The recent World Cup once again brought up the age old debate of ‘who is the greatest of them all?’, as it invariably does. The popular conclusion after the final was won, and the trophy placed in the hands of a little Argentine, was that Lionel Messi was the answer. Sadly, the passing of Pele provided incontrovertible proof that the answer has never really changed these past 50 years. Pele is the indisputable King of Football. And he always will be, for like Muhammad Ali, like Jack Nicklaus, like Michael Jordan, Pele transcended his sport in a way that no other footballer ever has or, most likely, ever will.
Pele – The Greatest Player Of All Time
His bountiful gifts as a footballer would have always ensured his place in the pantheon of greats. His personality added further to that. But the giants in any field are also blessed with perfect timing, not just in their art but also in the temporal sense too. Pele arrived in the scene in 1958 just as television was starting to make its presence felt. Accordingly global events, including football’s World Cup, could be enjoyed in homes around the world.
Pele arrived in Sweden in 1958 as a precocious talent. By the time he had helped Brazil to victory for the first time in their history, he was emblematic of the team, of the nation, of what became football’s samba swagger. The close control, the change of pace, the vision and imagination. They were all there in embryonic form, and all at the age of 17.
Pele’s First World Cup Victory
Brazil won the final 5-2, beating the hosts, their third goal bestowing immortality upon a teenager. Jumping to collect a lob into the box on his chest, in one movement he turned and lobbed the ball over the covering defender. With him taken out of the game, he waited for the ball to drop, utterly unflustered, before drilling it right footed past the ‘keeper. Football delivered straight from heaven.
Pele In The 1960s
He was there again in 1962, albeit that he played just twice before injury meant him missing Brazil’s march to retaining the trophy. Then he was kicked out of the competition by a series of targeted assaults on him during games in 1966, not an issue that later stars such as Messi, Zidane, Mbappe or Ronaldo – both of them – have really had to concern themselves with as the rules of the game regarding physical contact have so significantly changed.
The Legendary 1970 Brazil Team
The golden swan song came in 1970, in part, again, because of his perfect timing. The Mexico World Cup embraced colour television and a greater amount of colour photography. In those vibrant yellow shirts, against the backdrop of packed, day-glo stadia, football had never before looked anything like the game that those Brazilians produced. And at the centre of it all was Pele, at a tournament that he had very nearly missed, vowing not to go near the World Cup after the torment of 1966.
That he did was a blessing not just for Brazil, but for the world. The indelible moments from that World Cup so often feature him. There were the goals – the chest control and the languid volley against Czechoslovakia, the free-kick bullet against Romania, the towering header and iconic celebration that opened the scoring in the final against Italy. There was the instant control and the perfectly weighted little pass into Jairzinho’s path to score against England.
Pele’s Nearly Moments
Even in the moments that didn’t quite go right, there was the stamp of genius. There was the attempt to score from inside his own half against Czechoslovakia. Also the dummy against Uruguay that was so outrageous, it shifted the whole stadium 10 yards to the right. Somehow the fact that he missed his shot at goal only made it the more beautiful. That’s a privilege afforded only to the true greats.
The pinnacle was that fourth goal in the final, that exquisite team move. Brazil went through the gears, through the Italians, through the pitch. On the edge of the box, Pele took just a couple of backward steps to create space and received the ball. The world’s greatest footballer, playing his final World Cup game, four minutes left on the clock. Surely he is about to crown the greatest career in the most swashbuckling fashion?
Pele Sets Up The Greatest Goal Of All Time
Crown it he does, but it’s better than simply scoring from 20 yards. Much better. He rolls the ball from one foot to another, then with his left foot, he scoops it out to the right side of the box and sets off on a stroll forward. What is he doing? There’s nobody there. It’s no wonder the old boy is retiring, he’s clearly losing it. So sad, and so close to the end too. Still, it comes to us all.
And then there’s this blur and before you can work out what’s happening, the ball is in the back of the net. Carlos Alberto has appeared from nowhere, run onto the perfectly played pass and, without breaking stride, has bludgeoned it beyond Albertosi and in. The greatest goal of all time. The greatest player of all time. The debate is over.
Read More about Pele’s career including his time at the New York Cosmos