Before Messi and Ronaldo, there were arguments over Pelé and Maradona. I couldn’t say much about the eventually friendly rivalry, because by the time I was even remotely knowledgeable about professional soccer, Pelé had been retired for ages and Maradona had descended into drug-addled villainy (in other words, it was 1990). Weird start to a quick eulogy, I know, but my argument for Pelé was, and remains, simple.
At 17, Pelé scored five goals in the two biggest games you could play in: the World Cup semifinal and final.
At 20, his government literally declared him a national treasure so that he’d never play club ball outside Brazil.
At 27, the Nigerian Civil War was paused so the combatants could watch him play.
At 34, a few years after retirement, he joined the New York Cosmos and, for a fleeting moment in the Age of Disco and Stagflation, made soccer the biggest ticket in the US.
And then, of course, there’s the bazillion goals he scored.
There’s a lot to be said for other players in terms of skill and achievement, and if I were objective enough I might name a few guys who technically were better players. But none were greater.
Look back at that list– forget the bazillion goals, because I’m sure a few hundred of them are in dispute here and there– look back at that crazy list, and tell me who matches that.
Nobody. The man stands alone.