It has become trendy to minimize Pele’s accomplishments, but what is the reality about his track record? Following the death of the Brazilian footballer, Pele dies aged 82, Adam Bate investigates why much of the criticism is incorrect and strives to place his achievements in their proper context. Pele will always be the best for a generation or three. Officially, the century’s best player and the only three-time World Cup champion. Unofficially, the guy whose incredible performances helped redefine football as a beautiful game.
Brazilian footballer, Pele dies aged 82
There will never be another like it. New heroes arise as time passes and memories fade. First and foremost, Diego Maradona. A counter-cultural figure who serves as the yin to Pele’s yang. Those who gorged themselves on his exploits in the 1980s have matured and are now opinion shapers in the current world. His stature rises. More lately, Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo’s achievements have so dominated space that their millions of fans, unsatisfied with that dimension, want to see their heroes conquer another time.
Messi is more than just the best. He is known as the GOAT. Unfortunately, honoring the accomplishments of one of the world’s most popular athletes sometimes means demeaning those of another. If there is one topic that unifies the most ardent Messi and Ronaldo supporters, it is that Pele’s magnificence is overrated. The battlefield is social media. Most people who saw the Brazilian’s talent are blissfully unaware of the mockery directed at him.
His scoring record has become synonymous with hyperbole, with the distant period in which he played considered as reason enough to doubt his claim to be the greatest. However, with Brazilian footballer, Brazilian footballer, Pele dies aged 82, there may be a need to alter the narrative. To seek to retake the throne. The case must be stated at the very least. A rebuttal to the complaints and concerns that have been raised in the past when Pele’s name has been referenced.
But did he achieve 1,000 goals?
This one fact of Pele’s record has received the most ridicule. The total “famously contains goals scored while he was daydreaming in the bath,” according to a joke in The Guardian. Some may even speculate that his overhead kick in the film Escape to Victory was included in the total number of FIFA-recognized goals of 1,281. The number acknowledged by the Guinness Book of Records is 526 goals scored in unofficial friendlies and tour games.
Nonetheless, the exaggerated statistic should not obscure the truth. Even before we get into the nitty-gritty of the issue over these so-called friendlies – and we will – Pele’s record in official matches is still far over 700 goals. It is a colossal figure. Pele scored almost 600 goals for Santos alone, making him the best scorer for a single major club in the game’s history until Messi broke the mark with 672 for Barcelona. Regardless of the details and relative qualities of the Sao Paulo state league, one thing everyone can agree on is that Pele scored an incredible quantity of goals.
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But didn’t he score in Brazil?
That is mostly correct. But then, what’s the point? When Santos won the Brazilian league for the first time in 1961, a championship they would go on to win five years in a row, it was perhaps the toughest domestic competition in the world. Certainly, it included some of the game’s most famous players. Every member of the 1958 World Cup-winning team was based in Brazil, and although certain major names such as Jose Altafina had subsequently moved on, every member of the 1962 World Cup-winning squad was likewise headquartered there. And Santos did not have a skill monopoly.
Botafogo’s roster included Didi, Mario Zagallo, Nilton Santo, and Garrincha. But Santos remained the best team, and Pele remained the best player. Garrincha and the others were there in the 1962 Brazilian championship final when Santos defeated Botafogo. Pele scored twice in front of 70,000 spectators as his team triumphed 5-0 at the Maracana. Though his international exploits define his career, they were massive games.
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Pele scored a hat-trick against Bahia in 1961 final, the second of which was a remarkable goal in which he beat three players. In 1963, he scored another hat-trick against Gremio before adding two goals at home and away as Bahia was defeated for the third time in a row. Pele scored another hat trick in the 1964 final against Flamengo. In 1965, he caught another fish. During the five-year era, Pele scored 13 goals in 11 title finals. During that period in Brazil, his reputation as a big-game player contributed to the mythology.
Wasn’t scoring simpler back then?
Pele’s incredible goal haul in these finals may make it seem that these were simpler times to score, but it is a trap to avoid. After all, the same might be said of someone later studying Ronaldo and Messi’s scoring records. Nobody else is currently recording those figures. Nobody else was keeping track of Pele’s stats back then. Between 1961 and 1965, the average number of goals scored in each game in Brazil’s national championship was 3.07.
The average amount of goals per game in the Champions League over the previous five years have been quite comparable. The black-and-white film may give the impression that this was a bygone era of football, but Pele’s scoring heroics warrant respect.
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But didn’t he do it in Europe?
Pele appeared in just a few matches against European club clubs that would currently be considered competitive. His performances in those contests, on the other hand, left little space for debate. His brilliance was on display in the 1962 Intercontinental Cup versus European Cup holders Benfica, the return leg of which Pele said was his best-ever game. After scoring twice in a 3-2 triumph at the Maracana, he lit up the Estadio da Luz in Santos’ 5-2 second-leg win, scoring a hat-trick and overshadowing home hero Eusebio.
Pele beat several opponents to set up another of his team’s goals, and there was even a nutmeg of the Portuguese contender to drive home the point. It was a masterclass. After the game, Benfica goalkeeper Costa Pereira summed up the atmosphere in Lisbon. “I came wanting to stop a great guy,” he said of his meeting with Pele. “However, I left persuaded that I had been undone by someone who had not been born on the same planet as the rest of us.
After retaining the Copa Libertadores, Santos returned to the Intercontinental Cup the next year, this time against Nereo Rocco’s AC Milan, who had been European champions for the first time. Pele only took part in the first leg. In the San Siro, he scored twice. Pele returned to Milan in 1969 to play in the Intercontinental Super Cup, a new but short-lived event. Inter were the opponents following a round-robin for previous European Cup and Copa Libertadores champions.
There was no denying who the show’s star was. Pelé returned to Milan to be praised and managed to leave the crowd delighted once again,” gushed Corriere Dello Sport. Jornal do Brasil was similarly complimentary. “His feet created some of the most stunning maneuvers in the game. He had an outstanding performance, often making the audience forget he was an opponent and cheer him wildly.”
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Is that all there is to go on?
Pele participated in many more matches throughout Europe that were afterward referred to be friendly. Lucrative games were planned throughout the continent, on a scale that contemporary spectators find impossible to imagine. Pele and his Santos teammates were subjected to a demanding schedule, often playing every other day. There were 38 friendly only against Italian teams. His record in those games was outstanding. Eight goals vs. Inter, six vs. Roma, three vs. Lazio, and two against. Milan and Juventus. He scored six goals in two games against Eintracht Frankfurt in Germany.
In Portugal, he added four more goals against Benfica. In Spain, Pele scored twice against Real Madrid and three times against Barcelona. English opponents were not spared either, even though many of these matches occurred later in his career. Santos was still going strong in 1972 when he headed on yet another money-making trip, this time to Hong Kong. Frank Clark, who subsequently won the European Cup with Nottingham Forest, played against Pele for Newcastle on that trip and recalls the superstar giving a quiet performance. For a while. “Pele made the impulsive decision to switch it on. In around 15 minutes, he scored three spectacular goals.
But weren’t these people friendly?
In the 1987 film The Princess Bride, there is a famous phrase. “You keep using that term,” says Inigo Montoya’s character. “I don’t believe it means what you believe it means.” These matches may have been labeled as friendly, but it would be a mistake to perceive them as inferior fights because of that. The available tape shows some rough treatment for Santos’ leading guy. Most defenders went into these games determined to show something.
Pele was the guy to be stopped. Everyone wanted to put their skills to the test against the legend. The people turned out in force as well. This was the biggest game of the season – the biggest game of their life – for some of these teams and players. When Santos visited Plymouth in 1973, 37,639 people packed Home Park for what one Argyle player described as their cup final. Pele was only hoping he wouldn’t be booted as hard as usual.
When he traveled to Roma, he had 88,000 people there, 85,000 in Barcelona, and 72,000 in Hamburg. According to some sources, a six-figure audience attended one of his bouts in the San Siro in 1961. The European Cup originated with floodlit games in the 1950s, and this was a continuation of that tradition – spectacular events.
But did you know he only won the Copa Libertadores twice?
The number of trips that Santos did, marketing Pele around the world for large quantities of money, precluded them from playing in the Copa Libertadores as often as they might have. Simply put, there was less money in it. After winning in 1962 and 1963, the club withdrew from future contests, depriving Pele of more recognition. He’d already made his mark by that point. He scored twice in the Monumental play-off versus Penarol in 1962 to win that one. Pele returned to Buenos Aires the next year to score the late winner against Boca Juniors in the Bombonera as Santos maintained their title.
But he never won Copa America?
True, Pele never won the Copa America, but those tour games stopped him from ever competing. Pele, in reality, only competed in one Copa America competition, in Argentina in 1959. While the hosts won the championship due to the league structure, Brazil, the World Cup winners at the time, were also unblemished. Everyone could see who the star of the year was that year.
Pele scored Brazil’s equalizer in front of 85,000 people at the Monumental in the last draw game with Argentina. It was his eighth goal of the tournament, breaking his previous record of a hat trick against Paraguay in the same venue. He was accordingly named tournament player.
Did he do anything other than score goals?
Goals have received a lot of attention thus far since they are more readily quantified. If proponents of other contenders for the title of greatest of all time try to alter the debate and refer to other traits, Pele’s case merely strengthens. He wasn’t a pure striker. Perhaps the most notable display of his brilliance was during Brazil’s last World Cup victory in Mexico in 1970. It is the tournament most closely identified with him, not because he was at his best, but because it was broadcast and in color.
Some of the most memorable instances did not include goals at all. The effort from halfway against Czechoslovakia, the unbelievable dummy against Uruguay, and the save by England goalkeeper Gordon Banks. Near misses, then, but what this truly shows us is how much Pele squeezed into his six World Cup games.
How much magic did we miss before that because the cameras couldn’t capture it?
Pele nevertheless managed to score four goals in that competition, including the game-winning goal in the final. While his unassuming assist for Carlos Alberto’s game-winning goal may be the most famous pass of all time. It was his sixth assist and one of 27 opportunities he produced from open play in that tournament. That record has never been broken, not even by Maradona in Mexico in 1986.
Pele, like Maradona, has an exceptional vision. Pele, like Messi, was a world-class dribbler. His heading skill, like Ronaldo’s, was a major weapon in his armory. His game was much more than just goals. It just so happens that he got a lot of them.
None of the above is sufficient to put an end to one of football’s longest-running controversies. That will continue indefinitely. However, it adds some background to some of the more glib efforts to discredit the claims of the man still known to many as O Rei – The King. If you must, choose others, but there is no reason to diminish Edson Arantes Do Nascimento’s monumental accomplishments. Brazilian footballer, Pele dies aged 82, deserves to be remembered simply as a great.