They call it the goat not the boat. You can never possibly decide who was the best footballer of all time, the most technically able, the most decisive. But proficiency and greatness are not the same, and the question as to who was the greatest of them all has only one short answer: Pele.
He also won three World Cups, a record that stands entirely alone. But for some brutalising fouls and some truly shocking refereeing decisions that number might very easily have been four, and the year 1966 would mean very little in this country.
Sporting greatness is not measured entirely on the pitch, or the track or in the ring. It is a question that has as much to do with the whole point of it all. It can and should be measured also in the wild, futile emotions it can gift to an entire country, an entire world. In Brazil, three days of national mourning have already been declared. Football’s greatest nation is in absolutely no doubt whatsoever about who was the greatest.
He was also in no doubt about it himself. At the end of his very long career, he began an even longer one. Pele’s self-promotional world tour went on for almost five decades. I interviewed him, very briefly, seven years ago, at the opening of an exhibition of art inspired by Pele at a gallery in London. “Who is as good as me?” he said.
His English wasn’t great but he had become used to making up for his slight inarticulacy with beaming smiles and raw charisma. “Nobody! No. Bod. Y. I used to say there is nobody as good as me, and then I would be asked if there ever would be anybody as good as me. But there will be no new Pele! My mother and father closed the machine.”
They certainly did. For anyone under the age of about 60, Pele is more of an emotion than a person. An idea. Even for those over 60, his greatness was never something that was able to be consumed in real time, taken in over the decades, as with Messi or Roger Federer or Tiger Woods. It is not easily or readily understood, even among football fans, how much he changed football, of his central role in making it what it has become.
People often talk of the impossibility of comparing players across eras, and though it is pompous to say, Pele was football’s Beethoven, in his own way, the link between the old and the new, classical and romantic.
Had that Brazilian team of 1970 not been around to win the world’s first technicolour World Cup, in the uniquely artful, beautiful way that they did, the beautiful game may have taken a lot longer to come around.
Of course, no one romanticised Pele quite as much as Pele himself. He also claimed, in that gallery in London, sitting beneath a giant Andy Warhol print of himself, that the game was superior in his day. “In my time, there were three or four good players in every team. Beckenbauer, George Best, Zico, Maradona, Cruyff, Bobby Moore, they were all world class. Name four from modern football: Messi, Ronaldo, Suarez, Neymar. You see the difference?”
The difference, I found I did not have the courage to point out, is that his handpicked selection spanned around thirty-five years at a conservative estimate and included players, notably Maradona, whom he never came close to playing against.
There is no doubt that football is superior now than it was then. The players are faster and fitter, and so are the pitches, there has been a far greater accumulation of tactical knowledge, and a deeper understanding of how games are won and lost.
But that for the most part comes through money, and money comes through global interest. Would that interest ever have come without the game’s first great global superstar? Probably, but not quite in the same way.
Modern footballers have often spoke of the fear of lining up in the tunnel alongside the famous yellow shirts of Brazil. Brazilian players also know it gives them an edge. That edge is Pele’s gift, more than anybody else’s, and it is very much alive today.