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Greatest of a time
Pelé redefined football. His brilliance is slowly being lost to history.
Happy new year, everyone. I spent the last week of 2022 fighting off a nasty bout of flu (which thankfully seems to be on its way out), so I’m sorry I didn’t get a newsletter out for you. But thanks for sticking around in the meantime, and here’s something on a certain Edson Arantes do Nascimento.
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On the 18th December in Doha, at about 9 PM local time, Lionel Messi further cemented his claim to be the best man ever to play football.
Halfway around the world in Sao Paulo, another man with a claim to that title could only watch from a hospital bed.
I feel very comfortable praising Messi because I’ve watched him far too many times to count. He’s played over a thousand games for Barcelona, Paris Saint-Germain and Argentina, all of which were broadcast on TV around the world in perfect high definition. I have no idea how many of those I actually watched, but it’s certainly more than enough to understand his game very thoroughly. Messi shone in football’s most exposed era, and we were fortunate enough to bear witness to it.
I have never seen Pelé play football. Chances are, neither have you. No, highlights don’t count. If you did, it probably wasn’t at his best. Everything I’ve read says that Pelé peaked in his early 20s, up to the 1962 World Cup where an injury in the second game forced him to sit out the rest of the tournament. Footballia, the internet’s somewhat illicit source of old football matches, has video of just 43 games from Pelé’s career. By comparison, Messi has 936. Most disappointingly, just three of Pelé’s matches come before his 1962 injury. Those games are pretty hard to watch, not just because they’re in black and white but because the camera angles are so different to watching football today. It’s surprisingly hard to appreciate the nuances when the visual language of football broadcasting has changed so much. His greatness is lost to the ages.
When Brazil won their fourth World Cup in 1994 – their first without their greatest ever player – the cameras immediately cut to Pelé celebrating in the stands. Pelé would have been 53 at the time, 24 years removed from his last World Cup win in 1970. Of the however many millions of people watching the game around the globe, the majority would’ve been old enough to see his exploits in 1970, and a decent chunk could remember back to 1962. It was living history. Of those watching in 2022, they’d have to be 60 or so to have any serious memories of the 1970 World Cup. To remember Pelé’s breakout tournament in 1958, they’d have to be in at least their 70s, and that was an era when global TV coverage of the World Cup was much patchier than it is today (only half of Brazil’s games in ‘58 were shown live in the UK, for example).
I can’t write a good obituary for Pelé. Go to someone who has actually watched him properly for that, if you can find them. All I can do is recount the legend. Pelé exploded onto the global scene in 1958 at age 17 and became the greatest footballer on the planet. He was struck by injury in 1962, but Garrincha and his other teammates stepped up to win the trophy in his absence. After a tournament that went very poorly in 1966, Brazil were back on top in ‘70. Pelé’s tournament might have been similar to Messi in 2022: not quite at his best anymore, but still absolutely unstoppable in moments and backed up by a much more complete side than before.
That’s just the World Cup. It’s much easier to contextualise those achievements than what Pelé did at club level because he never played in Europe. This has become a stick to beat him with at times but totally misses how much the world has changed. Across Pelé’s three World Cup wins, every single one of his teammates played their club football in Brazil. Pelé scored 618 goals in 636 domestic games for Santos, winning the Brasileirão six times along with two Copa Libertadores titles. Brazilian club football was almost certainly the best in the world at this time, and Pelé was better at it than anyone else in the country.
But it’s still very hard to compare. It’s difficult enough to understand Diego Maradona’s achievements, in an era when talent wasn’t concentrated at the biggest clubs, pitches were terrible, and the best player in the world could have a cocaine addiction. Times that by a thousand and you understand the difficulty in comparing Pelé with Messi. The sport was different. Human bodies were different. The planet was different. Every variable you’d want to control for is interfering with the information.
In the year 2000, FIFA decided to hold a “Player of the Century” contest to recognise the turning of the calendar. This would take advantage of a new and exciting technology known as the internet. Somewhat controversially, Maradona won the public vote by a landslide. FIFA thus decided to create an additional “grand jury” prize to award Pelé and avoid taking a position on which of the two was greater. The view at the time was that younger fans voted for Maradona as the one player they could remember. This was 14 years on from his exploits in 1986, meaning that those memories could be very vivid for fans in their 20s or 30s. Pelé, meanwhile, had already started to fade from the imagination.
Sitting here in 2023, the younger fans at the turn of the millennium have become the establishment. Maradona has become the icon for fans of a certain age, insistent that Messi didn’t do anything the other Argentine hadn’t done in 1986 (and they’re not totally wrong. Maradona’s World Cup is every bit as good as remembered). If FIFA conducted a similar poll to find the greatest player of all time today, Messi (and probably Cristiano Ronaldo) would easily topple Maradona. The audience has shifted and as have perceptions of greatness.
I don’t know if that has to be a bad thing. Footballing brilliance might not be “timeless” like great art. The game is constantly moving on and evolving. Tomorrow’s fans might look at a Messi highlight reel and question whether it’s all that. What ultimately counts, then, is who can change the game to create future opportunities. Pelé so radically reshaped football that what he did doesn’t even seem that remarkable anymore. He built the future of the game. That is a legacy worth cherishing.