For years, it has widely been accepted that Pelé is the greatest footballer of all time. Fans say that his scoring record, coupled with his three World Cup winner’s medals mean, that his status as football’s greatest is indisputable. The extent of both his scoring record and World Cup performances have been exaggerated, however, both by fans worldwide and the man himself. The Pelé myth is one that is likely to exist until long after his generation’s death, but one that should be scrutinised nonetheless.
The Pelé Myth
When people talk about Pelé’s 1283 goals, it is presumed that this means that all his goals were scored in competitive matches. When Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi inevitably go past 500 goals for club and country, this will mean 500 goals at senior level in competitive matches. Pelé, on the other hand, has his friendly goals taken into account, which boost his numbers quite spectacularly.
He scored 526 goals in friendlies. This is very rarely mentioned when talking about Pelé’s “1000” goals. In reality, if we are to be consistent with the way we count the goals of Messi et al, he scored 757. His record of 757 goals in 812 games is still incredibly impressive, but there are several players, such as Fernando Peyroteo and the great Eusébio, whose own star has been eclipsed slightly by the Brazilian, with even better goals-to-games ratios.
Even some of his competitive goals should be taken with a pinch of salt. Many were scored against local and semi-professional teams who were not of the calibre of modern top flight defenders. In fact, the games in which he scored four or more goals came almost universally against state teams who are almost unheard of—Royal Neerschot, for example.
His international record is the best barometer of his greatness: he scored 77 goals in 92 games. This is very impressive, though many of those goals came in friendlies, but does not suggest a large gap between him and other great forwards. Iran’s all-time top scorer, Ali Daei, scored 109 goals in 149 games, but few would argue that he is the best of all time. This idea that Pelé is by far and away football’s greatest—some kind of deity hovering above all before and after him—begins to crumble once one scratches away at the surface.
This is not to discredit his record altogether. It is clear that he was a great footballer. Regardless, he and many others have inflated his prestige to godlike levels that he does not quite deserve. Many footballing legends since have bowed down to him and said that he is indisputably the all-time great. It is not indisputable. The likes of Lionel Messi, Diego Maradona and many more all stake a claim to be at the top, even though the aura surrounding the Brazilian means that some of them do not bother.
In fact, the people in his home country do not unanimously consider him the best player in their nation’s history. The argument exists that Garrincha was a better player; certainly, the late legend is greatly loved back home. He, however, is long dead and not around to make his case.
Perhaps this is why Pelé has been able to inflate his status—he is a good salesman. Historical reputations are usually carried and exaggerated by word of mouth, and his is no different. As for his performances in the three World Cups he won, this is dramatised as much as his goals.
It is widely accepted that in 1958, the teenage Pelé destroyed all in his path and won Brazil’s first World Cup almost single-handedly. In 1970, Gerd Müller was top scorer and Jairzinho scored the most for Brazil, but Pelé was his nation’s true hero. 1962 is barely mentioned, but his reputation means that it is presumed that the 21-year-old would have done most of the work for his team-mates.
In every World Cup in which he competed, Pelé was outperformed by someone else. In 1958, though he scored five goals in the final two rounds, including one of the World Cup’s greatest ever pieces of individual brilliance in the final, he won neither the Golden Ball nor the Golden Boot. Just Fontaine was top scorer with a record 13 goals; central midfielder Didi was named the player of the tournament. Fontaine’s legendary World Cup lives on, but few have even heard of the latter, who is one of Brazilian football’s greatest ever midfielders.
As for 1962, Pelé sat out most of the tournament through injury. Brazil’s hero of that World Cup was Garrincha. It is claimed that Pelé won the 1958 and 1970 World Cups almost single-handedly, but the closest anyone has ever got to winning an international tournament on his own was Garrincha in 1962. Since this doesn’t fit in with the Pelé myth, however, his brilliance that year has been left to rot in the annals of history.
In 1970 Pelé was at his brilliant best, but Brazil’s win was a team effort. Jairzinho was the country’s top scorer with seven—amazingly, he scored in every round—and the likes of Gérson, Carlos Alberto and many more combined to win the World Cup in incredible fashion. That side was one of the best in history, but Pelé’s team-mates do not receive enough acclaim.
That is the most harmful effect of the Pelé myth: some of football’s greatest ever players have been forgotten. Pelé himself has made this happen. He has subtly played down his team-mates’ achievements so that the majority of football fans are not aware of them. Along with Garrincha, perhaps the most tragic of these is Gérson.
Gérson was to Pelé as Xavi was to Messi. He made hundreds of key passes for his team-mate and was considered a hero by his nation but, worldwide, he has been forgotten. Pelé once sanctimoniously said that he preferred assists to goals:
“I prefer a thousand times over to make the pass rather than to score the goal. For me this was the glory because this is what I was trained for.”
He phrases this in a way that suggests he assisted as many as he scored; that he did all the work for his team-mates’ goals. Gérson, however, enjoyed a domestic career the likes of which many creative players would dream of, and his performances throughout the 1970 World Cup deserve to be remembered as much as anyone’s.
In his list of the 125 greatest living players, the only team-mates Pelé included were Carlos Alberto, Djalma Santos, Nilton Santos and Rivellino. These are all sound additions, but the fact that he missed out Gérson and Jairzinho, let alone some of the other all-time greats he played with, is almost insulting to their greatness. Compare this to Lionel Messi, who dedicated his third Ballon d’Or to Xavi.
Pelé once said: “In music there is Beethoven and the rest; in football, there is Pelé and the rest.”
Neither clause in that sentence is true. In music, there have been countless other great composers (about whom you are spared a lecture), and in football, nay Brazilian football, there have been many greats who can at least stake a claim to be on this false deity’s level.
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