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Pelé, transcendent soccer superstar and Brazilian ‘national treasure,’ dies at 82

Pelé, the Brazilian soccer legend widely hailed as "O Rei do Futebol," the king of his sport, the only man to win the World Cup three times, died Thursday at a hospital in Brazil. He was 82.

His death has sent the entire soccer world — and specifically Brazil, the nation who’d nurtured and worshiped him — into a state of mourning. It was as if a national treasure had been lost forever, because, in fact, Pelé was one. The Brazilian government made that official declaration at the height of his powers. It kept him at his Brazilian club, Santos, where he ultimately scored most of his 1,281 goals — a still-unsurpassed, albeit disputed, world record.

By the end of his 21-year professional career, Pelé had become an international icon, perhaps sport’s first truly global superstar. His late-career stint in New York even helped popularize soccer in the United States. But he was, first and foremost, Brazil’s.

He was a boy from a São Paulo state slum, one of thousands in a soccer-crazed country reared on dirt fields, often without shoes or an actual soccer ball, but with like-minded friends and dreams. He grew into an artist and assassin — before he could even grow into a man. At age 17, he led Santos to a league title with a still-standing-record 58 goals. Then he boarded his first airplane, touched down in his first foreign country, and scored six times in three World Cup elimination games to lead his nation to its first world title.

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