Today is Pelé’s 75th birthday.
There has been much debate in recent years as to whether Lionel Messi or Cristiano Rinaldo might be a better player than “The King?”
The answer is simple: No.
To debate the issue is fun- and necessary, just as the debate of “Pelé v. Maradona, Cruyff, Beckenbauer, van Basten, etc.” was. But the answer is the same.
Here is my simple argument in his favor.
Let’s say I grant you that any of the players I’ve mentioned was “as good” as Pelé at the club level, but consider this: At the club level Pelé was never given the chance to play (regularly) against the best players in the world- the government of Brazil declared him a “national treasure” and he was not allowed to play anywhere other than in Brazil. He never had a chance to prove (and improve) himself in the the Premier League, the Bundesliga, Serie A, La Liga, or the Champions League.
At the international level he remains- over four decades since his last match- the only man to win three World Cups and he is still the leading scorer (77 in 91 matches- think about that…) for Brazil, the only nation to win five World Cups. In 1958 he was the youngest player (17) to play in, score in, and win a World Cup. In 1966- the only World Cup he played in and didn’t win- the Bulgarians and Portuguese fouled him so brutally that his career was put in jeopardy. With Pelé in the line-up Brazil was 67-14-11, and this was in an era when “friendlies” were a rare thing.
If his international success doesn’t “put him over the top,” consider that almost every player I have mentioned as well as other members of football’s elite- Puskas, Moore, Fontaine, Charlton, etc.- have, when asked, scoffed at the idea that there has every been anyone better. When asked about Pelé Ferenc Puskas- probably one of the ten best players ever- said the following, “The greatest player in history was (Alberto) Di Stefano. I refuse to classify Pelé as a player. He was above that.”
Finally, consider this: Of all of the players I have mentioned, have any of the other transcended the sport? You might think so, but I urge you to think a little more. There was a time- this is true- when the three most recognizable people on Earth were Muhammed Ali, Pelé, and Jesus.
All hail the King.