At a peak, Alfredo di Stefano, Diego Maradona and George Best came close but not close enough. Pele had it all; technical brilliance, imagination, remarkable vision, physical vigour, pace, stamina, persistence, enormous presence and a great passion for the game. If provoked he could be spiteful too.
Nobody in football today compares with Pele, but because of predictable loose thinking in some areas of my trade it is bound to be a burden for the 22-year-old Brazilian international Juninho, whose transfer from Sao Paulo to Middlesbrough has understandably raised a great deal of excitement.
Juninho is no more the natural successor to Pele than his hero, the richly talented Zico, was. He is a gifted, frail-looking forward whose creative instincts, along with the impression that he had been diverted from a schoolboy game, were immediately evident in the Umbro Cup here last summer.
Since Brazilian football is noted for nothing so much as its flair, an interesting thing personally is that at first sight, both in appearance and on the ball, Juninho evoked memories of two fine English players from 30 and more years ago, George Eastham of Arsenal, Newcastle and Stoke, and Tommy Harmer of Tottenham and Chelsea. A deft dribbler and thoughtful passer, Eastham won 22 caps but, like Harmer, who performed many feats of productive wizardry for Tottenham Hotspur, was considered to be lacking in strength and resilience.
It is possible that something similar will soon be expressed about Juninho as it was when Brazil's captain, Dunga, first came across him in the national team's dressing-room before a match against Israel. Astonished by the new recruit's boyish appearance, Dunga asked Mario Zagalo whether it had become a policy to select players from the youth team. Two hours later, Dunga knelt theatrically at Juninho's feet.
That tale emerged from an interpreted conversation I had with Juninho one evening last summer. New to our love affair with Brazilian football, he was thrilled by praise for his skills and the team's reception generally. "I want to thank everybody who has spoken and written good things about us," he said. If a British footballer has ever said anything similar it must have been when it was fashionable to turn out in tasselled headgear.
A popular misconception about Brazilian football is that skills are shaped on the beaches of Rio. Pele, in fact, developed on the dusty, rutted streets of a remote railway junction and did not see the ocean until he was selected as a teenager for junior representative matches.
Neither does Juninho conform to the notion of football as a means of escape from disenfranchisement. He is from what is regarded in Brazil as a middle-class family and is, importantly I think, a product of the football schools that have grown up there in recent years.
That Juninho should prove so effective internationally when looking as though he should be introduced to a diet of suet pudding and stout, is not only a tribute to his inner strength but perhaps significant to the controversy that surrounds Matthew Le Tissier's continued omission from the England team.
To suppose Le Tissier would be an automatic selection for Brazil is to be in ignorance of qualities demanded by activity in leagues that can be more brutal than any in the world. For example, Brazil would probably have won the 1982 World Cup in Spain but for the absence of a brilliant centre-forward, Reinaldo, also from Sao Paulo, whose career was ended prematurely by a succession of savage tackles that wrecked both his knees.
Skill has never been the solitary basis for selection in Brazil as Pele never failed to demonstrate. Since retiring he has said, "People may say that technically Pele was not so good or that he missed some goals he should have scored. But never in my 25 years as a player could anyone say that Pele does not run in the field."
There is no guarantee that Juninho will instantly be a spectacular success in the Premiership, but we can be sure that his attitude will ridicule the empty-headed notion that a player with sublime gifts is entitled to special dispensation.Reuse content