FOX'S 20TH CENTURY

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The Independent Online

Was Pele the best footballer of all time? Beyond doubt he was the best in his long era as a Brazilian international which stretched from 1958 to 1970, but the bigger question can only be answered subjectively. A personal view is that no other player before or since has been so complete. He assisted Brazil to three successful World Cup finals and scored a total of 1,283 goals.

Was Pele the best footballer of all time? Beyond doubt he was the best in his long era as a Brazilian international which stretched from 1958 to 1970, but the bigger question can only be answered subjectively. A personal view is that no other player before or since has been so complete. He assisted Brazil to three successful World Cup finals and scored a total of 1,283 goals.

He came from an impoverished, anonymous background but developed into the most recognised sportsman in the world and has since become a travelling ambassador for the game. His fame was such that a two-day truce was called in the terrible war between Nigeria and Biafra so that both sides could see him play. And for all of his fame he has always been a thoroughly nice guy who, in spite of that, usually knew how to look after himself on a football pitch.

His upbringing in Brazilian club football was tough and prepared him well physically. He was only 5ft 8in and less than 11st but he combined wonderful balance with natural skills and considerable strength. His height was no deterrent to scoring with his head.

Placing him in this particular five-year period rather than in previous ones when he was equally impressive is because in 1970 he had already talked of retirement yet played sensationally in his last World Cup. England fans will remember his "certain" headed goal which Gordon Banks pushed over the bar with arguably the finest save ever seen. He inspired Brazil to beat Italy 4-1 in a final in which he scored a majestic headed goal and made two more.

Memories of his excellence abound. He was only 17 when he played in his first World Cup and immediately showed composure, confidence and skill beyond his years. At first his role as an inside-forward allowed him comparative freedom but soon he became the most heavily marked player in the world. He missed most of the 1962 tournament through injuries inflicted on him and in 1966, in England, he was literally kicked out by the Bulgarians and Portuguese.

He was tempted to turn his back on international football but, having already scored more than 1,000 goals, decorated the 1970 finals in Mexico with magic. Looking for a spectacular last hurrah he almost beat the Czech goalkeeper from the half-way line, and often seemed to play on a different level to the rest.

He finished his career in the US attempting to raise the game's popularity. In recent years he has served Brazil and football in many capacities, always with diplomacy, enthusiasm and patience.

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