It has become fashionable to downplay Pele’s extraordinary achievements but what is the truth about the Brazilian’s record? Adam Bate examines why much of the criticism is misguided and attempts to put his accomplishments in their proper context…
Legendary Brazil player Pele is celebrating his 80th birthday
For a certain generation or three, Pele will always be the greatest. Officially, the player of the century and the only three-time World Cup winner. Unofficially, the man whose amazing displays helped to redefine football as the beautiful game. There will never be another.
But as time passes and memories fade, new heroes emerge. Firstly, Diego Maradona. A counter-culture figure, the yin to Pele’s yang. Those who feasted on his exploits in the 1980s have grown up and are now the opinion shapers of the modern world. His greatness grows.
More recently, Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo’s accomplishments have so dominated the space, their millions of admirers, not content with that dimension, seek to see their champions conquer another: time. Messi is not merely the best. He is branded the GOAT.
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Unfortunately, celebrating the achievements of one of those genuine icons of the world’s most popular sport often means denigrating those of another. If there is one subject that unites the more fervent fans of Messi and Ronaldo, it is that Pele’s greatness is overstated.
Social media is the battleground. Most who bore witness to the Brazilian’s brilliance are left blissfully oblivious to the derision spat in his direction. His scoring record has become a byword for exaggeration. His age seen as reason alone to disbelieve his status as the best.
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As Pele turns 80, perhaps there is a need to fight back. To make an attempt to reclaim the crown. At the very least, the case must be presented. A riposte provided to the criticisms and questions that are routinely offered up when Pele’s name is now mentioned.
But he didn’t really score 1000 goals?
Pele is lifted up by his Santos team mates after scoring the 1,000th goal of his career during a game against Vasco da Gama at the Maracana Stadium in Rio in 1969
This single fact about Pele’s record has been mocked more than any other. An article in the Guardian once jokingly suggested that the tally “famously involves goals scored while he was daydreaming in the bath”. Some might even tease that his overhead kick in the film Escape to Victory was included in the final FIFA-recognised figure of 1281 goals.
It is true that 526 scored in unofficial friendlies and tour games make up the total accepted by the Guinness Book of Records. And yet, the inflated figure should not mask the reality. Even before tackling the nuance of the argument when it comes to these so-called friendlies – and we will come to that – Pele’s record in official matches still stands at well over 700 goals. It is a formidable number.
Pele scored more than 600 goals for Santos alone, putting him clear of Bayern Munich’s Gerd Muller as the highest scorer for a single major club in the history of the game.
For all the debate over detail and the relative merits of the Sao Paulo state league, the one thing that everyone must agree upon is that Pele scored an astonishing number of goals.
But he scored his goals in Brazil?
That is largely true. But then, so what?
When Santos became national champions for the first time in 1961, a title they would go on to claim for five years in a row, the Brazilian league was arguably the strongest domestic competition in world. Certainly, it contained some of the game’s most celebrated players.
Pele triumphant after scoring for Brazil in the 1958 World Cup final
Every one of the 1958 World Cup winning-squad had been playing in Brazil, and while some star names such as Jose Altafina had since ventured abroad, each of the 1962 World Cup-winning squad was also based in the country. And Santos did not have the monopoly on talent.
Botafogo counted Didi, Mario Zagallo, Nilton Santo and Garrincha among their numbers. But Santos were still the outstanding side and Pele was still the outstanding player.
Garrincha and the rest were present when Santos beat Botafogo in the 1962 Brazilian championship final. Pele scored twice in front of 70,000 as his side won 5-0 in the Maracana.
Pele nets after scoring for Santos against Paraguayan side Guarani in 1958
Though his legacy is defined by international exploits, these were huge games. Pele scored a hat-trick in the 1961 final against Bahia, the second of which was a stunning goal in which he beat three men. In 1963, he scored another hat-trick in a semi-final against Gremio before adding two goals home and away as Bahia were beaten again to make it three in a row.
There was another Pele hat-trick in the 1964 final against Flamengo. He netted again in 1965. In total, Pele scored 13 goals in 11 championship finals in that five-year period. His reputation as a big-game player during that time in Brazil helped to forge the legend.
Wasn’t it easier to score back then?
Pele’s outrageous goal haul in these finals can make it seem that these were easier times in which to score, but that is a trap to be avoided. After all, the same could surely be said of someone perusing the scoring records of Ronaldo and Messi at a later date. Nobody else is registering those numbers now. Nobody else was registering Pele’s numbers then.
The average number of goals per game scored in Brazil’s national championship between 1961 and 1965 was 3.07. The average number of goals per game in the last five years of the Champions League is 3.02 – very similar. The black-and-white footage may make it appear that this was football from another age but Pele’s scoring feats demand respect.
But he didn’t do it in Europe did he?
Pele played only a handful of what would now be considered competitive matches against European club sides. However, his performances in those matches leave little room for argument. His genius was laid bare against European Cup holders Benfica in the 1962 Intercontinental Cup – the return leg of which Pele claimed was his best-ever game.
Having already scored twice in a 3-2 win at the Maracana, he lit up the Estadio da Luz in Santos’ 5-2 second-leg victory, scoring a hat-trick and overshadowing home hero Eusebio. There was even a nutmeg of the Portuguese pretender to hammer home the point as Pele beat a number of opponents to set up another of his side’s goals. It was a masterclass.
Benfica goalkeeper Costa Pereira summed up the mood in Lisbon afterwards. “I arrived hoping to stop a great man,” he said of his encounter with Pele. “But I went away convinced I had been undone by someone who was not born on the same planet as the rest of us.”
Pele in action for Santos in Los Angeles in a game against Mexican side Guadalajara
Santos were back in Intercontinental Cup action the following year having retained the Copa Libertadores, this time taking on Nereo Rocco’s AC Milan after they became European champions for the first time. Pele only played the first leg. He scored twice in the San Siro.
In 1969, Pele was back in Milan to compete in a new but short-lived tournament called the Intercontinental Super Cup. Inter were the opponents after a round-robin for past winners of the European Cup and Copa Libertadores. There was no doubt about the show’s star.
“Pelé returned to Milan to be admired and managed, once again, to leave the audience satisfied,” fawned Corriere dello Sport. Jornal do Brasil was equally effusive. “The most beautiful moves of the game were born from his feet. He had an exceptional performance, often causing the crowd to forget that he was an opponent and to applaud him deliriously.”
Is that all we have to go on?
Pele played in many more matches in Europe that have since been described as friendlies. Lucrative games were lined up around the continent, the scale of which is difficult for modern audiences to comprehend. Pele and his Santos team-mates faced a punishing schedule, often playing every other day. There were 38 friendlies against Italian sides alone.
His record in those games was hugely impressive. Eight goals against Inter, six against Roma, three against Lazio, two apiece against Milan and Juventus. In Germany, he scored six times in two games against Eintracht Frankfurt. In Portugal, he hit a further four against Benfica. In Spain, Pele scored against the great Real Madrid side and notched three against Barcelona.
English opponents were not spared either, although many of these matches took place later in his career. He scored twice against Bobby Moore’s West Ham and was still going strong in 1972 when Santos embarked on yet another money-spinning tour, this time to Hong Kong.
Frank Clark, later to win the European Cup with Nottingham Forest, played against Pele for Newcastle on that tour and remembers a quiet performance from the icon. For a while. “Pele suddenly decided to turn it on. He scored three fantastic goals in about 15 minutes.”
But weren’t these friendlies?
Pele strikes out at Inter's Bruno Bolchi as emotions run high in a 1963 'friendly'
There is a famous line from the 1987 film The Princess Bride. “You keep using that word,” says the character of Inigo Montoya. “I do not think it means what you think it means.”
These matches might have been called friendlies but it would be a mistake to regard them as lesser contests for that reason. The existing footage reveals some robust treatment for Santos’ star man. Most defenders went into these matches with a point to prove. Pele was the target, the man to stop. Everyone wanted to test themselves against the legend.
The crowds came out in force too. For some of these teams, for some of these players, this was the biggest match of the season – the biggest match of their lives. When Santos went to Plymouth in 1973, there were 37,639 packed into Home Park for a game that one Argyle player described as their cup final. Pele was just hoping not to be kicked as much as usual.
There were 88,000 in attendance when he went to Roma, 85,000 at Barcelona and 72,000 at Hamburg. Some reports even suggest there was a six-figure crowd in attendance for one of his matches at the San Siro in 1961. The European Cup had emerged from the floodlit games of the 1950s and this was the continuation of that tradition – showpiece occasions.
Receiving treatment during a game against Panathinaikos in Athens in 1961
But he only won the Copa Libertadores twice?
The volume of tours that Santos undertook, hawking Pele around the globe in exchange for vast sums of cash, prevented them from competing in the Copa Libertadores as often as they could have done. There was simply less money in it. After winning in 1962 and 1963, the club subsequently withdrew from later competitions, denying Pele further honours.
By then, he had already left his mark. He scored twice in the 1962 play-off against Penarol in the Monumental to win that one. The following year, as Santos retained their crown, Pele returned to Buenos Aires to score the late winner against Boca Juniors in the Bombonera.
He never won the Copa America though?
It is true that Pele never won the Copa America but, again, those tour games prevented him from even taking part. In fact, Pele only played in one Copa America tournament – in Argentina in 1959. While the hosts won the trophy because of its league format, Brazil, the then World Cup winners, were also unbeaten. The star man that year was apparent to all.
Pele scored Brazil’s equaliser in the final drawn game with Argentina in front of 85,000 fans in the Monumental. It was his eighth goal of the tournament, a record that included a hat-trick against Paraguay in the same stadium. He was duly named player of the tournament.
Dribbling beyond Italy's Tarcisio Burgnich during the World Cup final in 1970
Did he do anything apart from score goals?
Much of the focus thus far has been on goals because it is more easily quantifiable. If that leads to supporters of other candidates for the status of the greatest of all time attempting to shift the argument and point to other qualities, Pele’s case only becomes stronger.
He was no out-and-out striker. Perhaps the most famous showcase of his talent remains his final World Cup in 1970 when Brazil wowed all before them in Mexico. It is the tournament with which he is most associated, not because he was at his best, but because it was televised and in colour.
Some of the most famous moments were not goals at all. The attempt from the halfway line against Czechoslovakia, the outrageous dummy against Uruguay, and that save by England goalkeeper Gordon Banks.
Near misses, then, but what this really tells us is how much Pele crammed into just six games at that World Cup. How much magic did we miss prior to that because the cameras did not catch it?
Pele still scored four goals at that tournament, including the opening goal of the final. while his nonchalant assist for Carlos Alberto’s goal that sealed the victory might be the most famous pass of them all.
It was one of 27 chances that he created from open play in that tournament and his sixth assist. That record hasn’t been beaten since, not even by Maradona back in Mexico in 1986.
Much like Maradona, Pele had remarkable vision. Much like Messi, Pele was a world-class dribbler. Much like Ronaldo, his heading ability was a key weapon in his arsenal. There was far more to his game than goals. It just so happens that he scored lots and lots of them.
Pele is carried aloft after Brazil win the 1970 World Cup final against Italy in Mexico
None of the above is enough to end one of football’s longest-running debates. That will continue in perpetuity. But it does provide a little bit of context to some of the more facile attempts to dismiss the claims of the man still known to many as O Rei – The King.
Prefer others if you must but there is no need to denigrate the colossal achievements of Edson Arantes Do Nascimento. At 80, Pele deserves to be remembered only as great.