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30 December 2022

Don’t deny that Pelé was the greatest footballer

The real problem for many is that the Brazilian played in an older, unfamiliar time, but his legacy will never wane.

By Dom Smith

There was a time when people used to enjoy things for what they were. No longer. Now we live in an era hellbent on crudely ranking everything without any nuance. Twitter may be stronger for it, but discourse is weaker. Enter the Goat (Greatest Of All Time) debate – a trite discussion about who is the best footballer ever to have lived.

For decades, Pelé – who died on Thursday (29 December), aged 82 – was almost universally regarded as the greatest. The wondrous little Argentine, Diego Maradona, flirted with usurping the 5ft 8in Brazilian, but Maradona was too troubled and his peak, at the 1986 World Cup, did not last long enough. Pelé’s reign endured through three World Cup wins.

Only in recent years has Pelé’s status been seriously threatened – from Maradona’s compatriot, Lionel Messi. Pelé’s death came just 11 days after Messi finally won the World Cup with Argentina – the accolade that had eluded him in a spellbinding, trophy-laden career. For many, it ended the Goat debate once and for all.

But the death of Pelé, “the King of Football”, provides an apt moment to reassess why his achievements have been so overlooked by modern football discourse.

Pelé, born Edson Arantes do Nascimento in 1940, is the only man or woman ever to win three World Cups. His first came in 1958 when he was a skinny 17-year-old, not long out of the favelas of São Paulo. He also won the 1962 finals and finally the 1970 edition, with a team widely regarded as the best ever assembled.

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No one in the sport’s history is credited with having scored as many goals as Pelé’s phenomenal 1,283 goals in 1,366 matches across a 21-year playing career. However, Pelé played at a time when football statistics were in their infancy, and so his tally of officially verified goals is 767. This supposedly weakens his case for being football’s Goat. Hardly. He still scored 1,283, whether you count them or not.

Pelé’s critics also say he never played in Europe so his records matter less. Others feel he should have won more than just two Copa Libertadores (the South American equivalent of Europe’s Champions League) titles, failing to realise that he only played in three editions because his team Santos were touring round… Europe. Pelé’s Copa Libertadores record in 15 games: 17 goals, 11 assists. The critics duly crawl back into the woodwork.

For many, though, the real problem is simply that Pelé played in an era of black and white television with players and pitch conditions alien to the football of today. People naturally yearn to have lived to see the greatest ever player, and so today’s fans want it to be Messi.

Whether Pelé, the extraordinary goalscorer and majestic dribbler, was better than Messi can be debated long into the night, but the Brazilian’s impact is plain. Pelé transcends Brazil, football, and sport itself.

“I was born to play football,” he said, “just like Beethoven was born to write music and Michelangelo was born to paint.” It’s hard to disagree. Have your Goat debate. Why not? Just know that it reduces the art of football to a soulless science. It was Pelé, the King of Football, who understood this best, coining the phrase “the beautiful game”. It certainly was when Pelé played it. His legacy will never wane.

[See also: The Fan: how can we ever compete with Messi and Ronaldo?]

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