Pele approaches 80 amid GOAT debate

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People walk in front of a mural depicting Brazilian soccer legend Pele in Santos

Pele approaches 80 amid GOAT debate

People walk in front of a mural depicting Brazilian soccer legend Pele in Santos

SAO PAULO (Reuters) - Brazilian soccer great Pele, who celebrates his 80th birthday this week, is still revered in his home country even if his once unassailable position as the greatest player of all time is now a matter for hot debate.

The Santos, New York Cosmos and Brazil striker is the only man to win the World Cup three times and was for decades widely held to be the greatest of all time (GOAT).

However, the arrival of Diego Maradona in the 1990s challenged Pele’s hegemony and the phenomenal exploits of Lionel Messi at Barcelona have intensified further the eternal debate over who is the GOAT.

The man known in Brazil as the King traded barbs with Maradona for years and has more recently sought to play down Messi’s designs on his crown, saying the Argentine has only one foot and cannot head the ball as well as he did.

That raised eyebrows in Europe where Messi has won four Champions League and 10 La Liga titles, while scoring 40 goals or more in each of the last 10 seasons.

The Argentine, and his long-time rival Cristiano Ronaldo, have millions of fans supporting them and unlike Pele, who played before television was ubiquitous, their exploits reach billions across the globe via social media.

"If you're talking about the best player ever, there shouldn't even be a debate that it is Messi," BBC presenter and former England striker Gary Lineker said in May. "That's just my opinion but it's not even close for me."

Argentines question Pele's greatness because he never played in Europe and Brazilians point to Messi's international record, which is vastly inferior to Pele's.

While the Brazilian won three World Cups, Messi has never won a major title with Argentina, appearing on the losing side in three Copa America and one World Cup final.

Brazilians, however, see Pele as a national treasure and ahead of his birthday on Friday they are celebrating with special newspaper sections, TV specials and an exhibition at the Football Museum.

“He’s a living legend, we have to revere our idols while they’re still alive and still with us,” said Gabriel Oliveira, a visitor to the exhibition in Sao Paulo. “He’s done so much. Thanks to him Brazil is known the world over.”

(Reporting by Andrew Downie; Editing by Toby Davis and Clare Fallon)