For years, if you asked an average American who was generally unfamiliar with world football to name one soccer player, more likely than not he would say Pele (pronouncing the name PAY-lay.) Although perhaps now he knows of David Beckham, I imagine that to the uninitiated, Pele is still the most recognizable name, so much so that Pele, who had been retired for decades, could feature in a commercial with the teenaged American player Freddy Adu.
In America, Brazil, and most of the English-speaking world Pele is generally considered the greatest player to ever kick a ball. However, that is a highly contentious claim. Of course Brazilians would say that Pele is the greatest. However, excluding the UK, in the most prominent English-speaking nations, football (soccer) is a niche sport, fanatically worshiped by the few and largely ignored by the masses. Therefore, familiarity with other great players is limited. It is a testament to Pele’s skill as both a player and a self-promoter that although he has not played a competitive match in almost three and a half decades, he still garners such universal esteem and even awe.
It is impossible to determine whether Pele was the greatest player of all time although the argument never ends. Certainly Diego Maradona can (and does) dispute that. But football is not short of players (or their devotees) who could claim be the greatest ever; Alfredo Di Stefano, Garrincha, Johan Cruyff, Michel Platini, Franz Beckenbauer, and most recently Lionel Messi are just a few of the most prominent names. That is by no means an exhaustive list.
Undoubtedly Pele was one of history’s greatest players even if he was not the greatest ever. He is the only player in history to have won three World Cup titles (although his contributions to the 1962 effort were limited by injury, and that tournament was dominated by Garrincha.) In the early 1960’s, along with his club Santos, Pele dominated South America and bested the top European clubs and players. Although YouTube can make any journeyman look like a world beater, in Pele’s case old video excerpts only just begin to tell the tale. He is one of history’s top goal scorers, although his stated tally of 1281 goals is somewhat dubious. Because of Pele, it is a high honor (and often tremendous pressure) when a player wears the squad number 10 for club or country.
All of this however overlooks Pele’s other amazing ability, his genius for marketing himself–an arena where he is utterly without peer. To understand how and why this talent emerged, one must go back to Pele’s beginnings in a poverty-stricken city in the state of São Paulo. Pele grew up under the shadow of two tragedies that shaped his personal and footballing identity. The first was the Maracanazo, the Brazilian national team’s loss to Uruguay at the 1950 World Cup, a loss that shattered the nation’s collective psyche. The second, a far more personal tragedy, was the end his father’s promising football career because of injury and the resulting impoverishment of the family.
In some ways, Pele was the right person in the right place at the right time. He was the emergent star of the 1958 Brazilian World Cup arguably the greatest national side of all time. Pele also benefited tremendously by the growing popularity of television throughout his career. There were great players before him, but television showed a gawky, sweet teenager who scored goals like this and then collapsed into tears when his team finally exorcised the ghosts of 1950. Pele became the symbol of his nation’s football redemption in Brazil and the epitome of o jogo bonoito to the rest of the world. He was his sport’s first international superstar and across the world his image, that of a smiling, samba-dancing, football genius, is indelible.
The way Pele created and controlled that image was a direct result of growing up in extreme poverty. Pele’s business since he achieved worldwide fame has been his own brand, so much so that it is as much a truth to speak of Pele, Inc. as the man himself. Pele was much more aware of the power of his image than the rest of his 1958 teammates. He got an agent and became obsessive about money. This is not to say however that he spent his money wisely or trusted the right people.
After the mid-1960’s, Santos became the football version of the Harlem Globetrotters rather than an actual competitor just to pay Pele’s salary. The New York Cosmos too built a wildly successful brand around Pele’s star power even though he had retired from football and was long past his best days.* In comparison, Pele’s great Brazilian teammate Garrincha–the joy of the people, the angel with bent legs–died in a haze of alcoholism and poverty.
After Pele has finished playing completely, he found a role in world football that is truly unique. Some former greats go into coaching, others become part of their club’s hierarchy, and a rare few go into FIFA or other political positions. Still others disappear entirely or, like Garrincha, follow the path of self-destruction. Pele has done some of that, but mostly he has made himself football’s ambassador to the world, the living avatar of a sport. As such, the football powers-that-be turn to him for their own relevance.
Because Pele is professionally the Greatest Ever, he has fashioned himself into the authoritative voice on all things football and greatness. But because there can only be one greatest ever, Pele has to protect his brand. Therefore, since retiring, Pele’s full-job has been to jealously guard his own legacy.**
Pele knows himself to be the greatest player in history, and never thinks otherwise. Although he may tell worldwide audiences that so-and-so is the greatest player he ever saw (name that country, and that’s whose hero is the greatest player he ever saw), but it is all smoke and mirrors. Unlike Maradona who (often to his detriment) speaks his perceived version of the truth, Pele tells people what they want to hear. Yet by propping others up, Pele actually cements his own status as the greatest ever. For example, if Pele were to go to Northern Ireland and tells an audience that George Best was the most talented player he ever saw, the sports pages in Belfast the next day will say the following: “Pele, the greatest player in the world, called our own George Best the most talented player he ever saw.” Pele has named so many different most talented players he ever saw that one would think anyone who kicked a ball is a world beater. Despite setting himself as the football sage, he is really a snake oil salesman.
This is not to say that he cannot recognize talent. You can tell when Pele feels his legacy is threatened, because that is when the knives come out. His running feud with Maradona reached the point of embarrassment years ago, and now it is just ridiculous. Recently, Pele has seen a new threat on the horizon, and he is alarmed. Messi scares him. More accurately, the accolades that Messi merits terrify Pele. Two years ago when Barcelona won the Sextuple and entered the “greatest ever” conversation (along with his own 1970 World Cup squad), Pele piped up to say that without sustained brilliance they could not be considered.
Now Messi is being feted by many as the greatest ever, and Pele cannot have that. Whereas Maradona has embraced Messi as “the new Maradona”, Pele trashes the young Argentine to the press. Prior to the Champions League final, Pele claimed that Javier Hernandez, United’s Mexican striker could be the next Messi. Hernandez has the making of a great player, but the next Messi he is not. Pele is not so much propping up Hernandez though as tearing down Messi–if a contemporary could reach Messi’s level, then Messi’s level is not so great as Pele’s.
The other claim that Pele makes about Messi (and expect more of this following Barcelona’s Champions League victory) is that he does not play well for the Argentinian national team. This claim is not true although it has a surprising durability. Messi plays brilliantly for the Albiceleste. He did not score at the World Cup, but he was the force behind most of Argentina’s goals. Additionally, football is a team sport; no one does it alone. Messi was surrounded by a decent offense, a middling defense, and a terrible manager. Had Messi played for Spain, he would have his World Cup, and Pele would say that Messi would need to win another two before he could be considered the greatest ever.
Pele has done this before, usually with Brazilians (Ronaldo, Ronaldinho, etc.) When they are a real threat, Pele subtly puts them down–and smiles when they fail. When they have no chance of surpassing him or can make him look good (such as when they come out of Santos), then he props them up. If Neymar lives up to the hype, expect to hear from a happy Pele. If Neymar exceeds the hype, expect to hear from a defensive Pele.
This is not to put down Pele; he is a legend of the game. He is however, far more complex than his media image. It is important to recognize exactly what is true and what is false. And to always question what he says.
* The Cosmos are still trying to recapture that magic in 2011. They have named Pele an honorary president and are using him to promote their entry into MLS–all without actually having a team.
** FIFA in particular needs Pele to be recognized as the greatest ever because of his compliance to work with FIFA. When awarding a “Greatest Player of the Century”, FIFA foolishly turned the voting over to the general public via the Internet assuming Pele would get the nod. The general public chose Diego Maradona, a player who (unike Pele) most of the voters saw play in his prime. Alarmed by the result, FIFA created a panel of experts to award a second Greatest Ever title to Pele. This only disgraced everyone involved.