Mention to anybody around the world that there should be great sadness at the passing of Edson Arantes do Nascimento and many, possibly even most – particularly those under a certain age – will initially ask the question who?
Tell those same people that you are referring to Pele and a reasonable estimate would be that 99% of the people approached would know exactly who you are talking about, such was the knowledge of at least the name; but for any football fan it is so much more.
Even Ali couldn’t quite compare
There have been some great players, but there is always a pinnacle and in footballing terms that was and will always be… Pele. In sporting terms possibly the only person to get near to the great man was Muhammad Ali, but he still had his critics; Pele was on a level all of his own. He was a genuine superstar well before the expression found common usage. If ever a life should be celebrated then this is the one.
Having that something extra is good… but not good enough
The numbers behind the great man make incredible reading, but there was so much more to this remarkable footballer than his record breaking statistics. Some players stand out immediately, they have that awareness, that first touch that makes the onlooker appreciate that this is somebody special.
Pele was not alone in that regard, there have been hundreds through footballing history who have that little bit more. Then there are those that have that something extra on top, and again he was not alone in that; there have been dozens of those too. Move it on to having that and then something even further, and you get to an elite band of players of which you could probably narrow down into single figures; but then there is still one more step to climb… introducing Pele!
Too many qualities to mention
This is a footballing genius in the truest sense of the word. Everything you would look for in a player, this extraordinary Brazilian magician had it and knew how to use it. Awareness and first touch have already been mentioned, but with Pele the list goes on.
He was two-footed for a start, something that sets him apart from a couple of would-be challengers to his crown of greatest ever. He had amazing balance and close control, coupled with lightening quick acceleration, making dribbling into an art form not previously seen. He was supremely intelligent with a footballing brain ahead of most around him, which enabled him to read the game so far in advance of others; plus he was deceptively strong.
His vision allowed him to play the game almost as if he was sat in the stands seeing the whole picture. He had natural flair and a skill level that elevated him above anybody else who had the honour of sharing a pitch with him. And of course he knew where the back of the net was and could score absolutely any kind of goal. Right foot, left foot, it didn’t matter to him, which must have been a nightmare for defenders. At least with some players it is possible to try and force them onto their weaker foot, with Pele there was no weaker foot!
A head above the rest
His heading ability was outstanding with a spring that could take him above his usually taller marker, but it was his immaculate timing that allowed him to not only consistently out-jump the opposition, but also steer his headers with power and accuracy goalwards and more often than not, find the back of the net.
Haaland sums it up perfectly
Yet despite the phenomenal amount of goals scored, he was certainly not a greedy player, far from it. He was very unselfish and a real team player; basically the master craftsman had it all… and then some.
Amongst the many, many tributes that have been made and will continue to be made, was one from a young player who is destined for greatness himself, albeit still short of the great man, and that is Manchester City’s Norwegian sensation Erling Haaland. He wrote on twitter: “Everything you see any player doing, Pele did it first.”
Whether that is something he has read, been told, or simply observed, he is absolutely spot on. This is the man who took the game in a completely different direction. It is probably difficult for anybody who never saw him play to fully comprehend his influence, but the young Scandinavian has hit the nail on the head; Pele was the complete package, and ultimate talent.
Respects paid in UK leagues
When the news broke on Thursday evening in the UK there was a round of English Football League (EFL) matches about to kick-off, but many held up proceedings to gather around their respective centre circles and join their crowds in a spontaneous minutes applause, after hearing of the great man’s passing.
Whilst because of his health issues over the past few years would mean it wouldn’t be a complete shock, there would be genuine sadness, such was the esteem in which he is held for any football fan.
Just a sample of the tributes
As mentioned there have been multiple tributes made and just a few of the many coming out of the UK are here:
Sir Bobby Charlton said: “Pele was a truly magical footballer and a wonderful human being. It was an honour to have shared a pitch with him and I send my sincerest condolences to his family, friends and the Brazilian people.”
Fellow World Cup winner and hat-trick hero on that day Geoff Hurst spoke in a similar vein saying: “Pele remains the greatest player of all time, and I was proud to be on the same pitch with him.”
Former Manchester United star Cristiano Ronaldo posted a picture of him receiving an award from Pele and wrote about how the entire football world will be feeling the pain, explaining how Pele was an inspiration for millions: “a reference from yesterday, today, forever.”
He closed his message emotionally by saying:”The affection he always showed for me was reciprocal in every moment we shared, even from a distance; he will never be forgotten and his memory will live on forever in each of us football lovers. Rest in peace, King Pele.”
England captain Harry Kane called him “an inspiration”; the English Premier League posted that he was “an extraordinarily gifted footballer”.
Maradona often touted as better but no contest really
If trying to find players to challenge him for the ultimate accolade of greatest ever, the first name that is always mentioned is Diego Maradona and true the little Argentinian was a fantastic footballer, but he simply was not capable of everything that Pele could do.
It could be argued that he had quicker feet, and his smaller stature and consequently lower centre of gravity allowed him to have better dribbling ability, neither claim really stands up though; but even if they did, he was not the complete player that Pele was.
Greats but not great enough
Of course more recently another Argentinian Lionel Messi has received all the plaudits and rightly so, he truly is a genius of a footballer, but not quite up to Pele’s greatness. Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo has his fair share of supporters, but again he is lacking in parts of his game where Pele excelled.
Further back Johan Cruyff, the fabulous Dutch player of the 1970’s came close, and many British supporters will happily put forward George Best’s name. They both certainly possessed that little bit extra and deserve to be talked about in the same breath as Pele, and both in their own way revolutionised aspects of the game with their incredible skill-sets; but again they were not quite able to reach his highest standard. Cruyff actually once said: “Pele was the only footballer who surpassed the boundaries of logic.”
Others worthy of mention but still fall short
Others such as Franz Beckenbauer and fellow Brazilian Zico deserve a mention, but with respect that is as far as that goes. Zinadine Zidane was a genuine great and going back even further, the likes of Eusébio and back still further Ferenc Puskás should not be overlooked. However, none could truly challenge the great man.
Indeed it was Puskás himself who when asked if he felt Pele was the greatest, cheekily replied: “No that would be Alfredo Di Stefano” (The great Argentinian and former Real Madrid teammate of the little Hungarian); before going on to say: “I refuse to classify Pele as a player… he was above that!”
What a career after humble beginnings
His rise to stardom and subsequent career stats were staggering:
Edson Arantes do Nascimento was born on 23 October 1940 in Tres Coracoes, a city in south-eastern Brazil, however his birth certificate states he was born on 21 October, but Pele insisted that was incorrect: “In Brazil we are not so fussy about accuracy”, he often said with a smile when asked about it.
He was actually named after the inventor Thomas Edison, because, according to Pele, electricity arrived at his home just before he did, again a response always delivered with a cheeky smile. Later his parents dropped the ‘i’ from his name.
He was raised in the favelas of Tres Coracoes in Minas Gerais, and taught himself to play football by kicking around a sock stuffed with newspaper, or at times a grapefruit, in the local backstreets, where he would amaze residents with his remarkable tricks.
He developed into a prodigious talent which was recognised early by his coach Waldemar de Brito, who took him to Santos FC, at the age of just 15-years-old. He boasted to club directors that Pele would become the best footballer in the world. He would stay with the club for 18 years and almost the entirety of his career.
Although records are disputed he is thought to have scored a total of 1,282 goals in 1,366 league, cup, international, tour and friendly matches; 77 of those goals came in 92 appearances for his country.
Three times World Cup winner
He is the only player ever to have won the World Cup on three occasions, namely in 1958, 1962 and again in 1970. It was at that first success in Sweden when aged just 17 that he made his step into the limelight, and he would never again step from it. He scored six goals in the tournament with two in the final, including an iconic flick over a defenders head followed by a volleyed finish.
Sadly his memories of his next world cup were not so sweet, despite the team retaining their title, as he spent most of the competition sidelined through injury. In 1966, and by now a marked-man, Pele was kicked out of the tournament by the Portuguese – literally. He was almost savagely “tackled” time and again, eventually having to leave a match which the Brazilians were to end up losing.
Team of the Century
Fast forward four years and the 1970 Brazilian World Cup team even today are famed as the greatest team ever to play international football and actually were voted as the “Team of the Century”. Everything came together for that side, with Pele leading the line, with Jairzinho, Tostao, Rivellino, and Gerson completing an incredible supporting cast.
Cruise through to the final
They played England along the way to the final where Gordon Banks made the “Save of the Century” to deny Pele a brilliant goal, somehow miraculously clawing away what appeared to be an unstoppable downward header. They saw off Uruguay in the semi-final and set up a final with the Italians. In Mexico City’s Azteca Stadium, packed to its 100,000 capacity, supporters and television audiences around the world were treated to a scintillating display of football seldom witnessed before.
Assisting in the Goal of the Century
Fittingly Pele headed them into the lead and although pegged back they dominated the second half and cruised into a 3-1 lead. With the clock ticking down there was still time for the incredible side to perform one last act and with it score what would become the “Goal of the Century”. The ball was played from their own penalty area through just about every member of the team, with the beaten Italians chasing shadows. It was worked up to who else but Pele, who played a brilliantly disguised, perfectly weighted pass into the path of his over-lapping captain Carlos Alberto, who unleashed a stunning shot into the bottom corner of the net to seal a famous victory. It was as much a joy to watch then as it is still today.
Italy’s Tarcisio Burgnich, the unfortunate defender who had been tasked with marking Pele, said after the match: “Before the final I told myself he was just flesh and bones like the rest of us… I was wrong.”
Two incredible near misses
Incredibly, Pele is remembered in that tournament just as much for three misses. One was the header that brought about the great save from Gordon Banks, but the other two were moments of unbelievable skill that were just inches from two spectacular goals. Against Czechoslovakia he was still several yards inside his own half when he spotted the goalkeeper Ivo Viktor off his line. With little fuss he took aim and a retreating Viktor was mightily relieved to see the astonishing effort drift fractionally wide.
Then in the semi-final against the Uruguayans he sold an outrageous dummy on the goalkeeper Ladislao Mazurkiewicz when he had the quick thinking to run past keeper but also allow the ball to run past the pair of them too. Unfortunately, the angle became too tight and his attempt went wide of the post, but it was a piece of skill well ahead of its time.
Awards and honours
Pele was one of the first black global sports icons, and picked up many awards in his career winning the Ballon d’Or, football’s most prestigious annual award for the world’s best player, an incredible seven times.
He was bestowed an honorary knighthood by Queen Elizabeth II at Buckingham Palace in 1997 and such was his influence, he was included in Time’s list of the 100 most important people of the 20th century, alongside the likes of Mahatma Gandhi, Winston Churchill, and Albert Einstein; so perhaps it was fitting that he should pass away in Sao Paulo’s Albert Einstein Hospital.
The greatest ever
Once a reporter asked Pele if his fame was comparable to that of Jesus Christ, to which he replied: “There are parts of the world where Jesus Christ is not so well known.” He meant no disrespect, nor indeed did those who used to write banners which proclaimed: “Jesus shoots and hits the post but Pele nets the rebound!”
Some said it was blasphemous, other thought it a little clumsy. Most recognised it as an appreciation of his god-like status amongst the Brazilian people. It was a banner that was adopted by English club sides who would write in their own star striker instead; but in truth it only ever belonged to Pele, because nobody should be in any doubt… the greatest football player ever was indeed Pele.
The “beautiful game” has lost its true legend.