Home PoliticsAfrica News Pelé’s Net Worth Included $120k Just to Tie His Shoes—Here’s How Much He Made Before He Died

Pelé’s Net Worth Included $120k Just to Tie His Shoes—Here’s How Much He Made Before He Died

by Sophie Hanson

He’s regarded as the greatest footballer of all time and, at his peak was the highest-paid athlete in the world. Even after his retirement, Pelé’s net worth included millions of dollars in endorsements (including a huge paycheck to tie his shoes, more on that later) at the time of his death, age 82 after a short battle with colon cancer.

Born Edson Arantes do Nascimento on October 23, 1940, in Três Corações, Minas Gerais, Brazil, he earned the nickname Pelé after mispronouncing Bilé, a goalkeeper who played for Vasco de Gama during his childhood. Growing up, his family was so poor they couldn’t afford a football so Pelé would use a grapefruit or rolled-up socks stuffed with newspapers to practice. His father was his first coach and his first football team was formed with a group of friends from his neighborhood that called themselves “the shoeless ones”, per Goal.com. He would rise to become one of the most transformative figures in 20th-century sport achieving a level of celebrity few athletes come to know with a hefty net worth to boot.

What was Pelé’s net worth?

At the time of his death, Pelé’s net worth was around $100 million, according to Celebrity Net Worth but most of his money was made after he retired from football. He debuted professionally at age 15 with Santos FC in 1956 and scored in his very first match. The following year, he was the top scorer overall in the entire Brazilian professional league. He was quickly called to play for the Brazilian national team and at 17, he became the youngest player to play in, as well as win, a FIFA World Cup in 1958. Pelé and the Brazilian team would go on to win again in 1962 and 1970.

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Image: George Tiedemann /Sports Illustrated via Getty Images.
Image: George Tiedemann /Sports Illustrated via Getty Images.

During the late ‘60s, competition between sportswear brands Adidas and Puma had become so fierce they actually signed somewhat of a peace treaty, an unspoken deal known now as the “Pelé Pact”, where both companies agreed not to sponsor him because they figured they would spend so much in a bidding war that the end result would not be worth it.

But during the World Cup final in 1970 against Italy, right before the opening whistle, Pelé asked the referee to pause for a moment so he could tie up his sneakers. All eyes were on the greatest footballer of all time and his shoes. Puma shoes. According to Barbara Smit in her book Sneaker Wars, Pelé was paid US$120,000 to just tie his shoes and would go onto earn $100,000 for the next four years, plus a cut of the sales of Pelé brand sneakers.

He scored 643 goals during the 18 years he played for Santos, winning five national, 12 regional and three international club championships. Interestingly, Pelé would never play for a major football club like Real Madrid, Barcelona and Milan despite many offers, and, coming out of retirement in 1974, he signed with the New York Cosmos to play the following year.

Contrary to modern times, there wasn’t much money in football, but Pelé is said to have been paid a significant sum of $2.8 million a year for the three years he played with the Cosmos (a total of $8.4 million or more than $46 million in 2022), according to Sportico, which made him the highest-paid athlete in the world. “In the United States, football was just starting, and my friend Steve Ross, the president of Warner Communications, wanted to help,” he explained in an interview with the Harvard Business Review in 2014. “They called me, and I said ‘OK’ because it was different from playing in Europe. It was coming back to promote football in this country.”

His enormous paycheck wasn’t popular with everyone. An op-ed by the New York Times sports editor at the time argued, “it simply does not seem morally defensible to pay a soccer player, or any other sports figure, for that matter, over $4 million.” In response to the op-ed, one reader wrote that they should “gone further; neither is anyone from the President of the United States nor anyone of any business or activity worth that amount and many are not worth the bloated salaries they are getting.”

Image: George Tiedemann (Photo by George Tiedemann /Sports Illustrated via Getty Images) (Set Number: D21595 )
Image: George Tiedemann (Photo by George Tiedemann /Sports Illustrated via Getty Images) (Set Number: D21595 )

Another reader wrote: “I not only feel it is wrong to give Pelé $4 million to play for the Cosmos because of New York’s money crisis but because I feel it is wrong to give an established Brazilian soccer star $4 million to leave Brazil and play in the United States when there are so many good American boys just waiting to be discovered in American colleges.” (sidenote: LOLing at “good American boys”). However, one reader supported the move. “Pelé has demonstrated, obviously more effectively than many Americans, that talent and ability are marketable assets, and that our free‐enterprise system is built on the principle of capitalizing on our talents and abilities,” they wrote.

Indeed, this is in line with the football legend’s own sentiments. He believed modern sportsmen and women deserved their high salaries but argued there was a major disparity between some players over others. “Football is not a normal profession where you can work until you’re 80,” he said. “The good players, even the best in the world, can play only until 34, 35, maximum 40. But then they have to live. The problem is how the money is spent. Now, with TV and sponsors, some teams and players make a lot; others nothing.” His recruitment to New York worked, because for his final game, against Santos no less, 75,000 fans squeezed into New York’s Giants Stadium.

He expanded on this point during an interview with British GQ in 2018, responding to the question of whether he agreed with Neymar moving to Paris Saint-Germain. “It is a different life now. I cannot compare it with my time when I was playing. What I would say is that right now, there are maybe only two or three players in the world worth that kind of money,” he said. “In my day, there were two or three players in each team! There was Bobby Moore, Bobby Charlton, Johan Cruyff, Pelé, Eusebio, Zico, Georgie Best. Now, you have one Neymar. One Cristiano Ronaldo. One Messi. And that’s it.”

Times after very different indeed and Pelé’s significant net worth would come after his final retirement in 1977, with notable endorsements from brands like Puma, Volkswagen, Emirates, and Hublot among others. “When a company approaches me, I think first of all about what message it sends to the kids,” he told the Harvard Business Review on how he selects brands to partner with. “I get a lot of proposals to do commercials for cigars, alcohol, beer. Lots of coaches and players do. But I’m never going to endorse those brands because they’re not good for young people.”

Image: Getty Images
Image: Getty Images

In 1992, Pelé was appointed the UNESCO Champion for sports for helping disadvantaged children and promoting sports. In 2001, he was accused of being a part of a corruption scandal that stole $700,000 from UNICEF. His marketing company, Pelé Sports and Marketing, borrowed funds for a UNICEF benefit match which didn’t take place and the money wasn’t repaid. Pelé ordered an audit, shut down the company and sued his partner for embezzling $4 million. Nothing was ever proved. “That’s through all my life, and I have a big problem with partners,” he said at the time, according to the New York Times. In 2016, with the World Cup to be held in Pelé’s home country of Brazil, many brands signed him on as their ambassador.

Reflecting on his career during an interview with British GQ, Pelé said he had a “big responsibility” to fans. “Most of the children today watch [Lionel] Messi, [Cristiano] Ronaldo, Neymar, but they also know the name of Pelé,” he said. “Maybe from their fathers, or from their fathers’ fathers! But it is a big responsibility for me because I can never make a mistake in my life. I always have to be an example to these children, but I thank God for this honor.”

On December 29, 2022, the world would learn of the passing of the greatest footballer, arguably one of the greatest sports stars, of all time. Pelé died after a short battle with colon cancer after having a tumor removed in 2021. Rest in power, legend.

"Why Soccer Matters" by Pele
“Why Soccer Matters” by Pele

Why Soccer Matters by Pelé

Buy: ‘Why Soccer Matters’ by Pele $15.99

For more about Pelé, read his 2015 memoir, Why Soccer Matters: A Look at More Than Sixty Years of International Soccer. The book takes readers through Pelé’s 20-year international football career, from his three World Cup championship wins to his record-breaking 1,283 goals. The autobiography also dives into Pelé’s decision to retire from football in 1977, his work as international football’s global ambassador, and how he’s inspired future generations of professional football players like Neymar, Lionel Messi, and Cristiano Ronaldo. “I know in my heart that soccer was good to me and great to the world….I saw, time and again, how the sport improved countless millions of lives, both on and off the field. For me, at least, that’s why soccer matters,” Pelé writes in Why Soccer Matters.


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