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.
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.
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?
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.