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. 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.

Brazil’s 1970 triumph sowed the seeds for the global football market

WHEN Brazil captivated the world in 1970 with their wonderful football and charismatic team of all talents, all 22 members of their squad were playing in Brazil, half coming from São Paulo-based clubs. Of the 22, only one, Jairzinho, went on to play in Europe, and that was towards the end of his career. Others, such as Carlos Alberto and Pelé, joined the North American Soccer League circus with New York Cosmos.

The Brazilian team that emphatically beat Italy in the final was a relatively mature one – Félix, the keeper, was 32 years old, Gérson and Pelé were both 29, Brito 28 and Everaldo 27. Rivellino, who was often referred to as a “youngster” was actually 24, a year older than Tostão. Clodoaldo was just 20, the baby of the team.

At the time, most people in the UK and indeed South America, had not travelled outside of their country of residence, let alone worked abroad. Movement of labour was restricted and travel was more expensive and certainly inaccessible. We didn’t really know what the other side of the planet looked like, but Mexico 1970 introduced us to a colourful new world. It was part of a process that included cheap package tours and Vesta’s dehydrated exotic foods. From a football perspective, thanks to the spectacle that was the World Cup, we started to become more international – we wanted to see more of Pelé, Rivellino, Beckenbauer, Riva and Müller. Actually, for most of the world, the summer of 1970 was the last they saw of Pelé in action. Great foreign footballers were, mostly, great by reputation and heresay until 1970.

New world

The game was still very insular and confined to home and in truth, we were only going to see the aforementioned stars on TV, either in rare glimpses of national team football or UEFA club games. Overseas movement of manpower was still a rare thing and from a British point of view, it had been deemed a failure. There were only nine players among the 16 World Cup squads of 1970 that were not employed by a club from their home nation and six of those were Swedish. Another two were in the West German squad, Karl-Heinz Schnellinger of AC Milan and Helmut Haller of Juventus. The nine represented just 2.5% of the total squad members that went to Mexico.

Brazil’s team of local-based players may have been of its time, but the tide was gradually turning. By 1974, the number of expat players had risen to 8% of the World Cup roster, with the competition’s outstanding player, Johan Cruyff, having moved from Ajax to Barcelona for earth-shattering wages in 1973.

West Germany’s triumphant squad was the first to include a non-domestic player, the brilliant Günter Netzer, who was on Real Madrid’s books. Although out of favour with West Germany’s coach, Helmut Schön – he barely featured in WM 74 – Netzer was the first Real Madrid player to be part of a World Cup winning squad.

The West German squad of 1974 was selected from only seven clubs, the lowest number among the 21 World Cup winners. Twenty years earlier, West Germany enlisted their squad for Switzerland 1954 from 15. When West Germany won the competition in 1990, the number of expats among the 24 competing countries was 134, some 25% of the total and the German side had five overseas players.

Germany’s Bayern Munich, unsurprisingly, have provided 24 World Cup winners, ranging from Hans Bauer in 1954 to France’s Corentin Tolisso in 2018. But Bayern are not the most prolific club in terms of World Cup winners, that honour belongs to Juventus, who have provided 25, including three Frenchmen (Deschamps and Zidane in 1998 and Matuidi in 2018).

Recalling players who had decided to further their career outside their traditional market has often been the subject of heated debate. In 1978, the Argentinian administration was toying with the idea of banning players from moving abroad and Cesar Luis Menotti, the chain-smoking coach, agreed to limit the number of European-based candidates for his squad. Menotti’s final selection included just one – Mario Kempes, and it was a wise decision, for he was not only the leading scorer, but also the player of the tournament.

After winning the competition, the squad was soon picked-at by European clubs – Osvaldo Ardiles and Ricardo Villa were signed by Tottenham and the ill-tempered Alberto Tarantini went to Birmingham, while Daniel Bertoni moved to Sevilla. By the time Argentina won their second World Cup in 1986, seven of their squad were playing abroad, including Diego Maradona at Napoli.

Latin lovers

For UK football fans, interest in the continental game received a renaissance in 1991 when Paul Gascoigne moved from Tottenham to Lazio. With the introduction of TV programmes like Football Italia  showcasing teams that included some of the world’s best players, access to the cosmopolitan game that was hinted at in 1970, truly began. Today, just like the men who fill the shirts of our favourite teams, we have sight of football from almost anywhere in the world. There are no mysteries from South America anymore.

Argentina and Brazil have long given up on trying to keep their best players at home and clubs now rely on selling-on talent into Europe. As a result their domestic football has undoubtedly declined and their clubs struggle to compete on a global stage that now includes the US and China.

Like Brazil, Argentinian players have been good travellers in recent decades and in 2018, only four of their 23-man squad were playing domestic football. In the five World Cups since 2002, the three top South American countries (Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay), have largely sent expat-heavy squads to the competition – just 18% have been home-based players.

Although South America can still produce outstanding players, Europe has dominated the World Cup, winning the last four competitions. Moreover, a European side, Germany in 2014, has won the World Cup in South America, thus ending the theory that it could not be done. Germany’s 7-1 victory against hosts Brazil in the semi-final may well have been the end of a long, mythologised era. If Brazil win the World Cup again, it is possible their entire squad will be drawn from abroad, such is the appeal for players to find work in Europe and beyond. That hasn’t happened yet, although France’s victory in 2018 was a landmark in that it was achieved with a squad that had a majority (14 versus nine) of expats, the first time this had happened.


The last World Cup winning squad comprising only home-based resources was Italy in 2006, in fact the Italians also named a 100% Serie A squad in 1982. This probably explains why Juventus  have more World Cup winners to celebrate than any other club in the world. It may also highlight that top Italian players (like the English) do not travel as much as some other nationalities and that traditionally, Italy has been a magnet for overseas talent rather than an exporter of players. Only one Italian, for example, has won the UEFA Champions League while playing for a non-Italian club, Christian Panucci in 1998 (Real Madrid).

The question is, could the coronavirus deter players and clubs from building multi-national teams, which in turn will mean fewer expatriates playing World Cup football? In 2018, over 70% of squad members were not playing in the country of their birth. Of the 736 players, 129 were employed in England, while another 255 came from clubs in the other big five leagues (Germany, Spain, Italy and France). Over 50% came from five leagues – underlining the concentration of talent in the game. To unpick that will be difficult, so it is safe to assume that any change, should it happen, will be gradual. Nevertheless, the transit of players since Mexico 1970, which at its best adds a degree of sophistication to the game, not only mirrors the effect of globalisation, it is also a symptom of the industrialisation of the modern football industry.



Photo: PA