When Pelé ended his legendary, game-changing soccer career in 1977, he went out with a special rallying cry.
Having played half the game for his final team, the New York Cosmos, and half for Santos, the Brazilian club that saw him become a superstar, Pelé said to the capacity crowd: “Love is more important than what we can take in life.”
Then he got them to chant with him: “Love, love, love.”
The NY Post reports that on and off the field, Pelé was all about sharing the love.
The icon — who passed away this week aged 82 — said that he had loved so many women that he had no idea how many children he had fathered.
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“In all honesty I’ve had a few affairs, some of which resulted in children, but I’ve only learned about them later,” Pele said in 2021.
Several of the six he officially recognised gathered around their father this week at a Sao Paulo hospital and posted images to social media showing the soccer great in a hospital bed at the Hospital Israelita Albert Einstein in Sao Paulo.
Also at Pelé’s bedside was his third wife Marcia Aoki, who is 26 years younger.
Known simply as “the king” of soccer for his unparalleled prowess on the field, Pelé weathered his share of scandals in his native Brazil, including dating much younger women and refusing to recognise his first child — suing her 13 times in Brazilian courts in the 1990s while he was a government minister.
Sandra Regina Machado, who was born at the height of her father’s fame in 1964, forced him to undergo a court-ordered DNA test that proved in 1996 that he was indeed her father.
Machado was the daughter of Anisia Machado, a housekeeper who had an affair with Pelé before his first marriage.
She died of cancer in 2006 without receiving any support from her father, according to Brazilian press reports.
Fame brought Pelé love, adoration — and heartache.
“Girls wanted Pele as their boyfriend, boys wanted Pelé as their brother, parents wanted Pelé as their son, and everyone wanted Pelé as their neighbour,” Brazilian journalist Paulo Cesar Vasconcellos said in “Pele,” a 2021 Netflix documentary.
“He was totally captivating. His natural charisma gave him star quality.”
The athlete married his first wife, Rosemeri dos Reis Cholbi in February 1966, and the couple had three children: daughters Kely and Jennifer, and son Edinho. But the marriage soon began unravelling, thanks in part to Pelé’s constant travel with his Santos team and media and advertising demands — and in part to his roving eye.
Two years after marrying Rosemeri, Pelé had an affair with Lenita Kurtz, a Brazilian sports journalist who used to cover the games for Santos, where the soccer great played for 19 seasons. Their daughter, Flavia Christina, was born in 1968.
Adding to his personal upheaval: the world’s greatest soccer player was broke.
In October 1974, he retired from the game after 18 years with Santos.
Pelé was on the verge of bankruptcy and lost almost all of his 41 investment properties to bank seizures, following a cascade of poor advice and building debt.
A succession of bad business deals and equally poor legal advice had left Pele with substantial debts in Brazil with one of his investments in Fiolax, a company that made rubber components for the car industry, which proved to be his biggest headache.
While his stake in the company stood at just 6 per cent, he had personally guaranteed a loan the company had taken out and when Fiolax defaulted, the bank had come looking for him. Coupled with a fine related to corporate regulations, Pele was now looking at a bill of more than $1 million.
His financial salvation came in the form of the New York Cosmos, a short-lived professional soccer club, and a contract that would make him the highest paid athlete in the world.
The total deal would be worth a reported $4.7 million over three years.
Eight months after he retired, Pelé was on the pitch in America.
Rosemeri and the kids, who lived in a small Manhattan apartment before eventually settling in Queens, came with him.
But with Pelé travelling back and forth between Brazil and the US, participating in lucrative advertising campaigns, the couple separated in 1978.
They didn’t divorce until 1982, a year after Pelé’s affair with Xuxa Meneghel, a children’s entertainer, became public.
Leggy blonde Xuxa — who, like Pelé. is known by one name in Brazil — was 17 years old to the soccer star’s 41.
“My heart was beating very strongly,” Xuxa told a Brazilian podcast last year in which she admitted that Pelé was her first love.
“I said: ‘Why am I doing this with a guy who is a lot older than I am?’ I wasn’t sure about the relationship, but he insisted. He sent flowers to my mother, chatted with my dad. I was with him from 17 to 23. It was six years.
“Pelé really had a double personality. He speaks of himself in the third person, but I was truly in love with him. He was very close to my family and he was a lot of fun.”
Following his affair with Xuxa and his divorce from Rosemeri, Pelé had a relationship with Selma Fonseca, a writer for Billboard whom he met in 1989 when she was 23 and he was nearly 50.
“We (met) in NYC … After a long courtship we dated for nine months,” said Fonseca in an interview on Medium last year. “He wanted to get married but, because of various circumstances, we didn’t. But he was loving, fun, a gentleman, always very grateful for his success and generous. He was happy to sign autographs, take photos and hug his fans, it was awesome to see how he took the time for everyone.”
A few years after that relationship, Pelé married gospel singer Assiria Seixas Lemos in 1994. The couple’s twins, Celeste and Joshua, were born two years later.
In 1995, Pelé was named Extraordinary Minister for Sports in Brazil and faced increasing pressure from his first child, Machado, to submit to a DNA test. She eventually adopted his surname, wrote a book — “The Daughter the King Didn’t Want” in 1998 — and used her notoriety to run for city council in the city of Santos, where Pelé’s old team was located.
As a politician, Machado lobbied for free DNA tests to be provided to children searching for biological parents, a practice that continues to this day.
In 2001, Machado filed suit demanding compensation from the soccer great, claiming in court papers that she did not enjoy the same emotional and financial support as his other children. The court rejected her claim.
Pelé, who did not show up for Machado’s funeral in 2006, later told a Brazilian reporter that he had decided not to pursue a relationship with Machado because people close to her had approached him “in a not very friendly manner.”
He later relented when approached by Machado’s ex-husband, Ozeas Fellinto, who took the Machado’s two children to meet Pelé.
Fellinto later said that Pelé was paying for the children’s education after being taken to court.
Following a divorce from Lemos in 2008, Pelé married his third and final wife, Marcia Cibele Aoki in 2016. The couple had met at a New York party in the 1980s, when Aoki was still a teenager, and then again in 2008.
A Brazilian of Japanese origin who owns a medical supplies company, Aoki has no children with the soccer legend.
Pelé described her in an interview as “the last great passion of my life.”
Following a divorce from Lemos in 2008, Pelé married his third and final wife, Marcia Cibele Aoki in 2016.
The couple had met at a New York party in the 1980s, when Aoki was still a teenager, and then again in 2008.
A Brazilian of Japanese origin who owns a medical supplies company, Aoki has no children with the soccer legend. The athlete described her in an interview as “the last great passion of my life.”
This article originally appeared in the NY Post and was reproduced with permission.