October 22, 2021

Why Pele will always be the king of Brazilian football

With so much international football coming up for the South American sides it is only a matter of time before the milestone is reached. Prepare yourselves – because it looks a sure bet that Neymar will reach and overtake Pele’s total of 77 official goals for Brazil.

This is bound to spark generational conflict. Traditionalists will see it as sacrilege. Some younger people will think differently – after all, they argue, nothing that happened ‘back then’ can possibly have the same value as achievements in the contemporary game.

Pele provides plenty of evidence that this is not true. It is astonishing, and a testimony of his genius, that he still tops the scoring charts – especially as he was so much more than a goalscorer.

His international career ended in 1971 – 25 years before a revolution. In 1996 South America began its marathon format of World Cup qualifiers. Suddenly there was much more international football, with the regular games that Europeans take for granted.

The top scorer for every other South American side comes from the post 1996 era (the list runs as Lionel Messi for Argentina, Marcelo Martins Moreno for Bolivia, Alexis Sanchez for Chile, Radamel Falcao Garcia for Colombia, Enner Valencia for Ecuador, Roque Santa Cruz for Paraguay, Paolo Guerrero for Peru, Luis Suarez for Uruguay and Salomon Rondon for Venezuela).

Pele, then, is the striking exception. If it was all so easy ‘back then,’ then how come none of the others have a top scorer from the same era? He clearly stands out as something special.

There has, even so, been a backlash against Pele in recent times, which in part has been brought about by the man himself and his own supporters. There are two explanations.

One is the emphasis placed on statistical accumulation. Way too much is made of the more than 1000 goals that he has to his name. Pele himself once dismissed the claims to greatness of Lionel Messi with the line of “when he scores a thousand goals, then we’ll talk.” 

This is foolishness, and plays into the hands of his critics. The goal tally has been inflated by matches he played for the army, for example. And anyway, the bare numbers do not begin to tell the story – not least because he was never an out-and-out goalscorer. 

Pele operated just off the centre-forward, and set up as many as he scored. Think, for example, of the delicious ball to Jairzinho for the goal that beat England in the 1970 World Cup – the moment, several of the players have told me, when Brazil won the trophy.  Or the icing on that cake – the simple-but-superb sideways pass to Carlos Alberto for the magnificent fourth goal in the final against Italy. 

This gets far closer to the real Pele than any goal counts could ever do. Time and time again, like so many of the real greats, he was at his best when it mattered most, grabbing the big occasions by the throat and imposing his will on them.

And there is another line of argument that has been trotted out in his favour, one that used to work well, but which has lost its power to such an extent that it is now counter-productive. The line in question?  Pele: good guy. Maradona: bad guy.

Where Diego was drugs and handball and protests, Pele was the smiling sportsman, upholding old fashioned values. They were easy labels; they helped Pele sell a lot of products. But they don’t work so well with a new generation. Today’s youth, economically marginalised, have a natural sympathy for the rebel stance of Maradona, and a disdain for what they perceive as Pele’s besuited conformity.

But the label was always silly. The truth is far more complex, and far more interesting. If Pele has done public relations at so many events, and commercials for so many products, it is almost certainly because he will go to his grave unable to feel financially secure. The circumstances of his upbringing do not permit it.

Pele’s father, Dondinho, was a talented footballer. The day of his big opportunity was also the day of his big break – a serious injury that ended his dreams of football stardom and plunged the family into poverty with no apparent way out. Dondinho swept out the doctors’ surgery and the infant Pele shined shoes. And after what happened to his father, there was no way that his mother was going to let Pele chase the dream of a career in football.

From a sporting point of view, Pele is almost a perfect synthesis of his parents. From his father came the footballing ability, the respect for the art of playing football, plus the ready smile and apparently easy-going nature. His mother was the stronger character, at a time when there were few outlets for a woman to show her strength. Some of this, then, turned to fear – the fear, as Pele makes clear in his autobiography, of being unable to provide for her children.

When Pele was discovered by former World Cup star Waldemar de Brito, he had to overcome fierce maternal resistance in order to become a footballer. Waldemar had contacts, and fixed him up with Santos, the team representing the city of the same name, the port about an hour’s drive down the hill from Sao Paulo.

This was a stroke of extraordinary luck. Santos were a much smaller club than the giants from the nearby metropolis, Corinthians, Palmeiras, Sao Paulo. They had only one the local state championship twice–- once in 1935, and again in 1955, the year before Pele joined them. 

The wide-eyed teenager was walking into a dressing room full of great players and famous names. Pele could be introduced to professional football in a team surrounded by genuine quality. It was the perfect environment for a promising youngster to blossom – provided he was not overawed. And there was no chance of that.

Now he was his mother’s son. His father had given him pride in his new profession. His mother supplied him with fear of failure. It was not going to happen. It could not possibly happen. He would work like a demon to ensure that it did not happen, that he would make the most out of every bit of talent he had been blessed with. 

And he would be well rewarded for it. Memories of what had happened to his dad were all too present. This was a highly insecure profession. At a time when some of the big names in Brazilian football were signing blank contracts and allowing the club to fill in the terms afterwards, the teenage Pele was seeking financial advice and pushing to be paid something closer to what he was worth.

And it was quickly obvious that he was priceless. His Santos debut was in September 1956, he first played for Brazil in July 1957 and a year later, still 17, he enchanted everyone with his magnificent contribution to Brazil’s first World Cup win, in Sweden – still the only time they have won the trophy in Europe.

The skinny kid who had been introduced to the Santos stars quickly grew to become by far the biggest star among many. Spurred on by mighty doses of pride and fear, the two great motivational tools, he filled out physically and grew in prestige. Even before that 1958 World Cup Nelson Rodrigues, Brazil’s most influential football writer, dubbed him ‘the king’ and raved about his complete lack of modesty. 

Pele knew how much work he put in, was aware of his own talent and accepted the fact that he was the best as something entirely natural – and then he went out to prove it every time he took the field. He was years ahead of his era in terms of physical preparation and honed his talent – right foot, left foot, head – with hours of practice. The result was probably the most complete footballing machine there has ever been.

Pele is intimately associated with the World Cup. In fact, he probably did more than anyone else to establish the event as a global TV spectacular. It is ironic, then, that the tournament never quite saw him at his absolute best. He was dazzling as a skinny kid in 1958, and equally dazzling in a different way as a thicker set, more mature figure in Mexico ’70. But the best Pele came in between.

Probably his most outstanding World Cup goal came in the 1962 opener against Mexico, charging through the defence with the ball bouncing along under his control like some obedient puppy before firing home. But in the next match he was injured and played no further part in the competition. This was peak Pele, when he was in his prime. That 1962 tournament could have been what 1986 is to the legacy of Maradona. But there was not long to wait.

The new Intercontinental Cup, between the champions of Europe and South America, had made a promising start. Come the late 1960s it would cause so much conflict that it fell into disrepute, and it is a chapter of football that has been largely forgotten. But at the time it was a big deal, and at the end of 1962 Benfica of Portugal thought they had a hand on the trophy after only going down 3-2 to Santos in the first leg in Brazil. Back in Lisbon they considered themselves the favourites.

And then, on the big occasion, Pele ran riot. With his balance, technique, speed , vision and strength, Pele looked to be part of a different species. Again and again he charges through the defence of the European champions. He was unstoppable, either scoring or setting up the goals that put Santos five up. Benfica managed a couple of late consolation goals, but they could do nothing to ruin what Pele rated as the best performance of his career.

This, then, is the bar that Pele set for future generations. It is in these achievements that the greatness of Pele is to be found. And as Neymar closes in on his number of goals, perhaps the most human reaction is to feel sorry for the Paris Saint-Germain player, because there is a bar there that he cannot climb over. 

In terms of his legacy, much rests on whether he can turn on the magic in the Qatar World Cup at the end of next year. By then Neymar will be not far short of 31. By that age Pele had done it all. He had silenced the doubters in 1958 at the age of 17. And going into Mexico ’70 there was a strong lobby calling for him to be dropped. He soon silenced them, and then exited the international stage before he reached the 31 mark.

The numbers of Pele can be overtaken. The man’s achievements cannot.

Tim Vickery

Tim Vickery

Tim Vickery is a football writer based in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. He covers the South American game for ESPN, the BBC, World Soccer and others.

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