The world first set eyes on Pele in Sweden in 1958. He was just 17 when he played in his first FIFA World Cup, a slight teenager who emerged from nowhere to light up the tournament with his dazzling skills. It is often said that it was player power that earned Pele a place in the starting line-up for Brazil’s third match of the finals against the Soviet Union. He had been sidelined by a knee injury but on his return from the treatment room, his colleagues closed ranks and insisted upon his selection in attack alongside Vava.
The prodigy repaid his team-mates with the only goal against Wales in the quarter-finals - and in doing so established a record as the youngest scorer in FIFA World Cup history, aged 17 years and 239 days. Having found his range, he then struck a second-half hat-trick inside 23 minutes in Brazil’s 5-2 defeat of France in the semi-finals.
By now, Pele was unstoppable, allying perfect technique with lightning speed, intelligence and opportunism, and he rounded off his first FIFA World Cup with two splendid goals against Sweden in the Final. For the first, he had the audacity to pull off a sombrero, lifting the ball over the last defender before smashing the ball home on the volley. His second, in the final minute, was a looping header over the keeper. Sweden player Sigge Parling later confessed that “after the fifth goal, I felt like applauding.”
At the final whistle, Seleção keeper Gilmar had to console the boy wonder, who was carried off the field in tears on his team-mates’ shoulders. “I felt like I was living in a dream,” remembered Pele, and in many ways he was, a player set apart by his extraordinary talent. In the years that followed he only got better. He scored 127 goals in 1959, 110 in 1961, and inspired Santos to consecutive Copa Libertadores triumphs in 1962 and 1963; conquests which preceded back-to-back Intercontinental Cup successes.