Courtesy: CBF Futebol/Twitter
BBC Sport has been doing a countdown of 100 days to the World Cup, by showing a memorable moment from past editions of the tournament every day. Today’s clip was titled ‘Magnificent Pelé’ and it encapsulates the magic of this sporting legend.
Recently, I have come across many who have outright dismissed Pelé and called him the most overrated player of all-time. In informal chats with friends, he is often snubbed or even forgotten when naming those who belong in the pantheon of football.
This was alarming to me. Conventional wisdom and the media narrative have always ruled Pelé as the all-time great, so why were people dismissing it now?
Perhaps it could be a case of generational bias – both due to not having seen him play (live or through highlights/reruns) and/or utter disregard for the competitiveness of football in the past.
Today’s youth and 20 or 30-somethings are quick to hail Maradona, Zidane, both Ronaldos or Messi, but Pelé remains a mythical figure whose greatness is seemingly only vouched for by the forgotten pages of the history books.
So what was the true verdict on Pelé then? Were the new-age ‘hipsters’ correct in ignoring the old conventional wisdom? Was he not the greatest but most overrated of all-time?
Short answer: no.
People seem to have forgotten why he was rated so highly in the first place. Because of the difficulty of comparing distinct eras, there are many resorting to lazy arguments such as:
‘Pelé was nothing special.’
‘Pelé never played in Europe.’
‘Pelé always had an amazing team around him for both club and country.’
Instead, I would contend that Pelé has become so overrated due to his mystique that he is now underrated and underappreciated.
Setting the criteria
It is important to establish, first and foremost, that the comparison of generations cannot be classified as an objective study.
Sport has evolved. There have been great advances made in sports medicine/science; the emergence of the sports analytics movement; training techniques have become more sophisticated. Inevitably, football has become faster, more intense and both the tactical and physical sides have gained a larger focus within the game.
So if subjectivity is all we have to go by, let the fun and arguments begin.
I maintain that if a player was considered the best of his generation or his time, it is because he showed it against the highest level of competition at said time.
Until the dawn of the Champions League and the globalisation of football in the early to mid 1990’s, the World Cup was the pinnacle of world football. Every four years, the best the world had to offer would gather and showcase their abilities on a global scale.
However, the mass exodus of players from South America and to a lesser degree, Africa and Asia are now concentrated in Europe’s top leagues. The advent of the Champions League marked the beginning of a new era. The world no longer needed to wait around for four years to watch the cream of football talent gather; they could watch it every season as the competition became available to a global audience.
In Pelé’s era, the World Cup was therefore the measuring stick for the highest standard and world-class talent, so it seems like a decent place to start.
Pelé at the World Cup
Pelé played in four World Cups from 1958 to 1970. He was 100% fit for the first and last of those and was injured during the 1962 and 1966 editions.
1962: He was arguably at his best form for his club at the age of 21. He started promisingly, scoring a great goal, the second in Brazil’s 2-0 win over Mexico.In the second game against eventual runners-up Czechoslovakia, he limped off during the 0-0 draw and would sit out the rest of the tournament. He watched from the bench as his teammate Garrincha led the Seleçãoto their second straight world title.
1966: He was nursing a knee injury coming into the tournament and was far from 100% fit. During that era, it is worth noting that yellow cards did not exist, so consequently the most talented players did not dispose of the protection they enjoy today from referees. Violent tackles, more often than not went unnoticed and unpunished.
Brazil played its first game against a violent Bulgaria side, winning 2-0, with Pelé grabbing the first off a free kick. Having aggravated his injury, he was unable to play in the second match against Hungary and Brazil fell to a 3-1 defeat. Still not 100% recovered, Pelé was forced into action in Brazil’s crucial final group encounter versus Eusébio’s Portugal.
It was a win or go home situation for Brazil and the Portuguese defenders targeted Pelé from the first minute, literally kicking him off the park. He had to be carried off the pitch and finished the match limping on one leg, as in those days no substitutions were allowed. Brazil lost 3-1 and went home early.
So these were the two World Cups he technically didn’t contribute to. Now let’s consider what he did or achieved in the ones he did play in.
1958: Pelé was a 17-year old who was called up as the backup to Flamengo’s great striker Dida. He had only made his debut for his club Santos the previous year and not much was expected of him. After a 3-0 victory against Austria in the first game, Brazil were held to a 0-0 draw by England in the second match. Coach Vicente Feola instated wholesale changes throughout the team, introducing Pelé, Garrincha and a few others for the final group fixture against the Soviet Union and their great goalkeeper Lev Yashin.
The changes worked and Brazil won 2-0 to qualify, with some mesmerising moments from Garrincha especially. In the quarter-final, a tight, dogged affair against John Charles’ Wales, Pelé scored the game’s only goal, edging Brazil into the semis with a superb bit of individual brilliance.
In the semi final, he stole the limelight from France’s duo of Just Fontaine and Raymond Kopa, by netting a second half hat-trick (in the space of 23 minutes) and leading Brazil to a 5-2 demolition and into the final (goals at 3:00, 3:50 and 4:48).
In the final, Brazil defeated hosts Sweden by the same scoreline and Pelé added a brace for good measure, including one of the most iconic goals in football history – controlling a cross from the left on his chest whilst absorbing contact from and shrugging off a defender, flipping it over the head of the another on-rushing defender and hitting it first time on the volley.
So to recap: As a 17-year old, in what was then more than ever a game for men not boys, he came into the team midway through the tournament, scoring 6 goals in 4 matches, and helps Brazil to its first ever world title. What’s more, they won it on European soil. To put into perspective what an achievement that is – they are still to this day the only non-European team to win the World Cup in Europe.
Furthermore, in that World Cup he faced some of the world’s best at the time. Lev Yashin (USSR) – arguably the best goalie that ever lived; John Charles (Wales) – an icon with Juventus of Italy; France’s aforementioned duo of Kopa – part of the legendary Real Madrid frontline alongside Di Stefano, Puskas and Gento that won the first five European Cups from 1956-60 – and Fontaine – that tournament’s top scorer with 13 goals, which is still a record for the most ever scored in a single World Cup; and Sweden’s Gre-No-Li (Gren, Nordahl and Liedholm) trio of AC Milan. In short, some of the world’s best at the time.
All as a 17-year old, in a time where it was uncommon to field anyone below the age of 25! Today, it’s very common to see teenagers at the World Cup, yet no one has ever shone at quite like Pelé at such a young age. A testament to how special a player he was.
1970: Coming off the disappointment of the 1966 tournament, Pelé decided to prepare himself like never before for a World Cup. At 29 years of age, he was aware this would perhaps be his last and wanted to show the world he still had it on the biggest stage.
He proceeded to orchestrate what many view as the best national side in history. Words cannot do Pelé’s play in this World Cup justice, so I will try to be brief and let the videos of his great moments do the talking.
Brazil started off with a 4-1 drubbing of Czechoslovakia. Pelé scored one (5:18), set up another (7:21) and almost pulled off the unthinkable – an audacious attempt from inside his own half that narrowly missed the target with the goalkeeper haplessly beaten (3:47).
Next up were defending world champions England. This became an instant World Cup classic with great chances for both sides and with Brazil ultimately prevailing 1-0. Pelé was denied a certain goal by Gordon Banks in what is known as one of the greatest saves of all-time (1:20). He later made the winning goal in style for Jairzinho following up fantastic work from Tostão (3:35).
In the last group match, having already qualified, Brazil faced Romania winning 3-2. Pelé scored twice – the first a swerving free kick (0:40) and the second a close range finish after Tostão’s beautiful flick from a corner (2:45).
In the quarter-final against Peru, a 4-2 trouncing with Pelé, twice hitting the post and assisting on the third goal for Tostão (7:00).
The semi-final against Uruguay was alongside the England match, Brazil’s toughest test in the tournament. They fell behind to an early goal and looked nervous in the first half, managing to pull back an equaliser right before halftime. Pelé rose to the occasion in the second half providing arguably his best performance in the tournament.
He was involved in everything – he produced a magnificent mazy run from midfield before being brought down just outside the box (4:00), a clever first-time volley straight from a poor goal kick that the keeper managed to recover and save (5:07), a deft touch to release a Brazil counter-attack, which resulted in the go-ahead goal scored by Jairzinho (6:20), and making the third goal for Rivelino (8:45). All that was missing to crown his display was a goal and he nearly got in spectacular fashion, rounding the keeper with a brilliant dummy before dragging a shot just wide (9:37).
In the final, against a weary Italian side, Brazil went ahead through Pelé’s header, were pegged back before the interval, and then ran rampant in the second half, running out 4-1 winners and three-time World Cup champions. As well as his goal (0:24), Pelé made the third – a brilliant cushioned header into the path of Jairzinho (3:12) – and the fourth and final goal – a majestic pass for Carlos Alberto to slam home, following a magnificent team move (3:57).
So, 4 goals and 6 assists in 6 matches in his World Cup swansong, including two of the most beautiful and jaw-dropping ‘near-misses’ of all-time – the shot from inside his own half and the dummy round the keeper, which to this day I’ve never seen anyone try and replicate.
Pelé at club level
Pelé was the star of the great 1960’s Santos sides, which dominated Brazilian and South American football for the decade and are considered to be one of the greatest club sides of all-time. They won the national title 6 times during the decade, also winning countless state championships, which at the time counted for a lot.
They also conquered the continent and the world, winning consecutive Libertadores (South America’s equivalent to the European Cup/Champions League) and Intercontinental Cups. At the time, the European sides took the cup seriously, as South America still held on to its best players, thus making for fiercely competitive duels. Adding to this, was the fact it was played over two legs (home and away – one in South America and one in Europe), so it was showcased directly to a European audience.
In 1962, Santos won their first Libertadores with Pelé scoring twice in the final against Peñarol of Uruguay. They then faced Eusébio’s Benfica and won both legs by an aggregate score of 8-4. Pelé scored 5 goals over both matches and the second leg in Lisbon (won 5-2 by the Brazilians) is considered, by Pelé himself to be the best performance in his career. He scored a hat-trick, and superbly laid off a goal for his striking partner Coutinho.
The following year, he was limited by injuries, but scored two goals anyway in the first leg at the San Siro against the great Milan of Cesare Maldini, Trapattoni, Rivera and his national teammates Altafini and Amarildo. He did not play in the second or third games in Brazil (there was a 6-6 aggregate tie, so a replay decided the winner), but had played a huge role in leading Santos there in the first place – scoring 4 goals over both Libertadores semi-final legs and the winning goal in the final against Boca Juniors in Argentina.
Pelé is not the most overrated player ever. Recent memory has given us the tendency to ignore the greatness of past generations and we are quick to forget why Pelé was considered so great in the first place.
I haven’t even mentioned the fact that Pelé was the first ever player to score 1000 official goals in his career, totalling 1283 between club and country. It’s irrelevant that he played in another era, or whom he played against, it’s downright impressive.
If you want to compare it to today, who has dominated the World Cup or even the Champions League for that matter at the age of 17? Has anyone even scored close to 1000 goals in their career?
Now, is he the greatest ever?
Maybe. Maybe not. To each his own opinion, but to flat out disregard him as I have observed many doing lately is outright absurd.