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Why is Pelé still the greatest of all time?


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Dear readers, I will explain in 7 arguments why I consider Pelé to be the greatest footballer of all time.

1 – Because he was the most complete offensive player in football history 

Pelé had no noticeable flaws in his game. Legends Tostão and Gianni Rivera help us understand why:


Pelé had, in the highest level, all the virtues and technical, pyshical and mental caracteristics of a great player. 

Pelé was the greatest because he had it all: playing intelligence, skill, creativity, he could shoot, he was fast, he could had the ball, he could do it all. .

Gianni Rivera:

Messi is quite a weapon for Barca. Having him in your team is huge, he’s the most decisive player right now. However, I do think there’s someone who was even better and that’s Pele. He used both feet on the pitch. He was as dangerous with his right as he was with his left. He was strong in the air as well, and created a lot of chances.

The King’s right foot was his favorite, but he was perfectly capable with his left; he could kick hard and bend it with precision, and dish magic passes. like we can see in the video below.

 He also had amazing ball control: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vN-ubmjnKiI

Likewise, he was excellent at the aerial game (despite his short statute,  5ft 7 ¾) and scored amazing headers:

Even if he was not known as a free-kick specialist, Pelé is the second player with the most of those goals in football history; he scored 70 direct free-kicks goals, behind only the expert Juninho. He could score free kicks from close or long range, with a lot or less power:


 Anyway, strong, agressive, fast, skillful, two footed, Pele could dribble and score in every way possible: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ioA0DwrriWM

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2 – Because he did score more than 1000 goals  

Initially, it is important to clarify that, despite his crazy number of goals, Pelé was never a striker (or a center forward, the “9”). He played as a “10”, the “ponta de lança”, that in his time looked like a mix of today’s attacking midfilder and forward (I suggest the reading of my article called: “Pelé was a true number 10: his position on field and the formations from the golden age of Brazilian football“). Thus, he was not just a scorer, but also an impressive playmaker. In that regard, Pelé is the all time assist leader in World Cups and also for the Brazillian National team overall with 64 assists in 115 games (counting non official games); in only officiall games, he has  47 assists in 92 matches (0.51 average).

Note added to this post in 10/11/2020: check the amazing historic research done for “goal.com” by the competent Brazilian journalist Tomás Rosolino, who tracked, based on several sources, almost every single assist in the Seleção’s history.

Pelé scored 1282 goals in his professional career (ergo, not counting youth goals for Santos or Brazil).  Out of all of those, 767 were in official games by today’s standards. Because of that, may disregard his 515 goals scored in friendly cups and games. I consider that to be a huge mistake (result of ignorant anachronism) because of the following reasons.

At first, it is important to inform people that Pele had basically the same goal average in official (0.92 per game) and non official matches (0.94 per game).

Well, in Pelé’s time, friendlies did not carry the low importance they do today (clubs play just a few of those a year). To clarify their weight back then, Santos even quit playing 3 Libertadores (66,67 and 1969) to play in “friendly” cups across the globe. Several of those tournaments and games were extremely competive (teams did really want to beat the great team of the best player in the world) and involved some of the best teams in the world with their first squads (like Real Madrid with Puskas, Gento and Di Stefano and Barcelona with Evaristo, Kocksis e Czibor; both in 1959); we also have as an example the 1966 New York Cup, when Santos easily beat a first team Benfica (main core of the Portuguese National team, with all time greats like Eusébio and Colina) by 4 goals to 0.

By the way,  people also like to disdain the absurd number of Pelé goals, because they were mostly scored in Brazil. Well, you cannot judge the level of Brazilian football back then by the football played in Brazil today. Brazil had its golden generation in the Pelé era, winning 3 out of 4 World Cups (all those squads had only Brazilian based players). Beyond legendary Brazilian athletes, there was great South American players in Brazil like Roberto Perfumo and Pedro Rocha. Even smaller teams had very good players; one must remember that the great Djalma Santos was a Portuguesa player during the 1958 World Cup. Therefore, Pelé routinely faced all those players in several tournaments like the Paulista league (that had much more importance tham today; it is said that Santos valued the Paulista more than the Libertadores), Rio-São Paulo, the Taça Brasil (Brazilian Cup), among others. Also, we cannot forget Pelé’s incredible goal average against European clubs: 1.10 per game; 144 goals in 130 matches; better numbers than his career average.

Dear readers, how can one disdain tours like Santos had in 1959? 10 goals in 6 games (all away from home and in a short period of time) against giants like Internazionale, Valencia, Sporting (second team with most players in the great Portuguese National team of the 60’s), Real Madrid (with Puskas, Gento, Di Stefano, Santamaría and Del Sol), Barcelona (Evaristo, Kocsis and Czibor) e Botafogo (Nilton Santos, Didi, Garrincha and Zagallo). Observation: I’ve found all those lineups in a great book called “Almanaque do Santos” by Guilherme Nascimento.

06/17/1959 Santos 3 x 5 Real Madrid/SPA – Pelé scored l goal;

06/19/1959 Santos 2 x 2 Sporting/POR – Pelé, 1 goal;

06/21/1959 Santos 4 x 1 Botafogo-RJ – Pelé, 1 goal;

06/24/1959 Santos 4 x 4 Valencia/SPA – Pelé, 1 goal;

06/26/1959 Santos 7 x 1 Internazionale/ITA – Pelé, 4 goals;

06/28/1959 Santos 5 x 1 Barcelona/SPA – Pelé, 2 goals.

Another common critique is that Pelé only scored so many goals, because goal average was crazily higher in his time (there are people who think there was double, triple of even quadruple of goals compared to today’s game). There is some truth in that: goal average was indeed higher. However, it was only slightly higher, like we can see in the history of goal average in World Cups (see that, during Pelés era, we see a considerable higher number only in 1958).


In that same reasoning, we can use Pelé’s Santos and Messi’s Barcelona (the genius scorer of current football) to reinforce such understanding. Santos with the Brazilian  scored 2.94 goals per game, also just a bit higher than Barcelona with Messi: 2.49 (data up to 2015).  In regard to individual numbers, even if we adapt the number of the King’s goals in regard to those scored by his team in his era, we can notice that even so he had a greater percentage of his team’s goals than “La Pulga”.

There is also the following argument: “Pelé even counts his goals scored in the army”.  Yes, he does. However, it’s only 13 total goals! One can easily dismiss them without great damage. Furthermore, it is essential to know the crazy amount of games Pelé played each year. He went on to play 103 matches in 1959 (almost 1 game each 3 days, including several outside Brazil), scoring an incredible 127 goals. Well, let us imagine how even more impressive his numbers in “official games” would be with a better rested Pele (without some many games and travels). Another reason why that makes unfair simple excluding all of his goals in friendlies.

We also must not forget that there are in current football many more official games and tournaments. That is the main reason why Neymar will probably pass Pelé in the all time scoring list for the Brazilian National team, even though he has a much lower goal average and regularly faces weak teams like El Salvador and Honduras in easy cash games for CBF.

Because of everything written here so far, I believe it is possible to conclude that Pelé did score more than 1000 goals. Even if we disregard all of his goals against mixed and amateur teams (Pelé scored 3 goals for the São Paulo Athlete Union, 6 for a Vasco/Santos team, 1 against a Flamengo/Juventude team, 2 against a B Bulgaria National Team, 2 against a Sampdoria/Genova team, 2 against the U.S All Stars and 1 for the Seleção of Sudeste; 17 total goals), for state teams  (9 for the Paulista Team), Army team (13 goals) and non official goals for the Brazilian national team (18), and count only his official goals and friendly cups and games against European, Brazilia and South American clubs (among others), Pelé would still have incredible 1225 goals!  

3 – Because he was a great club winner

Besides his incredible individual numbers for Santos (642 goals in 656 official games; 0.97 average), Pelé also won several times the most important titles available in his time:

Campeonato Brasileiro Série A (6): 1961, 1962, 1963, 1964, 1965, 1968; Copa Libertadores (2): 1962, 1963; Intercontinental Cup (2): 1962, 1963; Intercontinental Supercup: 1968; Campeonato Paulista (10): 1958, 1960, 1961, 1962, 1964, 1965, 1967, 1968, 1969, 1973 (note: extremely important league and it had the most games in the King’s days; he was the leading scorer 11 times, including 9 times in a row between 1957 and 1965). Torneio Rio-São Paulo (4): 1959, 1963, 1964.

It is worh to highlight his amazing performance against European Champions Milan in Benfica in the Intercontinental Cup (7 goals in 3 games). In the 1962 Cup, Pelé had perhaps his best game ever, destroying the great Benfica with incredible 3 goals and 1 assist.

4 – Because he was a winner for Brazil

Again, besides his incredible individual numbers (77 goals in 95 official games; 0.84 average), Pelé won several titles for the Brazilian National Team, like 3 World Cups, something that no one has ever achieved to this day:

FIFA World Cup (3): 1958, 1962, 1970;

Rocca Cup: 1957 and 1963;

Atlantic Cup: 1960;

Oswaldo Cruz Cup: 1958, 1962 and 1968;

Bernardo O’Higgins Cup: 1959.

It is important to say that, yes, Pele only played one full game in the 1962 World Cup, because he got injured in the second game against Czechoslovakia. About that, journalists like Tim Vickery argue that Pelé would probably have his best World Cup performance that year, since he was at his absolute peak. We could see a glimpse of that in Brazil’s debut in that World Cup against Mexico, in which Pelé had a marvelous game (1 great goal and 1 assist):

Pelé was masterful in the 1958 and 1970 World Cups. In 58, at age 17, the teenager Pele scored 6 goals in the last 3 games (including 3 in the semi-final against France and 2 in the final against home team Sweden).

In 1970, he led the team that many consider to be the best of all time. He was named Player of the Tournament and his performance was full of amazing plays, including ones where he did not even score the goal.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k85liXbZiao In his World Cup Finals appearances, Pelé had 12 goals and 10 assists (all time leader) in just 14 games. At his only Copa America, 1959 in Argentina, the King was the Cup leading scorer and Brazil finished undefeated, but in second place (a controversial draw against home team Argentina decided the title – the cup was played in a round-robin system.

5 – Because he was clutch in finals. 

Pelé was a super clutch player, because he was extremely decisive in the finals he played on. Wondrously, he only failed to score in a single title final game: a 0 to 0 draw against Flamengo in the 1964 Brazilian Championship (Taça Brasil). Nonetheless, it is important to state that Pelé had scored 3 times in a smashing 4 to 0 win against Flamengo in the first game of that final.

Furthermore, Pelé only actually played in one losing final match in his entire career (the other final he lost, against Bahia, he was injured in the final game): Santos against Cruzeiro in the final game of the 1966 Brazilian Championship.

Next we can see a summary of his numbers in finals (the complete list may be seen at my article “Pelé and Messi in Finals“):

14 finals

12 finals won (85.71%);

2 finals lost (14.29%);

23 games, 17 wins (73.91%), 1 draw (4.34%) and 5 losses (21.73%);

Goals for – 69 (3 per game);

Goals against – 36 (1.52 per game);

Goals by Pelé – 29 (1.26 per game) – 42.02% of his team’s goals and 27.61% of total goals scored; the great Messi, for example (untill 2016) had 23 goals in finals (0.71 per game) – 39.65 % of his team’s goals and 24.46% of total goals scored);

Hat-tricks – 3 (13.04%);

Games with a least 2 goals – 10 (43.47%);

Games with at least 1 goal – 16 (69.56%);

Games without scoring – 7 (30.43%).


6 – Because the biggest football legends consider Pele to be the greatest ever. 


According to a research I did in my article “The best football (soccer) player of all time according to the greatest legends of the sport“, several of the biggest names in football (players and coaches; all in statements from less than 10 years ago, meaning they got to see recent greats like Maradona,  Cristiano Ronaldo and Messi) have Pelé as the greatest of them all. Some examples below (references are in the original article):

Di Stéfano in 2012:

The best player ever? Pele. Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo are both great players with specific qualities, but Pele was better;

Zico in 2014:

No doubt, he is the greatest ever. When God built Pelé, he put everything that a player needs in him. He knew how to shoot, how to dribble, how to head, be physical. He had everything that a football player needs to have. It’s difficult for someone to achieve what he has in football.” Tactically, technically, physically, mentally he was the best. A lot of things that I learnt was from Pele’s sticker albums: how to head, how to shoot the ball. It was like a step-by-step guide. I learnt from Pele as a kid;

Gianni Rivera in 2012:

Messi is quite a weapon for Barca. Having him in your team is huge, he’s the most decisive player right now, However, I do think there’s someone who was even better and that’s Pele. He used both feet on the pitch. He was as dangerous with his right as he was with his left. He was strong in the air as well, and created a lot of chances;

Menotti (Argentina Coach who won the 1978 World Cup and also coached Maradona in the 1982 World Cup) in 2012:

The best of all was Pele, who is a mixture of [Alfredo] Di Stefano, [Diego] Maradona, [Johan] Cruyff and Leo Messi.;

Franz Beckenbauer in 2015:

But now he (Messi) is the best player in the world and of his time. However, the best ever is Pele. He is just ahead of Messi. I’ve never seen a player like Pele. I played with him at the New York Cosmos and you would give him the ball and just not see him again because he was too fast. Pele was all instinct

7 – Because he was an inovator in his sport and broke racial barriers  

In order to understand the magnitude of Pelé’s impact, it is essential to understand just how colossal racism was during those days (unfortunately, racism still persists today in different forms). In 1958, the year of the King’s first World Cup win, just 11 years had passed since racial barrier was broken in American sports by Jackie Robinson (first African-American player in the modern Major League of Baseball), just 8 since African American players could really compete in the NBA, and even worst, there still existed “expositions” in Europe where black men (including children) were exposed like they were exotic animals. Like the great Brazilian poet once wrote: “God of the unfortunates! You tell me God, If it is madness…if it is the truth So much horror below the skies?!“.

In those dark and scary days, a young Black Brazilian man was praised in stadiums all over Europe, North America and the whole world as the true King of Soccer. An unbelievable, fantastic and revolutionary feat. It is essential to repeat here a bit of my article “Pelé and racism“, to explain, that even though, sadly, Pelé did not take an active role in the fight agains racism, he, gladly, had a monumental role in that matter:

However, although ideal and worthy of praise, it is essential to say that Pelé (or any other person) had no obligation of getting personally involved in militancy of any kind. Nonetheless, even not participating in ‘black activism’, Pelé, specially during his reign as football’s superstar (1958-1977), was important in the fight against racism. For that, it was only needed the blackness of the most popular sport’s greatest player and worldwide idol in extreme racist time. In that position, he shattered almost unbroken barriers, like being treated as royalty and living legend in Europe, and being the first black man on the cover of Life Magazine’ (from a country, United States, where segregation laws were still common). Furthermore, Pele was an inspiration for many by not being ashamed of his skin color; that was the opinion of his time and of the legendary journalist Mário Filho (author of the classic book ‘O negro no futebol brasileiro’ – ‘The black man in Brazilian football), as explained by Brazilian historians Francisco Carlos Teixeira da Silva and Ricardo Pinto in the book ‘Futebol e Política – Memória Social dos Esportes’ (Football and Politics – Social memory of sports – free translation): ‘According to Mário Filho, the recrudescence of racism in result of Brazil’s defeat in the 1950 Final would only be defeated with the winning Brazilian team in the 1958 World Cup. That overcoming would pass through the magical feet of a mulatto and a black man, respectively, Garrincha and Pelé. Actually, it was up to Pele to change the status of the black player. Differently from the great black players from the past, Pele was not ashamed of his skin color, he was proud of being black. He liked being called the Negro, The black man. That behavior from the best Brazilian player was an example for the other players who still felt inferior because of their skin color. Because of that, the journalist concludes: ‘Someone like Pele was missing to complete the work of Princess Isabel (note: she signed the law the emancipated slaves in Brazil). The black man was free, but felt the curse of color. The slavery of color’.

Mário Mário Filho also said in his book about Pelé’s role:

The black players in football really tried, as they rose, to be less black, They had their hair straightened, did plastic surgeries, escaping their color There lies Pele’s important role, the Kind of Football, who is proud to be black. Not to confront anyone, but to exalt his mother, father, grandfather, uncle, the poor family of black people who prepared him for glory. No black man in the world has contributed more (note: it was written in the early 60’s) to sweep racial barriers than Pele. Whoever applauds him, applauds a black man. That’s why Pele never had his hair straightened: he is black like his father, like his mother, like his grandmother, like his uncle, like his brother. To exalt them, he exalts the black man. That’s why he is more than a black man: he is the ‘Black man’. The others black players recognize him: for them, Pele is just ‘the Negro’.

Besides the racial issue, Pelé also had a huge impact in football itself. Before him, the number 10 was just another number; after him (curious enough, the number was randomly drawn to him in the 1958 World Cup) it became to symbolize the best player of teams all around the world, worn by legends like Zico, Maradona, Platini, Ronaldinho and Messi.

Pelé was also an innovator in the physical and technical aspects of the game. Like Cristiano Ronaldo today, he was clearly physical ahead of his opponents; he took that part very seriously, unlike other footballers from his time. He combined that with his incredible innovations in technical ability, creating and improving dribbling moves still used today, like we can see in the amazing video below:

Note: the original video above is this one: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sYokNMEgRvw https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5PHtxlO_Ys8

Therefore, because of those reasons explained in this article, Pelé is still the greatest of all time!

P.S. (added in 07/10/2020): It is also important to report that was chosen not only as the greatest footballer, but as the greatest athlete of 20th century by:

a) International olympic committee in 1999 (even though he never payed in the Olympic games!). [1] [2]

b) Reuters news agency in 1999. [1] [2]

c) L’Equipe in 1980. [1] [2] [3]

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  1. Roussean7

    An excellent article and you made several great points. In my opinion he is not only the greatest player and champion in soccer history, but the greatest athlete in any sport.

  2. Wandile

    Great articl, The Black Pearl still remains the most essential sports figure in all of Football.I would say that at this point Messi has surpassed him though. Given that he played much deeper, was more creative and only slightly less as good of a goal scorer.

    • Comment by post author

      Otávio Pinto

      Thanks! Messi is a true football genius, but I don’t agree he plays much deeper than Pelé used to. Certainly not for Barcelona, where he has even played as a false 9. Pelé was never the “9” of his teams. Please read my article about Pelé’s position (link at the end). And Pelé was inventive and creative as they come. Don’t forget he is the all time world cup leader in assists with 10. http://otaviopinto.com/index.php/2016/07/14/pele-10-formation/

      • Quicksilver

        It’s totally insane that anyone can argue that Messi is anywhere close to Pele. There is Pele, then there is everybody else. On the ‘everybody else’ list, perhaps we can talk about Messi somewhere on that list but with no World Cup win, forget it. For the students of the game, who have watched the old films, and have watched all of the recent players come through, Pele is head and shoulders above everyone else (like his header in the ’70 final!)
        -3 World Cups, the first at age 17 (Maradona wasn’t even included in the ’78 team at the same age. And Maradona did nothing in 82 or 90. The ’86 cup of course was all his)
        -1,000 plus goals, and they played far fewer games than they play now.
        -He was the most complete of all complete players- two footed, could head, the best dribbler, one of the greatest passers of all time, stamina, speed, vision. He was both the best striker and the best midfielder.
        -Attacking players now have ALL the advantages that Pele did not have. Football was brutal and red and yellow cards were rare, and they didn’t even have cards prior to 1970!
        -So many of the fields were in terrible shape and he STILL could do what he did with the ball. Simply amazing.
        Thanks for the article

        • Comment by post author

          Otávio Pinto

          Thanks for the nice comment, Quicksilver. Messi is a true football genius, but, like the great Tostão recently said, he does not have the mental toughness (Pele, unlike Messi, would rise in clutch moments) and physical strength that the Brazilian King had.

  3. Adonis Habib

    A very interesting article. I became a fan of the Brazilian football just by watching Pele. Just as an illustration of his technical ability, I have never seen anyone of the great players (Maradona, Messi, Ronaldo, etc..) do the trick he did against Uruguay in the 1970 world cup semi final where he sent the goalkeeper to the wrong side by just using his body. The trick was so well executed that the goalkeeper did not even realise that he had missed the ball. Of course there are so many other tricks he did. I would like to remind everyone that have we had the same television coverage in Pele’s time that we have today nobody would be discussing who is the best ever because the only answer would be Pele

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