Opinion

Unpopular Opinion: Pelé 'The King' does not deserve his crown

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Pelé is known as 'O Rei' (The King) in Brazil, but - at the risk of incurring the whole country's wrath - the former star is not the greatest of all time. Here's why.

WATCH Pelé up front in the Brazil v Italy 1970 FIFA World Cup final and decide for yourself - Thursday 21 May at 2:40pm (AEST) on SBS and streamed via The World Game website / app and SBS On Demand.

He won two World Cups, not three

This needs addressing straight off the bat. Pelé always talks about his three FIFA World Cup wins, but there is no way 1962 should be counted for the purposes of the GOAT debate. In Chile 1962, Pelé only played one full match. He got injured early in the second group match and did not feature again, but Brazil went on to win the tournament at a canter without him, led by the magical Garrincha.

What happened between World Cups?

Pelé's defence depends entirely on World Cups, but they only roll around once every four years so what was he doing in the years between? He spent his entire club career at Santos in his native Brazil (save for two seasons winding down at New York Cosmos) at a time when the country didn't even have a unified national top tier. Santos effectively competed in a regional league, without all of the country's strongest clubs.

Diego Maradona said Pelé would have had flaws exposed had he ever challenged himself in Italy or Spain. Maradona says some outlandish stuff, but he has a point here. It's not as though no South Americans were doing it at the time either - Alfredo Di Stefano, Jose Altafini and Omar Sivori are three who achieved great success moving to Europe's top leagues in that period.

Media hype and being first

Pelé was the most famous player in the world, and the best marketed. For a time he was the highest-paid athlete in any sport. The world loved his charisma and rags-to-riches story, and he and his club Santos were very good at capitalising on the media hype, with tons of international tours. So while some like Garrincha shied away from the spotlight, Pelé embraced it - and that probably did more for his legend than the goals he scored.

Pelé was the first truly global star - and simply by being first, he set the bar and is the one against whom everyone else is measured. Fame built his legend and time has compounded it.

He was never World Cup top scorer

Pelé talks a lot about his goalscoring feats, but despite his three (two!) tournament wins, he never won the golden boot. You'd think the world’s best ever striker, in the winning team multiple times, would have managed it. In fact, Sweden 1958 is the only time he was even Brazil’s top scorer.

In 1958 he scored six goals to Just Fontaine's 13. In 1962 he barely participated (as mentioned) but scored once while Garrincha, Vava and four others tied on four goals. In 1966 he scored only one again as Brazil were bundled out at the group stage, while Eusebio bagged nine. In 1970 he scored four to Gerd Muller's 10.

Pele
Pelé leaves the field after Brazil's 3-1 loss to Eusebio's Portugal at the 1966 FIFA World Cup
Getty Images

Where are the other World Cup records?

For someone who was meant to be mind-blowing in World Cups, he is conspicuously absent from the scoring records...

Most World Cup goals - total: Miroslav Klose (16)

Most goals - single tournament: Just Fontaine (13)

Most goals - single match: Oleg Salenko (5)

Most goals in a final: Geoff Hurst (3)

Most games won: Miroslav Klose (17)

He did not score 1283 goals

While we're clearing up stats, another myth in need of debunking is Pelé's career goal tally. 526 of the 1283 goals he proudly claims were scored in friendlies or exhibition matches. Enough said, really. His official record of 757 strikes in 812 games is still incredible without the exaggeration, but a bit more mortal.

Always in the best team, was he even the best Brazilian?

Best player in the world? Was he even best player in Brazil? Pelé played with legendary teammates.

There’s a solid argument that Garrincha was just as good as if not better than Pelé in 1958 and 1962. Those teams also featured the likes of Vava, Didi, Altafini, and Djalma Santos. In Sweden 1958 Pelé did not score till the quarter-finals, and plundered five of his total six goals in 5-2 thrashings of both France and Sweden.

Chile 1962 was won essentially without him, and the Brazil team of Mexico 1970 is regarded as the greatest in history, stacked with greats like Rivellino, Carlos Alberto, Jairzinho, Tostao and more.

In Pelé's 'FIFA 100' list of greatest footballers, he excluded so many former World Cup-winning teammates - Garrincha, Vava, Didi, Jairzinho, Gerson, Mario Zagallo and Hilderaldo Bellini among those who failed to make the cut. Was he trying to downplay their importance to his success?

Nostalgia

Football fans are loyal to their favourites. The great players in fans' peak years of interest are likely to be put on untouchable pedestals. It becomes more about emotion than logic. Pelé admirers would likely never concede he's been eclipsed, even if all his records were broken. Same with those who watched Maradona, and us too watching Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo now.

We're told our whole lives that Pelé's the GOAT like it's footballing law. And no matter what current players do (e.g. shattering Ballon d'Or and European goalscoring records...) there's strong resistance to changing that established narrative by large sections of the football community.

World Cup’s importance overrated

The crux of the argument against Pelé is that the World Cup should not be so heavily weighted as a defining factor in a player’s career – winning it or not. It's not the be-all and end-all. It should not elevate players to legend status if they win it, and it should not rule them out of the GOAT conversation if they never do.

It’s a three-week, knock-out tournament held just once every four years - cut-throat. Timing has to be perfect (form, injuries, the generation of players) and the difference between immortality and obscurity can be a matter of millimetres, one s**t referee call, the lottery of a penalty shootout, or sheer dumb luck.

Ultimately, winning the World Cup doesn't prove you were a great player, just that you were in a great team.

Conclusion

With football progressing the way it is, new generations will continually eclipse the old ones. Pelé was the first global star but Maradona (and maybe others) surpassed him in ability, Messi and Ronaldo have gone further, and someone will go beyond them. 'O Rei' is legendary, potentially the best of his generation, but simply not the greatest of all time.

Comparing players from different generations is a fraught exercise, but the Pelé story we've all been told - that he himself tells loudest - just doesn't hold up under scrutiny.