Edson Arantes do Nascimento, the King of Football, turns 80 today. But today, 43 years after his last match, with his three World Cup winners medals, two Intercontinental Cups, 1,279 goals, honorary knighthoods in Brazil and the United Kingdom, and star status around the world, is Pelé still the greatest footballer who ever lived?
Despite the heroics of the current generation’s legends Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, and disputes over the validity of a large chunk of his 1,279 goals, this humble writer proposes that yes, even 80 years after his birth, Pelé remains number one by any measure of greatness.
Mention the name Pelé in any city around the world and it conjures images of the 1970 World Cup, when Brazil’s number 10 led the line in what was arguably the greatest team of all time. However, Pelé’s coronation as King came long before that.
His bow on the global stage came in the 1958 World Cup, at the tender age of 17. After psychological evaluations by Brazilian national team doctors, the “obviously infantile” Pelé was very nearly cut from the squad altogether, and was overlooked for Brazil’s first two games. But once making it into the team, it was clear that Brazil were dealing with a supreme talent. Three goals in the semi-final against France and a double in the final, and Pelé was a global icon before even being old enough to vote.
But while the most enduring memories of Pelé — and the majority of archive footage — comes from his performances at the World Cup, his absolute best did not come in international football.
In fact, the World Cup never did see Pelé at his marauding, other-worldly best. His physical and technical peak came in the early 1960s, when he was winning everything at São Paulo club Santos, where he spent almost his entire career.
The 1962 World Cup in Chile was to be Pelé’s tournament. Four years fitter, smarter, and more experienced than his dazzling debut in 1958, he came out of the blocks flying. In Brazil’s first match against Mexico, Pelé scored a jaw-dropping goal, powering past five defenders and tucking the ball past the goalkeeper.
But in the next match, a tight 0-0 draw against Czechoslovakia, Pelé picked up a groin injury and was left on the sidelines for the rest of the tournament, watching his team-mates lift another World Cup.
However, 1962 was not a year to forget for Pelé. A little over a month later, he led his Santos team to the Copa Libertadores title, defeating Uruguayan giants Peñarol in the final. This was the first time a Brazilian side had ever become South American champions and it qualified Santos for the Intercontinental Cup, where they would face off against the champions of Europe — the mighty Benfica, led by the legendary Mozambican-born striker Eusébio.
At the time, Eusébio was the King. But a usurper from Brazil was coming to steal his crown.
Over two legs, Santos and Benfica played 180 minutes of majestic football. Pelé scored twice in a 3-2 win in Rio de Janeiro, but then saved perhaps his greatest-ever performance for the 70,000 spectators in attendance at Benfica’s Estádio da Luz in Lisbon for the return leg.
Pelé scored three goals — two of them magnificent solo efforts — and set up another as Santos defeated the European champions by five goals to two. Eusébio grabbed one for Benfica, but there was no doubt who belonged on football’s throne.
The 1970 World Cup, then, was more of a royal procession for Pelé. He was older and wiser, yet heavier and weathered from years of touring the world with Santos, playing money-spinning friendly matches and facing hatchet-man defenders. There were suggestions that he wasn’t fit and that he had no place in a star-studded Brazil side, but Pelé adapted his game to his advancing years.
While his attacking partner Tostão buzzed around the pitch, Pelé preserved his energy. The powerful direct runs at defenders were gone — instead, the King used his unparalleled vision of the game to construct attacks for his team-mates, before bursting into life when the opportunity presented itself.
Enter the pretender
After the 1970 World Cup, football went through a period of Pax Brasiliana. Great players came and went, but no-one would come close to Pelé. That remained the case until the mid 1980s, when a pretender to the throne hailing from Argentina set world football alight.
Diego Maradona and Pelé shared some similarities on the pitch — both were at their unstoppable best running directly at defenders — but their styles were different. Where Pelé used speed and power, Maradona used his craft and ingenuity to weave effortlessly past his opponents. Though it was off the field where the biggest differences lay between the two greats.
Outspoken, fiery, and a bon vivant, Maradona lived the life of a prodigal wildchild. Pelé, while never being far from the Brazilian gossip columns, could not be more different — he was unwaveringly focused on the game and his own professionalism, a product of his upbringing.
Pelé’s mother always opposed her son’s choice to pursue football. With President Juscelino Kubitschek taking office at the time, promising “50 years progress in five,” there were vast sums of public money around, and for a poor black teenager in São Paulo state, a job in the civil service was a way out of economic hardship — not football.
Pelé’s father Dondinho played football professionally and while reportedly having boundless talent, his short career was plagued with injuries. As such, Pelé’s mother saw football as a dead end, a life sentence to poverty.
It was through this pressure that Pelé became a model professional, dismissing distractions, saving his money, and refusing to be sucked in by vice. For many, the dispute between Pelé and Maradona as the world’s greatest was a lifestyle choice — in Maradona’s addictive and often wasteful personality, people saw themselves and their own weakness to temptation. Pelé was less relatable, an almost pious monk-like figure surrounded by extravagance.
The Young Turks
The Pelé-Maradona dichotomy persisted throughout the 1990s and 2000s, until being threatened by the two legends of the social media generation: Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo.
With the demands of the modern game and huge advances in sport science, football began producing players with a never-before seen athletic prowess. Cristiano Ronaldo, upon evolving into his “final form” at Real Madrid, is perhaps the best example. A footballer so sculpted by science that he seems closer to a Blade Runner replicant than anything human.
Lionel Messi, on the other hand, provides a midway point between Pelé and Maradona. Slight in stature, he uses his cunning and intelligence to glide past opposition defenses. Off the pitch, he is reserved and far from scandal, often labelled as the player for an introverted PlayStation generation.
Having each spent 12 years at the absolute top of the world game, breaking every record in their path, there is a credible argument that Messi and Ronaldo are the best footballers to ever play the game. But are they the greatest?
In many ways, Pelé shaped world football as we know it. He was the first global player, adored in all continents and idolized by several generations of young footballers. Even with the adulation received by Maradona, Messi, or Ronaldo, there is no comparison with the importance of Pelé, who made countries come to a standstill just to watch him play.
As the years pass, his influence will inevitably wane. Generations who were lucky enough to watch him play and live the global Pelé fever will slowly dwindle, and new stars will emerge. There have been countless legends throughout the history of football, but when it comes down to greatness, there can be only one. Happy 80th birthday, Pelé.