: England Manager”, but he refused to appear in an ESPN documentary about the New York Cosmos because producers wouldn’t pay the $100,000 fee he demanded.
Pele was also no stranger to the world of music, having recorded as long ago as 1960. In 2006, he even released an album in collaboration with the famed Brazilian singer/songwriter Gilberto Gil.
A decade later he released a song called “Esperanca” (“Hope”) which celebrated the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.
On his 80th birthday in 2020, Pele recorded a song with Grammy-winning Mexican duo Rodrigo and Gabriela, billed as “a little birthday present for his fans and himself.”
Trapped in Lagos
One of the hairiest experiences of his life came during one of his corporate jaunts — a Pepsi-sponsored trip to Lagos, Nigeria in 1976 just as an unsuccessful military coup was launched.
Then-ruler General Murtala Mohammed was assassinated in an attempted coup.
Pele was in the Nigerian capital at the same time as Arthur Ashe, who was playing in the Lagos Tennis Classic tournament.
Then-Wimbledon champion Ashe was frogmarched off the court by gun-toting soldiers during his semi-final with Jeff Borowiak, and ended up at the same hotel as Pele.
Pele was smuggled out of the country once the borders were opened by the government, with the Brazilian authorities insisting Pele be dressed as a pilot to conceal his identity.
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