Pele was the greatest of his era and global football’s first true superstar

Pele with the World Cup in 1970 Credit: Alamy
Pele with the World Cup in 1970 Credit: Alamy

Pele arrived into a world game in 1958 that was on the cusp of enormous change. By the time he retired, he was global football’s first true superstar.


They images are burned into the retinas of everybody who’s seen them. The 1970 World Cup was the point in the history of football when everything suddenly exploded into living colour. From the balloons rising above the Azteca Stadium ahead of the opening match between Mexiso and the Soviet Union to Carlos Alberto lifting the trophy at the end, this was a World Cup like no other and its star performer was a player who straddled a period of enormous change in football, from the beginning of its transition into a branch of the light entertainment industry to a Tecnicolor world of celebrity and riches.

You’ll have read variations of ‘whatever it was, Pele did it first’ a lot over the last 24 hours or so. These comments have largely been concerning flicks and tricks on the pitch, but it’s also true in a broader sense. Pele, who has died at the age of 82, was global football’s first true superstar. From his debut at the 1958 World Cup finals through to his glorious send-off in Mexico City twelve years later, his international career coincided with great leaps forward in terms of the technology that delivered the game to the world. Of all the other sporting superstars of this era, only Muhammad Ali could match his fame.

The two tournaments that bookended that international career were both transformative, in different ways. The first World Cup to be televised in Europe was the 1954 tournament. Pele arrived four years later in Sweden. The technology didn’t yet exist to beam games live around the world, but the European Broadcasting Union had a complex set of relays set up to be able to broadcast eleven matches live across Europe.

The first that a European audience saw of the 17 year-old Pele came during Brazil’s quarter-final match against Wales. Midway through the second half, he flicked the ball past Mel Charles of Wales and shot into the corner of the goal for his first ever World Cup finals goal and the only goal of the game. As they ran into the goal, the Brazilian players found themselves surrounded by photographers, all keen to get a shot of this prodigal goalscorer. It was a moment that set the tone for much of his international career. Five days later, he scored a hat-trick as Brazil demolished France 5-2 in the semi-finals. Five days after that, he scored twice as Brazil beat the host nation Sweden by the same score to lift their first World Cup.

Garrincha stole the show four years later in Chile after Pele was injured during Brazil’s second group match against Czechoslovakia. He’d already scored one and created one during their opening match against Mexico, but a leg injury left him out of the remainder of the tournament. None of this was seen live in Europe. Telstar, the satellite that would allow for matches to be shown live around the world, was launched 23 days after the final and coverage of the finals were shown on a two-day delay which allowed for film canisters to be prepared shipped back to Europe for broadcast.

In 1966, Pele ran headlong into the cynicism that had started to engulf European football over the previous decade. With little protection from referees, he was kicked all over the pitch in their opening match against Bulgaria. Despite scoring in that match – becoming the first player to score in three consecutive World Cup finals in the process – he was sufficiently injured to have to miss their next game against Hungary, which they lost 3-1.

Hurriedly brought back into the team for their final game against Portugal the kicking resumed, and with Pele limping on the touchline – 1966 was the last World Cup at which no substitutes were allowed – Brazil were beaten 3-1 again and eliminated from the tournament in the group stages for only the second – and to date last – time. After that tournament, Pele vowed that he would never play in a World Cup again.

It took some persuading to get him to play in Mexico four years later. Promises of greatly improved preparation by the Brazilian Commission of Sports and a clampdown on foul play were enough to persuade him to take part (there may have been strongarm tactics from Brazil’s military dictatorship of the time, as well), but even so there were risks.

After the uncovering of a plot to kidnap him Brazil trained in a fortified camp, patrolled day and night by police and armed guards, with Pele himself hidden behind a circle of protection wherever he went. With Brazil’s military government desperate to avoid the early elimination of 1966, the Brazil squad had three and half months of dedicated preparation ahead of the 1970 tournament, including 21 days spent training at altitude.

 Credit: Alamy
Credit: Alamy

The 1970 World Cup finals were the first modern World Cup finals. Broadcast in colour around the world, the tournament saw the introduction of red and yellow cards, along with a black and white match ball – called the Telstar – which it was reckoned would be easier to see on black and white television sets. It’s worth remembering that in 1970, although the pictures will have been beamed around the world, such was the cost of buying a colour television at the time that the overwhelming majority of that global aaudience would still have been watching in black and white.

It is difficult for those of us born after these finals to understand just what the impact of these finals was. Not only was the television coverage itself vastly different to four years earlier – compare and contrast, for example, the somewhat stern opening titles to the 1966 World Cup with the carnival atmosphere presented four years later – but the tournament itself was packed with moments that have become part of the lexicon of the game itself.

The attempted lob of Czechoslovakia goalkeeper Ivo Viktor in their opening match. The downward header against England that brought one of the finest saves in the history of the World Cup from Gordon Banks. The feint that wrong-footed Uruguayan goalkeeper Ladislao Mazurkiewicz in their semi-final match. The enormous leap to score the opening goal in the final against Italy, and the casual side-footed lay-off to Carlos Alberto to wrap that match up. Jairzinho broke the record for becoming the first player to score in every match of a finals for their team and Carlos Alberto was the captain who lifted the Jules Rimet Trophy when it was all over, but Pele was the star of the tournament.

It has become strangely commonplace to seek to diminish Pele’s achievements as a player, but those of us born shortly after that tournament arrived into a football world in which it was taken for granted that he was The Greatest. For some, the fact that he never played club football in Europe is considered quite the gotcha, but it wasn’t for a lack of trying on the part of European clubs.

The truth was that Pele was already considered a national treasure in Brazil by 1962 and that his transfer abroad would never have been permitted. And regardless, South American club football was very different then to now – there’s a strong case for saying it was stronger during the 1960s – and his club team Santos toured Europe regularly. In 130 games for Santos against European club opposition, Pele scored 144 goals. The number of goals that he scored in total has long been disputed, but none of that really mattters. ‘Greatness’ is entirely subjective, especially across eras. It can’t be proved or disproved with numbers.

Somewhere between the futility of trying to compare players from different eras of the game, personal prejudices and recency bias, the idea that Pele was some sort of collective fever dream for those in their fifties or sixties became increasingly pervasive throughout the last years of his life. Ancient, flickering videos were decried, even though the juddery nature of old footage has much more to do with the limitations of the camera technology of the past than those of the players concerned.

Pele occupies a completely unique place in the history of the game, and that’s before we even touch on the subject that players of that era were playing a very different game to now. The 1970 World Cup was played at altitude, on pitches like apple crumble topping, with players wearing wearing boots like clogs, and using a ball like a cannonball, all while every other person on the opposing side was openly just trying to kick seven bells out of Pele because it was the only realistic chance they had of stopping him. All this, and he scored an overhead kick against the Nazis in ‘Escape to Victory’.

To truly understand the impact that he had on the global game, it is instructive to look at the way in which he was regarded by his contemporaries. He brought out the poet in those who played against him. Consider these quotations from those some of the other greatest players in the history of the game:

The greatest player in history was Di Stefano. I refuse to classify Pele as a player. He was above that. – Ferenc Puskas

Pele was the only player who surpassed the boundaries of logic. – Johann Cruyff

There’s Pele the man and then Pele the player, and to play like Pele is to play like God – Michel Platini

Pele is the greatest player of all-time. He reigned supreme for twenty years. All the others rank beneath him. – Franz Beckenbauer

I sometimes feel as though football was invented for this magical player. – Bobby Charlton

When I saw Pele play, it made me feel I should hang up my boots. – Just Fontaine

I told myself before the game he’s made of skin and bones, just like everybody else. But I was wrong. – Tarcisio Burgnich, the Italian defender charged with the job of man-marking him in the 1970 World Cup final.

And his cultural importance matters. After retiring from the international game he headed to the USA to play for New York Cosmos and ended up effectively an ambassador of the North American Soccer League. It’s no overstatement to say that for many Americans of a certain age, he may be the only professional footballer they’ve ever heard of. When it rained during his final appearance, an exhibition match between the Cosmos and Santos, it rained during the second half.  The following morning, one Brazilian newspaper’s headline read : ‘Even The Sky Was Crying’. 

The sky is crying again this morning. Pele wasn’t the greatest of all-time because there’s no such player. The game played in 2022 is very different to that of more than half a century ago. But as the game’s first global superstar, he blazed a trail for everyone that followed and became a cultural icon the likes of which we will almost certainly never see again. He arrived in a game that was still played in black and white, and left it being played in colour. This wasn’t entirely down to technological developments. Pele was the truest link between the game of the dim and distant past and the game that is still played today.

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