When it comes to football, a new icon usually emerges every decade or so. Be it Cristiano Ronaldo in modern times, or Zidane at the end of the 90’s, there is always one player who stands a cut above the rest.
Perhaps the term “legend” is a bit overused nowadays. And now the passing of Diego Maradona brings with it the loss of a man who was perhaps the only other player in history considered on the same plane as the one, the only: Pelé — a legend among football legends.
Pelé’s name is arguably the first we think of when discussing legendary players. Pelé, otherwise known as Edson Arantes do Nascimento, can easily lay claim to being the greatest footballer the world has ever seen. Although comparing players across generations can be difficult, this Brazilian has all the necessary credentials to solidify his claim as the king of the beautiful game.
The 1958 FIFA World Cup taking place in Sweden, a then unknown Pelé burst onto the scene, and with the help of teammates such as Vava and Garrincha, the Selecao would go on to reach the pinnacle of the global game and beat their hosts 5-2 in the final. This success in Sweden was the first time Brazil won the World Cup and after losing the final game of the 1950 edition – a loss to Uruguay in front of 200,000 supporters at Rio De Janiero’s Maracana Stadium. This victory went a long way in erasing the disappointment of that fateful afternoon.
From the time Pelé first took to the pitch in Sweden, he exuded the characteristics of someone with exceptional talent that would go on to help Brazil defend their mantle as World Cup winners 1962 Chile tournament. Unfortunately for Brazil and Pelé, he was all but kicked out of the 1966 edition and with England ruling the roost, this South American nation knew that although they would have to wait four years, they would exact revenge on the world’s stage.
Mention the phrase “Mexico 1970” and thoughts immediately turn to that vintage Brazilian team — a group of players that, apart from Barcelona between 2009 to 2011, might just be the greatest eleven to ever grace the hallowed turf. This without question was Pelé’s tournament, and although he may be remembered for scoring a total of four all-important goals, it is perhaps moments where he failed to score that have made a longer lasting impression. Football is not simply stats. Beautiful play and earning legendary status is not an accounting process.
During Brazil’s opening fixture, Pelé gave Brazil a 2–1 lead before he and his teammates scored two more unanswered goals, to run out 4-1 winners. However, the most memorable moment was his attempt to lob Czech goalkeeper Ivo Viktor from the half-way line. This attempt was nothing short of audacious from Pelé, and such sharp thinking deserved to see the ball trickle over the goal line. Unfortunately, for both he and everyone watching around the world, it dropped just wide and to eventual safety, but this is why we love the game. Sitting on the edge of our seats in apprehension and feeling every victory, every loss. This is imprinted in our memories and sealed this player’s legendary status in our hearts.
Another moment that stays with us is against Uruguay in the semi-finals in which Brazil managed to overturn their loss from eight years prior. In this game Pelé gifted the world with one of the most incredible illustrations of skill ever witnessed in football. Tostão passed the ball for Pelé to collect. Uruguay's goalkeeper, Ladislao Mazurkiewicz, took notice and ran off his line to secure the ball before Pelé. However, Pelé got there first and fooled Mazurkiewicz with a feint by not touching the ball, causing it to roll to the goalkeepers left.
Pelé went to the goalkeepers right, ran around him to retrieve the ball and took a shot while turning towards the goal, but he turned with too much momentum as he shot, and the ball drifted just wide of the far post. This is the most famous missed goal in the game’s history. It is that kind of play that stays with us forever. The suspense, creativity, mastery... this is what makes you jump out of your seat! It seems that today we care a bit too much about stats. It’s the beauty of the game that moves us most.
Denied a spectacular goal in the semi-finals, Pelé and his teammates marched on to the final, where “El Rey” headed in the opener. Although Italy would equalize before half time, Brazil’s class of 1970 would shift into an extra gear in the second half.
Brazil’s third World Cup success was to be the swansong for such a golden era and just a year later, Pelé would retire from the international stage. Thankfully, he would still play until 1977 and torment many a defender when in the club colours of Santos or the New York Cosmos.
Clearly, it’s not our place to compare Pelé with others. There have been many greats to be sure. But can you rank Beethoven above Mozart? Can you say that Monet is better than Van Gogh? Of course not. Life is about appreciating beauty when you see it in all its forms. The French say “all tastes are in nature,” each with its own value. Although talents and styles differ, we know excellence when we see it.
You’ll likely agree that a lot of feelings (not statistics) go into ranking your favorite player: country, area, origin, team, personality, wins, etc… The player that marks your youth is usually a lifelong favorite. Nonetheless, in our hearts and minds, Pelé will always be the original legend.
There was Muhammad Ali. There is Michael Jordan. And there is Pelé.
Be a TENLEGEND.