Pele, only Pele

Date: 7th January 2023

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Pele, only Pele.

We all have icons and none more so than when it comes to who was the greatest footballer that ever lived and kicked a ball. We may mourn the fact that amongst the contenders, there is not a Scot, but you can’t have everything.

But there are plenty of modern icons we can point towards, Maradona, Cruyff, Messi, Ronaldo, Best, Beckenbauer, di Stefano, Xavi?

But for me there is only one. Pele. A man we recently lost and who shall stay long in the memory, not just because we have the footage.

Now, I never saw Pele play. I was not brought up by a father who sat at the fireside and told tales of the greatness of this Brazilian icon. For me, there was no indoctrination. But I make the claim on behalf of this icon for a number of simple reasons.

Whilst other claimants can point to many achievements which may rival or overshadow that of a young man who was in a different era when the game may not have been quiet as sophisticated as it is now, or in the 80’s or 90’s or whenever but there are four clear reasons why I stake my claim that Pele was and is the greatest player ever to play the beautiful game.

Firstly, he was the first. He is the one against whom all the others are measured. The 17-year-old in tears after winning his first World Cup, was simply not aware of what he was going on to become, but he was an icon before an icon was defined. Benchmarks were created by his presence and his achievements. Most of the other contenders can claim to have met or beaten some of those except three of them.

Secondly, he is the only one to have won three World Cups. The Jules Rimet trophy was to go to the country who won the World Cup three times. Brazil holds it, Pele should have it. He was part of a series of teams that were not just the best in the world but outshone the rest of the world. And within those teams he was the undoubted star.

Thirdly, he was on the other end of the greatest save in the world. Forget arguing over whether there should be a warning that the number of goals he scored were against inferior opposition to those that European based players managed, that New York Cosmos were given preferential treatment in the MSL or many of his goals were in exhibitions, Pele gave Gordon Banks immortality. In 1970, Pele produced a shot on goal that ought to have added to his tally but up against the best goalkeeper in the world he fell short but was the man against whom Banks was measured.

Finally, and more trivially, he is responsible for the world’s most famous dummy. Pele was much therefore more than a goal scorer – he was a team player. As revisiting his assists have shown over the years Pele was an all-rounder, who contributed his greatness in amongst a group of people who were almost equally as great but were happy to remain in the shade of a young man who had genius in his feet.

Now for others it is mostly about statistics or the effect off the pitch which have contributed beyond the turnstiles and Pele could be problematic as yes, the number of goals in his career does have some questions attached, and it depends upon which trophies you count – Messi can now count wider than any. The number of games, like the goals suggests that Pele may have managed much longer in the game than most – Messi and Ronaldo have yet to hang up their boots so could beat a few records yet – but my softer analysis which looks at how each claimant has left some kind of legacy favours one man – Edson Arantes do Nascimento.

But let’s bask on some of the accomplishments for a moment, Pele was the youngest ever winner of a World Cup, at 17, when most young people are unable to drive or vote. He is also the youngest to score in a World Cup final – he did so twice in 1958, and the youngest to deliver a hat trick in a World Cup – that crossed the line each time… He has the most assists in a World Cup final, is the Guinness Book of World Records goal scorer, and whilst he considered di Stefano the best in the world, di Stefano, repaid the compliment “The best player ever? Pele. Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo are both great players with specific qualities, but Pele was better.”

And of his peers and his contemporaries, Sir Bobby Charlton said, “I sometimes feel as though football was invented for this magical player.” Johan Cruyff was unequivocal, “Pele was the only footballer who surpassed the boundaries of logic.” Zico, a man who was at one point touted as his successor, “This debate about the player of the century is absurd. There’s only one possible answer: Pele.”

But the great man himself, must always have the last word, “I was born to play football, just like Beethoven was born to write music and Michelangelo was born to paint”

Amen and RIP.

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