Hail to the King


Earlier this month Lionel Messi won the World Cup at last and was quickly being hailed as the greatest of all time, largely by those too young to remember anyone better.

That is natural. For my greying generation, it was Diego Maradona who outshone all other footballers in living memory and for my father's era it was Pele, who has just died in his native Brazil. Others argue for George Best, Johann Cruyff or Alfredo di Stefano. In the end it does not matter.

The general consensus had been that Maradona had won the World Cup with an average team but Pele had profited from talented teammates. Now Messi's capture of the ultimate prize has clouded the debate somewhat.

There is ultimately no 'goat', the greatest of all time. Players are different, especially those from eras when balls and training regimes were radically different, and the debate of recent years, comparing Messi to Cristiano Ronaldo, has long been a futile exercise, even though their careers played out in parallel in Spain for a long time.

But we can all agree Pele was as great a footballer as they come, and had a greater global impact than any other. Statistically, he is the only man to win three World Cups and score 1,000 goals, and his glory days chimed with the dawn of global television and the resultant transformation of the World Cup into the world's biggest show.

No footballer has inspired so many to emulate him and made so many fall in love with football.

Edson Arantes do Nascimento embodied his nation and sold the world a Brazil that looks young, smiling, talented, tropical and colourful, dancing to a samba beat on Copacabana beach. But Brazil in Pele's heyday was in reality a dark dictatorship and had only abolished slavery half a century before Pele had been born.

Thanks to Pele's three World Cup wins, Brazilan football became synonymous with flair, despite the fact it had as much a heritage of heavy tackling and cynical, often violent play.

His tearful teenage triumph in 1958 remains iconic, the sporting standard for a young star reaching the summit. Bookending that was the mythical 1970 final when Pele peaked and Brazil cemented their identity as the land of football. In between Brazil won the 1962 World Cup too, although their boy wonder missed the final through injury, an oft-forgotten fact.

Only a year before the 1970 final in which Pele scored and provided the most famous assist of all time (to Carlos Alberto for their wonderful fourth goal), Neil Armstrong had set foot on another planet and the world had united in awe.

Of course the moon landing was a more historic event, not least because in 1970 football was not a faith in large parts of the world, notably China, India and the United States. But fast forward to 2022 and the World Cup was in the Middle East and drew huge audiences in Africa and North America, which supplied two sides who will host next time around.

Qatar spent $200 billion + on the hosting and TV audiences worldwide for the World Cup keep growing. It is now a huge geopolitical and touristic event as well as a football competition. All this was not down to Pele alone, but his 1970 pinnacle did a lot to help, as his swansong in the NASL in the late 1970s is widely credited with seeding soccer in the USA.

It was fitting he died in a World Cup year, and a little sad Brazil could not have won it for him, but his recognition in Qatar from the selecao and others reminded us of the umbilical link.

Like Maradona, Pele was a Messiah from the barrio, but like Muhammad Ali, he had charm which allowed him to impact beyond the sporting arena, become a household name and a byword for his sport.

His apparently perennial joie de vivre made him globally popular, thereby obscuring any criticism of his apparent cohabitation with Brazil's bad politicians over the years, his messy private life or shrewd public relations to maintain the Pele brand.

Nobody is perfect, but Pele was as close to modern sainthood as it gets. Like Pope Benedict in the Vatican, right now Pele is lying in state at Santos' stadium, where the faithful will pay tribute before a state funeral brings a nation to a stop.

Footballers do not get much greater.

RIP King.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

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