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Pele, the perfect player

Frank Malley
Thursday 23 December 1999 01:00 GMT

He wore a shirt of thrilling gold and the colour could not have been more appropriate. For no-one has brought more sunshine to the world of sport than Edson Arantes do Nascimento - otherwise known as Pele.

He wore a shirt of thrilling gold and the colour could not have been more appropriate. For no-one has brought more sunshine to the world of sport than Edson Arantes do Nascimento - otherwise known as Pele.

It is a century which has seen the natural genius of Maradona, the silkiness of Cruyff, the grace of Beckenbauer, the power of Puskas and the magic of Best.

But Pele is the one player who transcended soccer. With the possible exception of Muhammad Ali, he is the most famous and popular sportsman of the Millennium.

He is certainly the greatest footballer who has ever lived. As the Millennium approaches and players command £20million transfer fees and £50,000-a-week wages it makers you wonder just what his mercurial talents would be worth in the modern market place.

Just read and savour the achievements. He was a first-team regular for Santos in 1956 at the age of 16, scoring on his debut for Brazil the following year.

His international reputation was established in the 1958 World Cup when as a 17-year-old he scored a hat-trick in the semi-final and two goals in the 5-2 defeat of Sweden in the final.

He won two more World Cup medals, in 1962 - though injury kept him out of the final - and in 1970. He won his 111th and final cap in 1971 and scored 97 goals for Brazil, though on a stricter international match definition his record reads 77 in 92 games.

In all he played 1,363 first class matches, scoring 1,281 goals and later added two more in special appearances.

That is a phenomenal and unsurpassed strike rate, but bare statistics cannot do justice to a player with a serene temperament, a sharp and inventive mind, a powerful and athletic body and a reputation as a quiet, modest, sincere gentleman.

Not that he was a soft touch. Indeed, when during a mini-World Cup in Brazil in 1964 Pele was being hacked unmercifully by Argentinian defenders, he laid one out on his back, nose splattered, on the edge of his own penalty area.

It is a testament to Pele's reserve and talent that his skills flourished, even though he was the world's most marked player throughout his career.

He was kicked out of the World Cup in England in 1966 by a Portuguese side, not especially dirty, just frightened witless by his magical talents.

Pele threatened to quit the game after being carried from the Goodison Park pitch that day. Thankfully his love for soccer made him rethink, otherwise football lovers would not have enjoyed the cherished memories of the 1970 World Cup and Pele inspiring what is generally regarded as the best side in soccer history.

Every fan has their special Pele moment from that glorious tournament. His outrageous dummy against Uruguay, when he ran away from the ball to bamboozle the goalkeeper before still managing a shot on goal.

His shot from the half-way line, the header which made Gordon Banks a national hero with a save acclaimed as the best of all time.

Or the simple trap and pass in the penalty area to set up Carlos Alberto's thunderous shot for the clinching goal in the World Cup final against Italy.

There were so many. But perhaps one of the most enduring images is Pele standing bare-chested, exchanging shirts with England captain Bobby Moore after Brazil's 1-0 victory in Guadalajara in the group stage.

It was the classic duel - Moore, the world's best defender, against Pele, the most accomplished offensive player before or since.

As they stood at the end, unable to speak each other's language but with a hand on each other's face in mutual admiration, the respect was obvious.

And perhaps the words of Moore, a dignified, stylish yet no less passionate opponent, captured the essence of Pele more powerfully than any mere observer.

"Pele was the most complete player I've ever seen," Moore later said. "He had everything. Two good feet. Magic in the air. Quick. Powerful. Could beat people with skill. Could outrun people. Only 5ft 8in tall, yet he seemed a giant of an athlete on the pitch. Perfect balance and impossible vision.

"He was the greatest because he could do anything and everything on a football pitch. I remember Saldhana the coach being asked by a Brazilian journalist who was the best goalkeeper in his squad. He said Pele. The man could play in any position."

He retired at the end of the 1974 season but a lucrative contract with New York Cosmos in the United States saw his return the following year. He pulled in crowds of 70,000 to the Giants Stadium, even though people didn't know what soccer was before he arrived.

When he finally hung up his boots for good in 1977 the NASL effectively died.

Pele, who was born in Tres Coracoes, Brazil, on October 23, 1940, has accumulated many business interests and his career as a roving ambassador has earned him vast wealth.

But despite his material success he has always remained modest, likeable and approachable, characteristics which served him well in his political ambitions which saw him rise to the post of Brazilian sports minister in 1995, when he led a campaign to tackle corruption in football.

His philosophy has always been simple.

"Football is the ultimate in team sport," says Pele. "And no individual can win a game by himself. Pele is a famous name, but Pele made his goals because another player passed to him at the proper time.

"And Brazil won games because Pele didn't try to make the goals by himself, but passed to others when required so that the goal could be scored."

It is the true definition of the 'Beautiful Game' - by the man who made the sun shine on soccer.

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