Sorry Leo Messi. You cannot argue against three World Cups and sorcery of the kind that had not been seen to such an extent on a football pitch before, and in an era when defenders had free rein to chop players down.
That is what Pele, who has passed away at the age of 82, possessed on his resume. For many, ‘The Black Pearl’ remains the pearliest of all time. Even considering the valid point that 526 of his 1,283 career goals came in unofficial or minor games; and though he was a part of three World Cup winning squads (1958, 1962 and 1970), he sat out most of the 1962 tournament due to injury.
Born Edson Arantes do Nascimento on October 23, 1940, in Minas Gerais, Brazil, Pele got his pet name due to a childhood habit of mispronouncing ‘Bilé’, a goalkeeper on his father’s football team. He would call him ‘Pilé’. Kids started teasing him by that name and thus Edson became ‘Pele’.
The question mark over Pele’s 1962 World Cup win is compensated by a couple of factors. We saw how terrifyingly precocious and good Kylian Mbappe has been since World Cup 2018. Pele was younger than the 2018 Mbappe when he scored six goals to help Brazil win the 1958 World Cup in Sweden.
Another compensating factor is Pele being a vital cog in one of the most glorious World Cup teams ever – Brazil’s Class of 1970, which triumphed in Mexico.
Pele also led his club Santos to victory in the 1962 and 1963 Copa Libertadores, and the 1962 and 1963 Intercontinental Cup. He remains their top-scorer with 643 goals in 659 appearances. He is also Brazil's joint all-time leading goal-scorer with 77 goals in 92 appearances (Neymar equaled the mark in Qatar).
It was the way he played
But above all, it was the manner in which Pele played – a combination of dribbling skills and athleticism in the famous No. 10 shirt - that captured the world’s imagination. A Youtube compilation titled ‘Pele: He Did it 50 Years Ago’ nails it. Whatever jugglery and moves his successors in the pantheon – Johan Cruyff, Diego Maradona, Ronaldinho, Cristiano Ronaldo or Messi – broke out, Pele had been there, rocked that.
He helped spread the magic of football, including to a new market like the US, where he played out the last years of his career with New York Cosmos. Presidents and popes would want to meet him. He was the face of brands, including Pepsi, Puma, Mastercard, Louis Vuitton and Hublot.
All in exchange of a hefty fee, sure. But then, his name did pull crowds and sponsors.
Not to mention film offers. Pele played a delightful role in the feel-good war flick ‘Escape To Victory’. Starring alongside film and football luminaries such as Sylvester Stallone, Michael Caine, Bobby Moore and Osvaldo Ardiles, Pele helps a team of Allied prisoners beat Germany. In the chaos after the match, they vamoose from jail.
There is a famous scene in the film which is now a GIF. The Allies’ Coach Colby, played by Caine, recommends a modest strategy to his ragtag bunch. Pele gets up, takes the chalk from Colby, and draws a zig-zag pattern on the board to the opposition goal.
“I do this and this and this and goal. Easy,” he says.
Pele made three trips to India, in 1977, 2015 and 2018. In 1977, Pele and the NY Cosmos arrived in Kolkata to face local giants Mohun Bagan at the Eden Gardens.
Novy Kapadia, the late football expert, wrote in his book, ‘Barefoot to Boots’, “Lakhs of people gathered outside the Dum Dum Airport to greet the Brazilian legend. There were also teeming crowds outside his hotel in central Kolkata, waiting to catch a glimpse of the only man who had won three World Cups for his team.”
To their credit, Bagan, managed by the ebullient PK Banerjee and cheered on by nearly 80,000 fans, held Cosmos to a 2-2 draw.
Pele’s trip was referenced in ‘Golmaal’, the cult comedy featuring Amol Palekar and Utpal Dutt.
The disciplinarian Dutt is looking for a serious young man for a job, someone with no interest in frivolities such as sports. He casually asks Palekar, a bon vivant playing a nerd for the sake of a job, if he knew anything about Pele.
The mere mention of Pele makes Palekar’s guard drop. He excitedly launches into a paean about football-mad Kolkatans thronging the airport for a mere glimpse of Pele.
He realizes his folly, though. In any case, he has impressed his would-be boss enough by earlier professing admiration for Rele, an economics professor, and not Pele, the footballer.
In real life, however, Pele the footballer was the unchallenged darling of the masses.