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Illustration by Federico Manasse

There may never be another footballer as supreme as Edson Arantes do Nascimento, better known as Pelé. The argument of who truly deserves the title of ‘Greatest Footballer’ is a complicated one, not immune from the interesting nuances of subjectivity. There will always be those who favour the explosive brilliance of Diego Maradona or the electrifying, self-destructive genius of George Best; not to mention the more recent claims staked by the entrancing contemporary works of modern greats Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi. However, perhaps none of them befits the title of a football hero as seamlessly as the Seleção master.

Raised in extreme poverty, mostly in the São Paulo suburb of Bauru, Pelé grew up on a diet of devout faith in two things: Catholicism and football. When Uruguay defeated Brazil in the 1950 World Cup final, in front of 200,000 fans in the Maracanã, it shattered the entire nation. Pelé, still young and brimming with hope, was hurt by the defeat, yet his spirit remained undimmed. Still he chased his dream of going one better than the 1950 side.

Pelé’s childhood hero had been Zizinho, an inside forward who bewitched defenders with his dribbling during the 1950 tournament. Zizinho was not personally responsible for Brazil’s traumatising defeat – that dishonour belongs to the goalkeeper Barbosa – yet he became a symbol of that historic disappointment in 1950.

Why, then, would Pelé want to follow that same harrowing path, resting their heads on the Maracanã’s turf? Firstly, he’d promised his father, Dondinho. When Uruguay triumphed, Pelé vowed to go one better than his own idol. Secondly, he believed God had put him on this planet to become the ultimate footballing hero. He may have been on to something.

And so it was that Pelé, a bewilderingly gifted young talent undeterred by watching his heroes fall on the grandest stage, embarked on a beguiling relationship with the ball. His ability to produce an unerring sense of consonance between ball and man was never more thrillingly apparent than on the occasion of his announcement as an emerging force in the global game; scoring a goal, heard the world over, against Sweden in the 1958 World Cup final.

Lifting the ball over Gustavsson’s head, gracefully swivelling back into position before powering a volley into the corner. Pelé entered that World Cup as an unheralded 17-year-old but, leaving Sweden clutching the Jules Rimet trophy, he was already a legend in a way, starring in the narrative that exorcised the demons responsible for haunting Brazilian football for eight years.

Original Series  |  The 50

When Pelé hung up his boots, nearly 20 years later with the New York Cosmos, he had secured his reputation as a giant, a player of incomparable technique, poise and spirit; a startling reminder of how the beautiful game often houses beautiful narratives.

He negotiated living up to that cinematic prolegomenon to his career with a minimum of fuss. Through a marriage of extraordinary athleticism, explosive speed, mesmeric trickery, quickness of thought and deadliness of execution, Pelé bid a teary farewell to football in 1977 with a stacked mantelpiece. The crown jewels were, of course, those three World Cups, two of which were unquestionably made possible by his understanding of what to do when the ball was at his foot or when it was in the air. A haul of 1,300 goals, give or take, is not to be sniffed at either.

The most remarkable quality of Pelé’s, though, despite the consummate sense of individual craftsmanship he possessed, was how he blended so artistically with others. The 1958 Brazil side was brimming with individual virtuosity, from Garrincha to Didi, Nílton and Djalma Santos, yet their world-beating combination and synchronicity was made possible by the essential ingredient that can be so elusive to potentially great teams: chemistry. To that Pelé was crucial.

In their Hindas training camp, a short bus-ride from Gothenburg, they bonded through the serenity of catching fish and the excitement of visiting dancehalls frequented by stunning Swedish women, blue-eyed and golden-haired.

In 1970, Brazil were a visionary blend of integration and skill, of which Pelé was central. In that final, when Mário Zagallo’s team swept Italy aside, the indelible image is Pelé’s sumptuously-weighted through ball to his captain, Carlos Alberto, who vanquished the Azzurri with one devastating swish of his right boot. Pelé’s role in that goal was one of sheer superiority, almost dismissing his spherical companion before its almighty bludgeoning at the feet of Alberto.

But that was Pelé. He defined footballing superiority as much as he embraced it. What is intriguing is that he is not adored as unconditionally as Garrincha in his own country, yet he remains the definitive reference point for footballing greatness around the world. Lionel Messi has, at this stage, set off on the path to one day eclipse Maradona as Argentina’s greatest ever player. But yet to be seen is the day when signs of a Brazilian prodigy worthy of challenging Pelé’s throne start to emerge. Until then, Pelé is Brazil’s finest footballer, and there should be no debate 

Writer  |  Matt Gault  

Editor  |  Will Sharp