Medals not required – why some greats simply don’t need them

WHEN Harry Kane was in dispute with Tottenham Hotspur a year or so ago, people pointed to his lack of medals as a Spurs player. The club hasn’t won anything in Kane’s time, indeed you have to go back to 2008 for their last trophy. Players often claim their desire to leave a club is based on the desire to “win things” and as Kane headed towards 30, you can understand his anxiety about ending his peak years without some sort of bauble to place in his cabinet at Chez Kane.

But not all great players have boxloads of medals when they want to recall their football career. In fact, some of the game’s outstanding names have very little silverware to show for a glittering career. Much depends on who they play for – if you are Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo, the statistics of their careers match the plaudits they have received, because they have played for great, successful clubs. Messi has won 11 league titles and Ronaldo seven, but CR7 has won five Champions League medals to Messi’s four.

Zlatan Ibrahomovic has 12 league titles to his name, from the Netherlands, Italy, Spain and France. Bayern’s Thomas Müller has 11 Bundesliga medals, while Paco Gento of Real won 12 La Ligas with Real Madrid. Johan Cruyff won 10 league titles, along with seven domestic cups and three European Cups. He was a league champion with three different clubs: Ajax, Barcelona and Feyenoord. Kenny Dalglish won 23 major medals in his playing career, including 10 league titles with Celtic and Liverpool. Play for the top clubs and you win medals.

Some players, unfortunately, play the role of big fish at a club less equipped to winning major honours on a regular basis. Tom Finney and Stanley Matthews, two of the wizards of the wing, won praise week-by-week and were mainstays of the England team. Finney was a Preston North End player from 1946 to 1960, he won 76 caps for England but never won a major honour. Matthews won 54 caps during a career that saw him play for Stoke City and Blackpool. His only honour was the FA Cup in 1953. Both these players earned their place in football history because they were truly great at what they did.

Similarly, there were members of the England 1966 winning team that didn’t enjoy incredible success as club players. Gordon Banks, for example, had to wait until the back end of his career for his one and only medal with Stoke City, the Football League Cup in 1972. George Cohen, a fine full back with Fulham, never won a major prize with his club. Ray Wilson won the FA Cup in 1966 with Everton, but injuries prevented him winning more. The Charlton brothers were the most successful, but Bobby’s trophy winning days ended two years after 1966 as Manchester United entered a period of decline. Big Jack was part of Don Revie’s ultra-professional unit that went close to winning everything, but invariably failed at so many final hurdles. Jimmy Greaves, who missed the World Cup final and then drifted away from the England scene, actually only won three medals in English football, the last in 1967.

George Best, for all his brilliance and headlines, won his last medal in 1968. His career was strangely anti-climatic – he won three medals and 37 caps for Northern Ireland. The man who became the face of British football when Best’s star waned, Kevin Keegan, fared much better in his tangible assets haul – three league titles with Liverpool, one with Hamburg, one European Cup, two UEFA Cups and 63 caps for England. It is fair to say Keegan made the most of his career.

Not so players like Best and even Diego Maradona, who won six medals at club level, although lifting the World Cup eclipses most other pieces of objet d’art. Pelé, because he was limited to appearing for Santos for most of his career, also had few items to show for his wonderful skills.

But did this really matter in times gone by? Arguably not. Today, the football world expects the top names to continually grace the big occasions, but given we are talking about a team game, an individual can only do so much. Hence, Messi and Ronaldo have never won the World Cup, even though their fans continually will them to be crowned champion. While the likes of Matthews and Finney were clubmen of the highest order, they were never likely to win the League Championship with their long-time employers. Bobby Moore, another legendary figure, stayed with West Ham for most of his career, a club that was respected and won the occasional cup, but were never contenders for the title. In the modern game, great players gravitate towards the clubs with money and trophy-winning potential. They might start with a West Ham or a Fulham, but they will surely end up with a Chelsea, a Manchester City or Liverpool.

A good way to measure this is to consider the England World Cup squads. In 1966, Alf Ramsey’s 22 players came from 14 different clubs of which nine were playing for the top six of 1965-66. Four years on, the needle had shifted and only 10 clubs were called upon and 11 were from the top six. In more recent times, the World Cup squad of 2018 was drawn from 10 clubs, but 18 of the 23 were from the so-called “big six”.

Other nations have different squad compositions. France, the 2018 World champions, had a squad that was drawn from across Europe, 15 clubs from five different countries. Croatia, the runners-up were even more diverse, 23 players from 21 clubs in no less than 10 countries. This shows that while overseas players tend to ply their trade across the European landscape, English players are more likely to stay at home and the most successful ones move in the direction of the richest and most successful. It is likely, then, that the top players can collect far more medals than their predecessors from past decades.

It would be inappropriate to talk of medals and not recognise some of the most celebrated players. Liverpool’s Phil Neal, for example, won eight league titles and four European Cups while Celtic’s Billy McNeill was Scottish champion nine times and won 23 medals. Ryan Giggs, in a career that spanned 24 seasons, won no less than 13 league titles. And yet, Alan Shearer won a solitary league title with Blackburn and Gary Lineker waited until he was 30 for his only prize in English football with Tottenham, although two years earlier, he did win the European Cup-Winners’ Cup with Barcelona.

Although some players may feel that a career without official recognition may leave an empty feeling when they retire, consolation can be found in the way they are remembered by the people paying to watch them. While medals can be sold to boost the pension pot, the memories of the fans will never fade. It is not always necessary to wear garlands to be identified as a football legend.

The greatest goal Pelé ever scored

IN RECENT years, the reputation of “football’s greatest-ever player” has been somewhat tarnished, and it is now widely pre-supposed that there’s nothing he won’t lend his name to, whether that’s FIFA’s improbably diverse list of the world’s greatest living players or treatments for erectile dysfunction.

David Tryhorn and Ben Nicholas’ new Netflix documentary, simply titled Pelé, is a useful course correction. A combination of beautifully-restored archive footage and new interviews in the style of Asif Kapadia, it is a valuable reminder of what made O Rei such a phenomenon. Although it never quite reaches the level of hagiography—he receives some mild criticism for his disinterest in Brazil’s military dictatorship—it is a generous and serious portrait of Pelé from his childhood as a shoeshiner to the 1970 World Cup.

Mostly importantly, it is a rare Pelé documentary that never challenges his position as the greatest footballer of all time without being over-reliant on Pelé’s oft-ridiculed personal recollections.  Instead, it uses former players, journalists, politicians and cultural figures to tell his story alongside him, backing it all up with plenty of footage of him effortlessly playing what he memorably called “o jogo bonito”.

His achievements are undeniable: three World Cup medals with Brazil—his first aged just 17—1,091 goals for Santos and a cultural footprint bigger than anyone else.

But, sixty years removed from his heyday, Pelé’s exploits have become mythologised, and this once revolutionary figure has apparently become little more than an establishment stooge. 

Now aged 80, Pelé is finding himself increasingly marginalised by a football media landscape obsessed with the confected rivalry for best-player-ship between Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo—and the protracted search for their successor. With many of his fans and contemporaries vanishing into the obituary columns, there are few people left to defend Pelé’s achievements as they are eaten away by Messi and Ronaldo, and his reputation as even that is rewritten by FIFA record-keepers. 

Indeed, the continued achievement-hoarding of Messi and Ronaldo seems to have redefined what  constitutes success in football. Now, individual greatness is measured by the number of Champions League medals, Ballon d’Or trophies and superlative-laden column inches in a player’s collection; Pelé, who remained in South America for almost his entire career, simply cannot compete. Even Maradona, who won neither accolade, seems to be taken more seriously simply by virtue of having played in Europe—and doing it while cultivating the kind of sexy, bad-boy image that boring, straight-laced FIFA-suit Pelé has never possessed.

And now, Pelé’s best-known achievements have been written out of the history books. His thousand-goal tally for Santos has been erased, with football authorities discounting the 448 scored in friendlies. Even the not unimpressive revised total of 643 goals scored for a single club has since been surpassed by Lionel Messi, while his overall total of 775 goals in 841 “official” games has been overtaken by Ronaldo. Pelé has conspicuously failed to congratulate the pair, tarnishing his reputation even further.

Santos were predictably outraged. In a statement, the club accused FIFA and the media of “historical revisionism”, argued (not unfairly) that many of Pelé’s friendly goals had been scored against top European opposition such as Juventus, Real Madrid and Lionel Messi’s own Barcelona, and pointed out that Pelé, addressed only as “The King”, had in fact issued a weak message of acknowledgement to Messi.

It’s obviously in Santos and Pelé’s interest to massage his reputation, but his continued insistence on this improbably illustrious career has inevitably elicited mockery from a generation unwilling to accept his mythology at face value, in particular a contemporary English-language media unable to comprehend a career played outside of Europe—and one without a YouTube highlights reel set to EDM.

It has become a kind of shibboleth among a new brand of football blogger or young “journo” that Pelé is a kind of untrustworthy, senile old man prone to acts of exaggeration and third-person arrogance.

There’s no better case study for this shift in attitude and the uncritical acceptance of this narrative than the story of Pelé’s best and most memorable goal, as told by Pelé. It is, by his account, a work of unfalsifiable magic, scored against Sao Paulo rivals Clube Atlético Juventus in August 1959, aged just 18: receiving the ball on the edge of the box, Pelé allegedly twisted the ball round one defender, chipped it over two others in quick succession, then lifted the ball up to head it in. This was, so Pelé says, such a remarkable goal that even the Juventus players and their supporters congratulated him.

It is unsurprising that the English-language lad-o-sphere has taken the opportunity to dismiss Pelé’s claim. givemesport.com says “because no one actually saw it, we just have to take Pele’s word for it”, while Sport Bible is even more dismissive, writing “there’s even more reason to call the 78-year-old a fraud and mock him.” 

Fair enough, it’s an absurd, laughable story and an unlikely goal. With no video evidence—the animation he requested be created of the goal notwithstanding—and no contemporary report of this wonder goal in Sao Paulo’s most-read newspaper, Folha da Noite, it’s easy to be sceptical. Surely, this is just another of Pelé’s tall tales. What’s more, the only corroborating evidence comes from the other 21 players on the pitch, the stadium full of spectators and the journalist and photographer from O Estado de S. Paulo newspaper who reported on this very goal taking place.

The media’s relentless quest for clicks and the absence of English-language sources has made questioning the received wisdom of Pelé’s inherent unreliability unfashionable. But we have translation services at our fingertips, and it only takes a quick visit to O Estado de S. Paulo’s freely-available archive (or indeed the special page of Pelé stories prepared to celebrate his eightieth birthday) to find not only a report on this wonder goal, but also a captioned picture of the teenage Pelé actually scoring it, translated by us:

“PELÉ: A RARE GOAL. The fourth and final Santos goal, scored by Pelé, was remarkable. Penetrating the Juventus area, the Santos forward was faced by the defender Mão de Onça and feinted him by lifting the ball over his body; Clovis flew to the aid of the defender and was jinked in the same way. When the ball fell behind Clovis, Pelé dominated it with his left foot, lifted it up with his right foot and completed the shot with a light header. The game stopped; the Juventus players themselves ran to greet Pelé. The crowd frenetically saluted the author of the goal against its own club.”

Improbable though it may be, the greatest goal Pelé ever scored, from the multiple feints to the opposition players joining in in appreciation, really did take place just as he claims. Rather than a kind of octogenarian Jay from The Inbetweeners, spinning increasingly absurd lies to impress his mates, Pelé really was capable of these feats of football wizardry. We’ve become so accustomed to Messi and Ronaldo’s exploits, expertly engineered and immaculately packaged daily in glorious HD, that many of us now find it difficult to imagine the half-remembered, black-and-white, samba-and-favelas stories of Pelé as anything other than onanistic exaggeration.

Pelé is the ur-superstar. He has become a near-mythological figure, a set of cliché’s about shoe-shining and bare feet football that almost demands questioning and “debunking”. The fact he later become part of the football establishment, a kind of FIFA creature to be wheeled out whenever they needed a famous face to promote their latest PR exercise has inevitably removed some of the mystique and revolutionary wonder surrounding him, like a populist firebrand politician forced by the crushing weight of reality to “play the game” of politics. And for modern bloggers and journos, far detached from his playing days, it’s fair easier to be cynical than sincere.

But in Brazil, there’s no compulsion to undermine his achievements, not just because of nationalism, but because the evidence of his greatness is all around them, embedded into their culture.

Pelé retired fourteen years before I was born. I can’t tell you whether he was the greatest player ever, but I can tell you he was a poor kid from Minas Gerais who become the first black global superstar footballer based only on sheer talent and perseverance—isn’t it funny how we’ve forgotten that, even in this era of Black Lives Matter?—who has almost no scandals to his name, and who comes across as a decent, friendly, if self-promoting old man.