With another world cup looming on the horizon the debate as to who is the greatest soccer player of all time has heated up again.
Each generation has had its own “great”, so we had Puskas (Hungary) in the 1950’s, Pele (Brazil) in the 1960’s, Maradona (Argentina) in the 1980’s and now we have Messi (Argentina).
In my opinion, the debate so far has failed to focus on one important factor which is that in deciding who is the greatest it is not sufficient to look at who could play the game well but you also have to look at what they achieved. The measure of greatness is not only how you play but largely what you achieve. Lots of players were excellent but never achieved anything or set any records.
Comparing players with each other is largely a matter of opinion which is always open to argument and counter-argument. Also, opinions are always laced with speculation and value-judgments and each generation claims ownership of the greatest.
On the other hand, the question of achievements and records are a matter of fact and is not open to argument or contradiction. You are entitled to your opinion but not your own facts. It is from these facts that one can decide who is the greatest.
For the purpose of the ‘who is the greatest?’ debate it is necessary to look at players across generation lines and match up their achievements against each other and compare them.
When you look at the record of achievements of one player, he will never be equaled and all great soccer players are measured against the Brazilian who once made the world stop to watch his mesmerizing play.
His name is Edison Arantes do Nascimento (Pele). He was born in 1940 in Tres Coracoes, Minas Gerais, Brazil. He grew up in poverty and could not afford a soccer ball so he would use a sock stuffed with newspaper and tied with a string or grapefruit to practice his skills (Pele Biography -Soccer Maniak, by Armin Serdarevic).
A look at Pele’s remarkable record of achievements will not end the debate about the greatest but should leave no doubt that Pele’s status as the King of soccer is unchallenged.
In (Pele Biography etc.), his records are first highlighted and then his domestic and international achievements are listed as follows:-
1. Pele scored his first international goal in his first match against Argentina at the Maracana stadium on July 7, 1957 at the age of 16 to become the youngest player to score in international soccer.
2. In his first World Cup game against the USSR in 1958 he became the youngest player to play in the World Cup at 17 and with his goal against Wales the youngest player to score a goal during a World Cup.
3. In the semi-final against France in 1958 he became the youngest player to score a hat-trick (3 goals in one match) and the youngest player to play in the World Cup final match.
4. In the final he scored 2 goals, one of which was selected as one of the best goals in the history of the World Cup. He lobbed the ball over the defender and then followed up with a volley shot and the ball ended up in the back of the net.
5. He finished the tournament tied for second place in most goals scored (6) in 4 matches and was named young player of the tournament. He won the Silver Ball as the second best player behind Didi (another Brazilian).
6. In the 1970 World Cup he was named Player of the tournament.
7. Pele is considered by FIFA as the most prolific scorer in history with 1281 goals in 1363 matches in all competitions.
8. He scored in two different World Cup finals.
9. After the 1958 World Cup he was declared by the Brazilian government an “official national treasure” to ward off offers from European clubs and prevent him from being transferred out of the country.
10. Which other player could cause the Nigerian Civil War in 1967 to be put on a 48 hour ceasefire so that they could watch him play an exhibition game in Lagos?
1) Achievements with Santos- Copa Libertadores (twice), Campeonato Paulista (10 times), Taça Brazil (5 times), Torneio Roberto Gomes Pedrosa (once), Torneio Rio-São Paulo ( 4 times), Intercontinental Cup (twice) and Recopa Intercontinental: (once).
2) Achievements with New York Cosmos- North American Soccer League, Soccer Bowl (once).
INTERNATIONAL ACHIEVEMENTS WITH BRAZIL
• Roca Cup- (twice) and FIFA World Cup (three times).
1) Santos – Copa Libertadores top scorer: (once) and Campeonato Paulista top scorer: (11 times).
2) Brazil National Team:-
• Copa América top scorer: 1959;
• BBC Sports Personality of the Year Overseas Personality Winner: 1970;
• FIFA World Cup (Best Young Player) Winner: 1958-;
• FIFA World Cup Silver Boot: 1958;
• FIFA World Cup Silver Ball: 1958;
• FIFA World Cup Golden Ball (Best Player) Winner: 1970;
• Athlete of the Century, elected by world wide journalists, poll by French daily L’Equipe: 1981;
• South American Footballer of the Year: 1973;
• Inducted into the American National Soccer Hall of Fame in 1993;
• Knight Commander of the British Empire: 1997;
• In 1989 DPR Korea issued a postage stamp depicting Pelé;
• Athlete of the Century, by Reuters News Agency: 1999;
• Athlete of the Century, elected by International Olympic Committee: 1999;
• UNICEF Football Player of the Century: 1999;
• TIME One of the 100 Most Important People of the 20th Century: 1999;
• FIFA Player of the Century: 2000 (shared with Maradona);
• Football Player of the Century, elected by France Football’s Golden Ball Winners: 1999;
• Football Player of the Century, by IFFHS International Federation of Football History and Statistics: 1999;
• South America Football Player of the Century, by IFFHS International Federation of Football History and Statistics: 1999;
• Laureus World Sports Awards Lifetime Achievement Award from South African President Nelson Mandela: 2000.
It was not always plain sailing for Pele. He missed most of the 1962 World Cup through injury. And being the best player in the world was not without its risks.
In the1966 World Cup in England, with Brazil poised to win their third consecutive World Cup including their second on European soil, Pele’s pre-eminence in world soccer did not go unnoticed. To his opponents he had to be stopped even by foul means and so he was at the end of some of the most brutal tackles ever seen in the World Cup by Bulgaria and Portugal. He got no protection from the referees and no one was red-carded for hacking him down.
But the objective was achieved as Pele missed most of Brazil’s matches and Brazil got eliminated early. After the tournament Pele said that he would never play in the World Cup again.
He did play again and eventually retired in 1977 and since then he has been a worldwide ambassador for soccer and a leading contributor to charity all over the world.
In order to put Pele’s playing career (1956-1977) in its proper perspective it is useful to match it against the achievements of his two main rivals for greatest player, Maradona (1976-1997) and Messi (2004-present) and compare the results.
Sportsmail gathered the facts and put them together a 3 way comparison (see Mail Online- Magic Messi stakes his claim to be the greatest ever but is he better than Pele and Maradona? by Gerard Brand, March 13, 2013).
THE ULTIMATE COMPARISON: MESSI, MARADONA AND PELE
The results were:-
1. Pele romps both in average goals per game (0.94) to Messi (0.69) and Maradona (0.52).
2. As regards international caps (goals), Pele 92 (77) has more than twice Maradona’s goals in almost the same amount of games 91 (34) while Messi 77 (31) fares better than his compatriot but is a long way behind Pele.
3. Pele has 12 World Cup goals in 14 games while Maradona only has 8 goals in much more games (21) with Messi is far behind with only 1 goal in 8 games.
4. Messi has the same amount of major honors (10) as Pele but Pele has three World Cups and Messi has none. Maradona has the least amount of major honors (6) but has one World Cup.
Messi is only twenty five and still playing and the question is whether he will ever be able to beat Pele’s records. The answer seems to be no. Even if he catches Pele’s international goals it will take him much more games and his chances of winning three World Cups trophies are nil since they are only played every four years.
Like every other sport, the circumstances and conditions of soccer have improved from generation to generation. For example, today’s players wear lighter boots, are better trained and have better diets. But despite these improvements, no one has been able to match let alone surpass Pele’s record of achievements which testifies to the enormity of his success.
It is for this reason that I think Pele is the greatest of all time.