When Pele first played for his country, Brazil were underachievers, pushed into third place in South America behind Uruguay and Argentina. By the time he finished, the men in yellow were established as the masters of the global game.
It was a similar story with Santos. Before Pele they were a provincial team from the port of Sao Paulo, eclipsed by the giants of the big cities. Pele turned them into the best team in the world, a national institution in a land of fierce regional rivalries. Although Santos were the away side against Vasco da Gama on 19 November 1969, the crowd were still desperate to see the great man score his 1,000th goal. The setting could not have been better; Rio de Janeiro's magnificent Maracana stadium, Pele's favourite, the stage for many of his finest exhibitions.
The pressure had been building for weeks as the milestone drew closer. Relief nearly came in the first half, when Pele's fierce shot cannoned off the bar. He produced an inspired chip; Vasco's Argentine goalkeeper Andrada, recently signed and keen to show his worth, plunged backwards and tipped the ball round the post.
Then, in the second half, Clodoaldo's pass split the Vasco rearguard. Pele was through, until he was checked by a defender and the ball ran through to the goalkeeper. Was it a foul? The ball was probably Andrada's in any case, but this was no time for debate. An excited hush came over the stadium as the referee pointed to the spot.
Rildo, the Santos left-back, came up to take the kick, until the captain Carlos Alberto sent him away with a few choice words. This was Pele's moment. His team-mates retreated to the half-way line, leaving Pele to compose himself alone.
The giant stadium was in silence as Pele jogged forward, and struck firmly with the side of his right foot. The shot was low to the keeper's left. Andrada guessed right and went full length. But the ball was beyond his reach, and nestled in the back of the net.
Was it disappointing that the 1,000th goal came from a penalty? No, says Armando Noguiera, Brazil's senior football writer. Pele had already scored every type of goal imaginable. "This was one which no one in the crowd could miss, through ill-fortune or a lapse in concentration."
"If Pele hadn't been born a man," wrote Noguiera, "he would have been born as a ball." Seeing the net bulge for the 1,000th time made Pele run after the ball. He held it up and kissed it repeatedly, thanking the ball for everything it had brought him.
As he gave a lap of honour, Pele dedicated his goal to Brazil's street kids, a new and growing problem at the time. He is entitled to point out that had more been done 30 years ago, Brazil would not currently be blighted by such desperate urban poverty.
But he was not yet finished. There were still 281 goals to score. The most important was a magnificent header which gave Brazil the lead in the 1970 World Cup final against Italy, which Pele's side won 4-1. "We jumped together," Tarcisio Burgnich, his marker, said. "Then I came down, but he stayed up there. I had thought Pele was made of flesh and blood, like me. I was wrong."Reuse content