Picking out an all-time great from football’s hall of fame might be a futile pursuit; with players like Cristiano Ronaldo or Lionel Messi achieving what was previously deemed impossible, however, we tend to turn a nostalgic eye to Pele, considered by many the greatest player of all time.
In a fascinating article, The Telegraph’s Jonathan Liew questions the objective value of the legend, arguing that other rival players (such as fellow Brazilian, Garrincha) achieved equal if not similar feats. “Garrincha virtually won the 1962 World Cup single-handedly. Pele could never claim that,” says Liew.
The truth is that the making of a legend (take Elvis Presley, Michael Jackson, Muhammad Ali) often has less to do with objective achievement – though of course each of these legends went where few had gone before – and more to do with inspiration.
Objectively, Pele’s achievements are no small feat. The player won three World Cups, scored 1,000 goals and was an ace at dribbling and passing, his grace and speed clear exponents of his kinetic genius. Lately, it seems almost fashionable to highlight his interest in self-promotion and marketing, yet few players in history are able to boast quite the same combination of power, strength, grace, pace, dribbling and natural talent; Maradona, Beckenbauer, Garrincha etc. are a few players that could probably give Pele a run for his money. Indeed, Pele is often mentioned as one of the greatest strikers of all time, yet as a centre pitch player (as opposed to a player like Garrincha), he was able to show off his lightning ability at passing the ball, a skill he put to use selflessly to enable his teammates to enjoy their shining moment.
One of the best matches that highlighted Pele’s multi-functional abilities was the 1970 World Cup final itself. Pele played a crucial role in three of the four goals scored by Brazil during the match. The first goal was a header by Pele himself, the third was a pass by Pele to Jairzinho and the fourth involved a pass to Alberto. Interestingly, this match took place after Pele vowed never to play in the World Cup again, after being tackled roughly in 1966. His bravery paid off well, and he took home the Golden Ball. Indeed, his team is regarded by many as the best of all time, with a bevy of world class players giving it their all – including Tostao, Rivelino and Carlos Alberto.
In addition to his actual skills, Pele was considered a source of inspiration, since he was raised in extreme poverty, in the suburb of Bauru (Sao Paulo). Pele was born to a deeply religious family and he often tells the story of when Brazil lost to Uruguay in the 1950 World Cup. Pele, then simply known as Edson, went to his father’s room and cried at the picture of Jesus on the wall, asking why God had punished them this way. His steely determination led him to vow that he would lead Brazil to victory one day and against all odds, he did just that, three times. In order to reach such heights of excellence, Pele practiced his sport to the point of obsession, rolling up a sock and stuffing it with rags to hone his kicking skills, since he could not afford to buy a football. By the age of 15, he had already signed up with Santos, scoring his first goal in the professional league at this age. By the end of his first season, he was already recruited by the Brazilian national team. Pele’s first World Cup took place in 1958 (Sweden). The 17-yaer-old scored an amazing three goals in the semi-final against France, netting in two more in the finals against Sweden. Although he received lucrative offers to play for foreign teams, Pele was declared a ‘national treasure’ by then-President Jânio Quadros, and made his fortune by playing in lucrative exhibition matches across the globe.
Pele was also an ace at marketing; by 1966 a string of failed investments had brought the star to the border of bankruptcy, but he bounced back, signing deals with companies the like of Puma and creating a brand out of his own name; he has since marketed everything from luxury watches to supplements and his brand continues to rake in over $25 million a year.
“Pele has no color or race or religion. He is accepted everywhere,” said the football star, capturing his timeless appeal in these simple words. Like Elvis, James Dean or Michael Jackson, Pele has an inimitable charisma that other more skilled athletes have yet to master. His rise from poverty, deep commitment to his team and country, hard work and business sense make him a legend to aspire to for young athletes from all around the world.