Pele: The Greatest

One player more than any other symbolises the World Cup - Pele. The legendary Brazilian striker tells Glenn Moore why the tournament is the true measure of the finest footballers and how he coped with the pressure of being the most revered player on the planet
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The majority of football interviews take place at training grounds. Occasionally they will be at stadiums, sometimes in a hotel lobby or a sponsor's office. Interviewing Pele is different. This is rock star territory. We meet in a suite on the 16th floor of a leading London hotel, one which has a fine view of Hyde Park, a view stretching all the way to the Wembley arch. The clock is on: 20 minutes, no more, possibly less.

A few days earlier, at the Brazilian ambassador's fine residence, Pele spent three hours smiling and exchanging pleasantries with people he barely, if at all, knew.

"Can you sign this, please?"

"Can I have my picture taken with you?"

"Do you think Brazil will win the World Cup?" ad infinitum.

Such is the standing of Pele, three decades after he last played professionally. A further clue as to his stature will be seen in Germany in the shape of Eddie Johnson, one of the most promising players on the American team. Johnson, reported The New York Times last week, decided to pursue a career in the sport when he did a book report at school and "realised Pele, the Brazilian great, was black like him and that soccer was not only the [preserve] of white suburbs".

"Great" is an overused word in sports coverage but by any definition Pele merits it. But can he define it?

"It is hard to separate a good player and a great one," he said. "A lot of people, when a guy scores a lot of goals, think, 'He's a great player', because a goal is very important, but a great player is a player who can do everything on the field. He can do assists, encourage his colleagues, give them confidence to go forward. It is someone who, when a team does not do well, becomes one of the leaders. A lot of good players are very good when a team is good, but when the team need him they are not so good. This is the difference."

He went on: "A great player is someone who is very consistent, he is good almost every game. Some players have one good game, then a bad one. This is not a great player, that is a normal player. A player like Zidane, for nearly 10 years he was almost at the same level."

The 1958 World Cup launched Pele, the phenomenon. He was just 17 and he lit up the campaign, scoring a hat-trick in the semi-final and twice as Brazil won the final. The 1970 finals confirmed his iconic global status

"The World Cup is a very important way to measure the good players, and the great ones," he said. "It is a test of a great player. In Brazil we have a group of excellent players who we call, 'The generation who doesn't win'. It is the '82 team - Zico, Socrates, Falcao, Aldair, Junior. An excellent team but it did not have luck. They have a good name, but did not win a World Cup.

"You have some players like [Alfredo] Di Stefano and Best who never played in the World Cup. Di Stefano was always compared to me. He was held up as the best player in Europe when he was playing for Real Madrid and I was playing for Santos, but unfortunately he never went to a World Cup.

"I used to say, 'George Best is not European, he is a Latin, a Brazilian player'. I used to talk with him in New York, when he was also playing in America. We'd go out after the game. He would offer me a beer and I'd say, 'No, I don't drink'. He used to say, 'Pele, what kind of King are you? You don't drink, you don't smoke.' He was an excellent player, his ball control was tremendous, but he never went to the World Cup, and that's what people remember.

"The World Cup is very important. Ronaldinho has a very big responsibility now. He goes as the best player; for Brazil he has to show that. In the Champions' League final he was very well marked, he was not brilliant."

Pele also picked out Germany's Lukas Podolski ("a very intelligent player") and Thierry Henry ("he is in good shape and could score a lot goals") as players to watch in Germany, but it is Ronaldinho who most carries the burden of expectation Pele once had on his shoulders. And it was, he said, a burden.

"People go to the field to see you and you cannot make mistakes. That's tough. In 1958 it was like a dream but 1970 was a big challenge because I was the most experienced player, Brazil had political problems, and there was a lot of expectation on me. Fortunately everything was OK, I thank God we won."

How did he deal with this burden? "I always had a philosophy which I got from my father. He used to say, 'Listen. God gave to you the gift to play football. This is your gift from God. If you take care of your health, if you are in good shape all the time, with your gift from God no one will stop you, but you must be prepared.' That is what I used to do. When I went to the field if somebody were to see my game, they maybe thought I was not so good but they would always see I was running because I wanted to give my best to my public. That is what I learnt from my father."

His father, Dondinho, made sure the young Pele did not rest on his acclaim. "He would say to me, 'That was a very good game, you played very well', but always he would find a mistake."

So who does he call 'Great?' In theory Best and Di Stefano fail the World Cup test, players like Paolo Rossi [Italy's 1982 hero] pass that, but fail on other counts. "Rossi became famous because he scored against Brazil in the World Cup, but then he disappeared," said Pele, witheringly.

He runs through a brief list, with some contradictions to his rules: "Di Stefano, in the Sixties, when Santos and Real Madrid were the two best teams in the world. Later on we have [Johan] Cruyff, Eusebio, [Gianni] Rivera, Bobby Charlton - after '66 everybody thinks Bobby Charlton. Then Maradona, Zico." Are great players always the creative ones? "No, I think of Bob [sic] Moore, [Franz] Beckenbauer, Nilton Santos, and Djalma Santos, all excellent players. But always when people discuss the best player in the world it is a forward."

By one definition, that of lifting an average team, Maradona, for his achievements with Argentina and Napoli, eclipsed Pele, who played in stronger sides. But when it comes to carrying greatness Pele is way ahead. Yet there have been low points. His son has been imprisoned and is currently bailed in relation to drug charges; his business interests have frequently been ill-advised; his attempt to be a reforming sports minister (he was Brazil's first black minister) foundered on opposition from Brazilian football's powerful vested interests.

In Brazil itself his popularity is far from universal. Alex Bellos, the Brazil-based writer who co-ghosted his autobiography, compared his status to that of Sir Paul McCartney here. But as an ambassador for his nation he has been peerless. Courteous and indefatigable, he rarely lets people down. "Sometimes, when I am in an airport or sleeping on a plane, and someone wants something [it is irritating], but I try to respect people. I never say no to kids, to people who approach me to sign something. This has been my life since I was 16 and joined the national team. My personality is [tied up] with this. It is a big responsibility so I try not to disappoint people."

Is there anywhere he is not recognised? "Maybe Alaska. I used to say I would like to play on the Moon, then maybe I would get a little peace. What surprises me is when a boy who's eight or nine recognises me in an airport and says, 'Mummy, look, it's Pele', and it's 30 years since I stopped playing."

When asked this question he had broken into one of those smiles which, terrible cliché though it is, light up a room. And you get a real sense of the extraordinary charisma he has, which must have contributed considerably to his fame.

The 20 minutes up, I show him a battered copy of a previous autobiography. He looks wistfully at a picture of him with Garrincha, then one with Coutinho. Garrincha was Pele's accomplice in the 1958 triumph and Brazil's virtuoso in the 1962 World Cup victory when Pele was injured. There are still many in Brazil who believe he was the better footballer. But he was also a womaniser and an alcoholic who died at 49 and now lies in a barely tended grave in the countryside. Coutinho was a year younger than Pele and his strike partner at Santos in 1958. "He was going to go to Sweden also, but he broke a leg," said Pele. Briefly, it seems, he reflects on the capricious nature of fate.

But for all Pele's humility he knows his place in history. As he said: "You have a lot of musicians, but only one Beethoven; a lot of painters, but only one Michelangelo; a lot of footballers, but only one Pele."

'My Autobiography' by Pele with Orlando Duarte and Alex Bellos is published by Simon & Schuster (£18.99)

Pele's arrival was like Beckham joining a team in Bombay

Pele's recollection of his abstemious time in New York is not reflected in a new film and book of the Cosmos experiment, Once in a Lifetime. In it Rodney Marsh, who played for their arch-rivals, Tampa Bay Rowdies, recalled his club arranging to meet Pele and Giorgio Chinaglia, Cosmos' prodigious goalscorer, at Tampa airport. A limousine, containing two bottles of Chivas Regal and two girls, met the pair. Tampa won 5-1.

The film does underline Pele's status. His arrival then was akin to David Beckham joining a team in Bombay now. The Cosmos were a jobbing, poorly supported club in the North American Soccer League when they were taken over by Steve Ross, head of Warner Communications.

The Cosmos began to mutate into a superstar vehicle but failed to make an impression on press or public until Pele arrived, the deal being rescued by the personal intervention of Henry Kissinger, then US Secretary of State. Within two years Cosmos were pulling in 77,000-plus gates and soccer was so fashionable the players were VIP regulars at Studio 54.

Pele has not contributed to the film. When his picture appears in the closing credits a cash register trills as the comment is made "declined to be interviewed". But everyone else has been, from Franz Beckenbauer and Johan Cruyff, to Chinaglia and Shep Messing, the goalkeeper who went from the parks team to appearing nude in Viva magazine.

Slick, funny and revealing, the film does record Pele's horror when, on his debut, he finds his legs have been coated in a green fungus. He refuses to play on, only to be told the fungus is green paint with which the club had watered the "pitch" to make it look better. It also illustrates his impact, recalling how one anti-soccer journalist took Pele to a Yankees game only to find the clamour to meet Pele so great the baseball was interrupted.

'Once in A Lifetime' (Passion Pictures) is on general release

'Once in A Lifetime' by Gavin Newsham is published by Atlantic Books (£8.99)