When he scored, Pelé would often celebrate in the same way. Turning to his left, he’d run a few paces before jumping, doing a half pirouette and punching the air with his right fist. But when he put the ball into the net at the Maracanã on November 19, 1959, giving Santos a 1-0 lead over Vasco da Gama, he did not have a chance to move an inch.
The television images from the game show a multitude of people, some of whom seemingly appear out of the ether, surging towards him and surrounding Brazil’s greatest ever player. He disappears in the crowd, only emerging a few second later, being held up by the masses and, in turn, holding the ball above his head. Pelé had scored his 1000th goal and the nation was captivated.
It is difficult to imagine that, if a player were to achieve a similar feat today, then dozens of reporters, officials and other hangers on would be allowed to invade the pitch in the way that happened in Rio exactly 50 years ago. Times have changed and with them, so have our expectations.
Whether Pelé scored more than 1000 goals is a point of contention. A quick look on the internet and you will find a plethora of articles throwing asterisks and caveats at Pelé’s reported career total of 1,283. A Guardian article in 2017 said that the number “famously involves goals scored while he was daydreaming in the bath.” That was written in jest, of course, but is indicative of the attitude of many to the great man’s scoring feats.
The official total agreed on by Fifa is 757 goals in 812 games, omitting friendlies and tour matches he played with his club side Santos. Ignoring those goals, though, is to commit the crime of judging history using the standards of modernity. It is the same as saying that the pitch invasion on the Maracanã was wrong because it would not happen were Messi to reach the same total.
Santos, to pay Pelé’s wages and maintain the team around him that was capable of winning two Copa Libertadores titles, two Intercontinental Cups and 21 domestic trophies during his time at the club, was forced into playing friendlies. In an era when selling tickets was the only form of revenue for football clubs, Santos had to travel the world to maximize its attendances and income.
To do so, it forewent official competitions like the Libertadores that, owing to travel and lack of prize purses, did not bring in money. Had Santos not withdrawn from the Libertadores on so many occasions after 1963, Pelé would doubtless have more trophies and more official goals to his name.
Calling those games that they played across the world ‘friendlies’ also conveys a false impression, given the insignificance that such matches have taken on in the modern era. Now, friendlies are often played only in pre-season, as a means of gaining fans in far-flung lands and increasing fitness for the serious stuff that lies ahead.
Some fixtures were inevitably against inferior opposition, but tours in Europe and South America saw Santos take on the best teams in the world. Winning was a matter of national pride, with successful Brazilian clubs greeted as heroes upon their return from such excursions and rewarded with the Fita Azul, a prize devised by the Brazilian soccer federation and handed to teams that went undefeated overseas.
Ten years before Pelé scored his 1000th goal, for example, Santos toured Europe, playing 22 games in 43 days. At times there would be matches on consecutive days, long journeys and no time to practice. Despite those issues, they beat European giants by incredible margins; Inter Milan were crushed 7-1, and Barcelona, the defending La Liga champions managed by the totemic Helenio Herrera, were dispatched 5-1 at the Camp Nou. Pelé scored 126 goals that year.
Another charge used against Pelé is that many of his goals game against weak opponents in the São Paulo state league, a distortion of history that was well deconstructed by the Brazilian journalist Paulo Junior, writing on Goal.com in May.
“There can never be ‘Pelé’s goals without counting friendlies or the state league’”, he explained, “just as there will never be ‘Messi’s goals without counting La Liga’, even if one day Barcelona play in a league that only involves the European elite and someone says, ‘We need to relativize the Argentine’s goals because at that time, they played twice a year against teams like Getafe and Espanyol’.”
Pelé was a phenomenon, both in terms of technique and physique. Whether you think he is the greatest of all time is, of course, a matter for you. But one cannot deny that he was the complete soccer player.
The following is from an article published in The New York Times in 1975; “A few years ago medical experts examined Pelé's slim, athletic figure for weeks in a university laboratory. They prodded him, wired his head for readings, measured his muscles and his mind and when they finished they announced: ‘Whatever this man might have decided to do in any physical or mental endeavor, he would have been a genius.’”
After Messi's Argenitina beat Brazil on Friday in Saudi Arabia, the Seleção coach Tite was asked about his opinion on the best player of all time. “Pelé is incomparable,” he replied, “Anyone who wants to make a comparison immediately loses credibility. [They are people who do] did not live through history, who have not looked to understand how much of a genius he was.
“Pelé is above the standards of normality. I don’t say that because I am Brazilian. I say it because of the history, the magnitude, because of his technical qualities, his heading, his ambidexterity, his acceleration, his strength. Find a defect! There aren’t any.”
Not everyone will agree with Tite whe he says that Pelé is head and shoulders the greatest of all time, and that is their right. What we must not do is diminish Pelé’s record by giving in to the temptation to judge the past using the yardstick of the present.