Pele takes own name in vain

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The Independent Football

Pele's list of the world's best 125 living footballers may indeed be an extremely sad joke, but the biggest regret is not simply that he has revealed a catastrophic judgement of talent and achievements of other players.

Pele's list of the world's best 125 living footballers may indeed be an extremely sad joke, but the biggest regret is not simply that he has revealed a catastrophic judgement of talent and achievements of other players.

Nobody, after all, ever understood the nature of his own ability more thoroughly, or nurtured it more profoundly, which is why this new century is unlikely to throw up an authentic challenger to his status as the greatest performer in the history of the game.

No, the real heartache - for such there has been in many of the game's most passionate aficionados these last few days - is that by associating his name with a travesty of assessment, Pele suggests that he also misunderstands his own place in the regard of those who love the game.

All these years he has been revered not just for the splendour of his career but his dignity as a man. His authority has invariably been softly stated, but it has been no less impressive for that. Pele has been the exemplar of everything that is good in football: superb athleticism, magnificent vision, an unparalleled beauty in execution and, most valuable of all, true humility. It is thus, in its way, tragic that he should so carelessly throw away the chance to properly evaluate his peers.

If the chore was worth undertaking, if it meant more than a little spurt of eye-catching controversy, it should have been done properly.

Inevitably, there has to be speculation on how much of a contribution he made to the Fifa-sponsored list - and certainly how much time he devoted to it. Certainly, it seems possible that he contributed little more than his name.

So what's wrong with the list? Many have leaped on the inclusion of El Hadji Diouf, who made a fleeting impression on the last World Cup but ever since has been one of the major indictments levelled against Gérard Houllier's stewardship of Liverpool. But there are rather more profound charges - perhaps the most serious being that he has casually disregarded some of the greatest glories of the game's most sublime tradition: that of his own Brazil.

While Pele includes, in a list of 17 Brazilians, worthy players like Roberto Carlos, Cafu and Rivaldo, he cannot find room for three of the key players in what many regard as the most complete international team of all time, the 1970 World Cup-winners.

Pele was at his peak in that tournament, but then so were Tostao, a short-sighted striker of genius, and the marvellous midfielder Gerson, whose left foot was part scalpel, part Stradivarius, and the wonderful Jairzinho. Never had the Brazilian game carried such an intoxicating blend of science and artistry, yet Pele includes only the full-back Carlos Alberto and the free-kick virtuoso Rivelino. The choice is perverse to a bewildering degree and only deepened in its power to confuse by Pele's selection of Falcao, Junior, Socrates and Zico of the suicidal team of the World Cup in Spain in 1982.

All four of them were hugely talented players, but their gifts were almost criminally thrown away against Italy, the eventual winners. Junior was most directly responsible when he abandoned his defensive duties on a cavalier run, and allowed Paolo Rossi to deliver the sword stroke that plunged all of Brazil, and much of the world, into mourning.

In a straw poll among some cognoscenti yesterday there was not much doubt about one strong contender for classification as Pele's supreme outrage. It was the omission of Marco van Basten, a striker of beautifully honed aggression. Van Basten was at the head of the superb Dutch troika which carried Milan to a spate of European Cup triumphs, and he was the key factor in the Netherlands' 1988 European Championship win - a rare major title for maybe the most gifted football nation never to win the World Cup.

Van Basten was one of those players who achieved a perfect mastery of all his natural talent. He was as hard as a diamond in the matter of punishing opponents, and that he should not make Pele's list is a shocking commentary on its lack of depth and perception.

Elsewhere it is a case of take your pick from a battery of dubious priorities. David Beckham is preferred to Sir Tom Finney in the England choices, and from the great roll call of Scottish individual brilliance only Kenny Dalglish gets the nod. So Denis Law and Dave Mackay and at least a dozen other magnificent players are excluded. It is a value system that is mind-bogglingly erratic.

We could go on for some time. We could ask how it is that Eric Cantona, the hero of Old Trafford, makes Pele's pantheon of greatness despite the fact that even his greatest admirers cannot point to one significant performance on the European stage, and that France washed their hands of him throughout his sojourn at Old Trafford?

We can wonder about the absence of so many great players, but in the end the process itself has to be questioned. How many times did Pele see the wondrous passing game of Johnny Haynes or the rounded brilliance of Finney. Perhaps never. So what are we left with? Nothing more than another insulting piece of hype. The problem, of course, is that this one carries the name of Pele. This is the scandal - and the pain.