The Best of the Best - Part One
This is probably the longest and most never-ending debate that has drawn footballers from around the world. The debate for the greatest footballer of them all has set its base in South America with some of the biggest names from across the world, falling short of the final four.
The likes of Johan Cruyff, Franz Beckenbauer, Gerd Muller, George Best, Bobby Charlton, Ferenc Puskas, Eusebio and Zenedine Zidane, amongst others, have been shrugged aside for the three most flamboyant and outstanding players who stood out even amongst the best of the best.
Edison Arantes do Nascimento or Pele
>There are many who will stand by and claim that there was no better than the great “Black Pearl” himself. After all, with 1284 club-level goals and another 77 at the international level, there is no doubt that he was right up there with the top three, if not the’’ best. Surely such a prolific strike rate should have propelled Pele to the topmost position in the list, should it not?Unfortunately, not quite!!! And here’s why.’’
Pele has had three world cup wins to his name - 1958, 1962 and 1970. That is an impressive record however one has to look at his contribution to each of the three world cup wins.
As a 17-year old, Pele only played 4 games in all but scored once he reached the quarterfinals against Wales. Playing against France in the semi-finals, Pele became the youngest ever to score a hattrick in the World Cup Finals. His brace in the finals helped Brazil score an emphatic win over Sweden.
>Pele had Gilmar, Djalma Santos, Didi, Zagallo, Garrincha, Nilton Santos, De Sordi, Mazola, Vava, Dida and Zito as partners, all 12 of them, including Pele, fully capable of destroying any side in the world. With or without Pele, Brazil would have won the World Cup with such a powerhouse team. Garrincha, the critic’s choice for the player of the tournament, went without due admiration primarily because of the spotlight-grabbing 17-year old he was with.
All in all, a World Cup that Brazil would have won without Pele, and one where he would have been a lesser player without the likes of Garrincha setting up goal scoring opportunities.
Pele set up the first goal in the first game against Mexico, before running past four to score the second. He got injured in the second game against Czechoslovakia and didn’t play for the remainder of the tournament. Garrincha took the team to the title.
>Almost the same team from the 1958 World Cup, with a few changes of course, Brazil proved that they needed Garrincha more, than Pele, to win the title. In the history of the World Cup, only two tournaments have been said to be won singlehandedly. 1962 was attributed solely to Garrincha’s world class performance.
Brazil had a decent team but were marred by political pressures back home. Pele failed to shine as he played alongside former greats who were, now, aging. Brazil were eliminated early and Pele failed to add to his world cup tally. He blamed rough treatment from opposing teams as the cause of his failure, with referees being too lenient with their decisions.
Rough treatment or not, Brazil were stuck with aging players and Pele, playing his first world cup with an average team, was unable to adjust and lead his team through. All this, despite being at the peak of his club career.
>Pele was called back to play for the national team after a forgettable performance at the 1966 world cup. In 1970 though, the tale was different. Pele was back with six goals in six qualifying games, paving the way for his return to the World Cup. In his final World Cup, Pele began with a goal against Czechoslovakia before scoring twice against Romania. His final goal in the World Cup would come against Italy, the match opener in the finals.
The lineup of stars in the 1970 Brazilian squad would put the Real Madrid of today to shame. With a decent Felix in goal, Brazil boasted of the likes of Carlos Alberto, Marco Antonio, Jairzinho, Gerson, Tostao, Rivelino, Baldocchi, Fontana, Everaldo, Joel, Edu, Dada Maravilha and Ze Maria, all alongside Pele. The team barely needed the aging Pele to win, even though his addition was considered a “morale booster” at the time. Pele did play his part but the team did more so.
Pele played an astonishing 1115 games for Santos, scoring an incredible 1091 goals in the league. He scored many more in cup competitions and had it not been for the fewer intercontinental tournaments, Pele would have made merry, some more.
>During his career at Santos, Pele played alongside half the Brazilian team primarily due to the lack of attraction or money in the European game. Players preferred staying back in Brazil, playing for the adulation of the fans, more than anything else.
Pele played alongside Zito, Pepe and Coutinho in his early days at Santos, taking the team to 8 state titles, 6 national titles, 2 continental cups, 2 intercontinental cups and a host of other tournaments.
The level of club football in Brazil was certainly quite high at the time, but it was never considered as impressive as that in European football. With some of the biggest names of the time plying their trade in Europe, Pele was considered to have played against lesser teams, scoring goals by the hundreds.
The Final Verdict
He scored more times than anybody else and won three world cups, that has to hold for something. But a deeper introspection into Pele’s career shows that he was, albeit, a bit lucky to be born in a time when Brazilian football was truly blessed.
Had he been born in Mexico or Argentina at the time, would he be this good? Sure he would, because after all, he did score all those goals. But whether he would have won world cups or not, is a question that will always remain unanswered.
Pele has done great work for football since retiring. He helped build up the American “soccer” scene with his presence while helping FIFA and the United Nations in spreading a good word around the world. He has been a wonderful ambassador for the world of football and it is, in all likelihood, this likability that has made him endearing to all his fans.
That said, when FIFA did decide to allow Internet users from around the world to pick the Century’s Greatest Footballer, the world chose Maradona by a whopping margin. FIFA couldn’t sideline the man who had done so much with the federation, and ended up making a new award on the eve of the ceremony - “The People’s Choice” for the Greatest Footballer of the Century, which was awarded to Diego Maradona, while Pele was given the original award.
Rigged format? I think so!!!
However, for now, the final word can simply be that Pele was the best striker that there ever was but from the standpoint of being the best in the game, he was, at best, strongly positioned at number 3.
(Next: Lionel Messi)
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