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Brazilian soccer superstar Pelé has died at the age of 82

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

Brazilian soccer legend Pelé has died at the age of 82.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED SPORTSCASTER: Watch Pelénow. What a beautiful goal from Pelé, El Rey Pelé. One hundredth goal for Brazil in World Cup competitions...

MARTÍNEZ: He's often called the greatest of all time and is the only player to lead their country to three World Cup titles, the first when he was just 17 in 1958. He made the No. 10 shirt an iconic image in world soccer. Peléended his career helping to popularize soccer here in the U.S. when he joined the New York Cosmos in 1975. And later in life, he served as an ambassador for the sport and witnessed its worldwide expansion. Andrew Downie has written two books about Brazilian soccer. He joins us now from Sao Paulo. Andrew, in his own words, I mean, Pelésaid that when he started, he just wanted to be as good as his dad, who was also a soccer player in Brazil. He ended up, I think, being a lot more. What made him a legend?

ANDREW DOWNIE: Well, as you said in your intro there, he was the first player to - and the only player to win the World Cup three times. And I think by that, he alone - that puts him above many of the others that played the game. He was also a - he took a small-time club, Santos, to the top of the world. They became the champions of South America and the champions of the world. He was comparable to, I think, Muhammad Ali in the U.S. He was the only guy, along with Ali, who was recognizable in the whole world. And I think he did this at a time when football was becoming a business, as well as a sport. And that gave him this projection all over the world. And it projected Brazil all over the world because before Pelé, before that team of the 1960s and 1970s, people - a lot of people did not know Brazil. And he really put Brazil on the map. And it made him a true legend.

MARTÍNEZ: A one-named superstar. That's how you know you're big. What's the mood in Brazil today? What's the country going to do?

DOWNIE: There has definitely been a huge outpouring of grief over the last 24 hours because everyone recognizes, you know, the greatness of Pelé, the legend of Pelé. People were, I think, expecting his death. He's been in and out of hospital for more than a year. And the last month, his family have been posting pictures and, I think, preparing people for the worst because they knew that he was not getting much better. So there is this grief. And - but people have taken it with a kind of naturalness because they knew that it was about to come.

MARTÍNEZ: Many big Brazilian superstars that came after Pelé, like Zico, Ronaldo, Ronaldinho, Neymar - they consider him an inspiration. But I don't think any of them really ever eclipsed Peléin the hearts of Brazilians.

DOWNIE: No, I don't think so. They all - I mean, Peléwas this - was a curious guy in the sense that he would often refer to himself in the third person. He would say, you know, Peléis the football player, the public face. And Edson - his name was Edson Arantes do Nascimento - Edson is just the private man. And he had this curious relationship with Brazilians. They realized how great he was, how brilliant he was and how important he was for the country. But there was a lot of questions about whether he stood up for Black Brazilians, you know, enough during the racism that he suffered in the - particularly in the '60s and '70s. There was a lot of questions about whether he should have done more to stand up to the military dictatorship in the 1960s and '70s. And he also had a very private life, shall we say. He was married three times. He had several children...

MARTÍNEZ: Yeah, yeah.

DOWNIE: ...Some out of wedlock. And I think these were all issues that really complicated his legacy for some Brazilians.

MARTÍNEZ: You know, Andrew, the conversation of who's the greatest of all time - it's such a subjective thing - right? - because it's all about an opinion, but it's a fun argument to have. Argentina's Lionel Messi certainly made his case with what he just accomplished. But when it comes to Pelé, I mean, your opinion - was he the greatest of all time? Was he the GOAT?

DOWNIE: My belief is that, you know, Peléwon the World Cup three times. No one else has done that. A lot of people argue today that football is much harder now and that Pelécould not do what he did today. There's a lot of validity to that argument. My response to that, however, is that when Peléplayed, he wore boots that were heavier. Even the ball itself was not as round. The pitches were much harder back then. Players could tackle from behind. Players got away with a lot more. Peléhad to put up with all that. He would often play two games in two or three days. It would often be 40 apples and chocolate just to keep the strength up because they never had enough time to actually sit in restaurants and eat meals. So all that, for me, makes football more difficult back in Pelé's day. And if you talk to people who played with Pelé, they all said he was such an athlete. He was such a professional. If he played today, he would play to this higher standard that exists today.

MARTÍNEZ: Andrew Downie joins us from Sao Paulo, Brazil. Andrew, thanks for your thoughts.

DOWNIE: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF FINGERSPIT'S "MOURNING") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.