It didn’t seem that long ago when the footballing world said goodbye to Maradona. Now, another footballing great, Pelé, has passed away.
Even though we didn’t have a TV at the time, I was too young to watch Brazil winning the 1970 Mexico World Cup. But very soon after, all of us who played football in the streets and school playground knew about Pelé. When it was time to pick who we’d be, we all wanted to be Pelé. We took turns.
At the age of 17, Pelé made his debut in the 1962 World Cup. He helped Brazil win the final against Sweden. Later, a Swedish player confessed, “I have to be honest and say I felt like applauding” when Pelé scored his second goal.
By 1962, Pelé was regarded as the best player in the world but in the World Cup of that year he played a small role after picking up an injury. In the 1966 World Cup, he was at the receiving end of brutal treatment from the Bulgarian and Portuguese teams and Brazil’s fortunes suffered.
For a long time, there was no doubt who the greatest player of all time was. It was Pelé. The only player to have won three World Cups and part of possibly the best team to have played in the World Cup, the 1970 Brazil team. The tournament, broadcast in colour for the first time, revealed the iconic yellow jersey that would forever be associated with Brazil. Although past his best, Pelé still played a pivotal part. In the final, Brazil scored perhaps the best team goal of all time; knowing someone would appear, Pelé nonchalantly provided an inch-perfect pass to the running Alberto, who fired the ball into the net without breaking his stride.
Pelé was recognised by his contemporaries as moving on a different plane. He could play with both feet, head the ball, dribble, had incredible balance and strength, and could see everything without looking. He created and exemplified the beautiful game. His coach Saldanha said of him, “Ask me who is the best right-back in Brazil and I’ll say Pelé. Ask me about the best left-back or the best midfield man, or the best centre-forward. Always I must say Pelé. If he wants to be the best goalkeeper, he will be. There is only one Pelé.” Bobby Moore, who captained England when they won the 1966 World Cup, said, “Pelé was the most complete player I’ve ever seen, he had everything … The man could play in any position.”
Pelé was the first global football superstar. As his time passed, later generations grew up with new heroes: Cruyff, Best, Beckenbauer, Platini, Maradona, Zidane, Ronaldo (both), Ronaldinho, Messi, Neymer, Mbappé, and so many more. All these players are exemplars of the game; and they stand on the shoulder of a giant. The skills they performed were almost certainly first performed by Pelé. Many of the world records Pelé set still stand.
When Pelé played, the ball was heavier, players wore unwieldy shoes, football pitches were not like putting greens, players didn’t have nutrition and conditioning coaches, and referees didn’t always protect players. Different eras, different games. Comparing footballers across generations is entertaining but, when the dust settles, everyone will have their own favourites because they’re trying to answer an unanswerable question.
There are some lovely moments capturing Pelé’s generosity of spirit. You can see him swapping shirts with Bobby Moore in 1970 — there is no triumphalism — just two great players showing mutual respect and warmly smiling to each other. It encapsulated how Pelé played: with joy, freedom, and spirit.
When Maradona died, Pelé said, “One day, I hope we can play ball together in the sky.” I hope they’re playing now.
[Updated 31 Dec 2022: slightly expanded and one correction added (Alberto not Tostão scored the goal I was thinking of.]