Pelé, whose name remains ringing bells around the world not only for his prowess on the soccer field but also for being a fixture in popular culture around the world, died on Thursday at the age of 82 following a well-publicized bout with colon cancer.
But his legend lives on, fueled in part by the mystique that most people who go by just one name typically exude: Bansky, Prince, Sade, Beyoncé, Bono and Slash, for example. The finite list of notable one-named stars is, well, just that — notable for their consistent excellence in their chosen fields.
It is many times precisely for that aforementioned excellence that superstars like Pelé are bestowed their nicknames. However, for Pelé, that was not exactly the case, according to reports, and his own words.
Even though the Brazilian-born Edson Arantes do Nascimento once famously penned an essay in the Guardian explaining the genesis of his famous nickname and offering precious context, debates still persist as people speculate why Pelé was called Pelé in the first place.
“The genesis of the nickname Pelé are unclear, even to the footballer,” CNN wrote in its obituary of the late soccer legend before adding: “Whatever the origin, the moniker stuck.”
Fun fact: Pelé had nicknames in life that were other than Pelé.
He said in the Guardian essay that his uncle dubbed him “Dico,” which became a nickname that his mother referred to him as. He said he was also called “Gasolina,” a nickname he said he didn’t like at all and was glad when fans stopped calling him that.
But when he was nicknamed Pelé, he said he hated it when he first got it and preferred his given name.
“I was really proud that I was named after Thomas Edison and wanted to be called Edson,” Pelé wrote in the essay that was published in 2006. “I thought Pelé sounded horrible. It was a rubbish name. Edson sounded so much more serious and important.”
Pelé had his nickname since at least his school-aged years, as evidenced by the anecdote he shared in the Guardian essay about reacting to being called it.
“On one occasion I punched a classmate because of it and earned a two-day suspension,” Pelé wrote. “This, predictably, did not have the desired effect. Other kids realized it annoyed me and so they started calling me Pele even more. Then I realized that it wasn’t up to me what I’m called. Now I love the name – but back then it wound me up no end.”
Here’s what Pelé said about how he got his famous nickname.
I can never be 100% certain about the origin but the most probable version started with a team-mate of my father’s when he played for Vasco de Sao Lourenco. The team-mate was a goalkeeper and was known as “Bilé”, for complicated and very Brazilian reasons. His real name was Jose Lino and at the age of two he still wasn’t speaking. This worried his mother, a widow called Maria Rosalina, very much. Brazilians are very spiritual people and always believe in the inexplicable, in the supernatural, and Maria Rosalina was no exception.
She decided to call a meeting of benzedeiras, women who performed a kind of witch-doctor ritual on nights when the moon was full. Even when people don’t believe, they still don’t dare to question the effects of the ritual, and Maria Rosalina hoped it would help cure Jose’s silent tongue. The benzedeiras went about their work, beginning with a shout, “Bili-bilu-tetéia!” – something like “Abracadabra!” This didn’t happen just once; the story goes that the ritual went on for weeks. And one day, a miracle! The boy shouted out, “Bilé!” There was general rejoicing – he was cured. And that came to be his nickname, a name that stuck when the boy grew up to become the goalie on my father’s team.
Some 20 years later when I was three or four my father Dondinho would take me along to Vasco training sessions. Whenever I could I used to nip into the goal and play around, and whenever I managed to stop a shot I’d shout, “Good one, Bilé!” or “Great save, Bilé!”
Because I was only young I somehow distorted the nickname and said that when I grew up I wanted to be a goalie like “Pilé”. When we moved to Bauru, this “Pilé” became “Pele”. Either I changed it myself or – according to my uncle Jorge – it was because of my thick Minas Gerais accent. I’d speak one way in Bauru and they’d understand me in quite another. And then one boy – I don’t remember who – started to tease me by calling me Pele.
So thanks to that goalie Bilé, and a classmate’s little joke, I became Pele. Now it’s known across the world and I don’t mind it so much.
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