Why Pele remains the greatest ever footballer

Settling the debate — if there was any.

Who is the greatest footballer of all time?

Every follower of the beautiful game has asked themselves this question many times and debated it frequently. With questions like this, the first thing that comes to mind is:

How do we measure greatness?

It is broad. But we need a criteria that is objective and quantifiable. Otherwise the debate is always around aesthetics which can make comparison ambiguous.

To make it manageable, I’ve devised 3 criteria which effectively mimic the table in football leagues — Played, Won and Goals For:

  • Longevity: The players making our list have been talismanic players for club and country. I’ll use total games played as a sign of longevity.
  • Trophies: This is tricky. However, when we need to decide between different options, it is best to use an simple, absolute and brutal differentiation. For this reason, I’ve kept it to International Trophies — World Cup, European Championship and Copa America. The bar is set high and we’re talking about the best of the best. So it is justifiable. I’m not counting club honors except maybe as a tie-breaker.
  • Goals: The total number of goals scored in all competitions. There is an argument that this metric will exclude traditionally non-scoring players. But, when all is said and done, football is about scoring goals. Goals win games. Players who score goals to win games become legendary.

I’m helped by some facts. Football is unique — most of its greatest exponents, are still alive, and two are active at the peak of their careers. The period of time I’m comparing is around 60 years — a manageable range. Also, despite having changed with the times, football has retained its fundamental rules and format. This means, we can compare across time with some consistency.

Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them — William Shakespeare

Shortlist

The top 10 players in football are frequently ranked by many journalists, people and magazines. I consider two old and two recent sources.

The oft-quoted World Soccer poll of the 100 greatest players of the (now last) century had Pele, Maradona and Cruyff at its apex. Beckenbauer, Platini, di Stefano, Puskas, Best, van Basten and Eusebio rounded up the top 10.

The FIFA Player of the Century list contained a similar group. In the Grand Jury awards, the players included were Pele, di Stefano, Maradona, Beckenbauer, Cyruff/Best, and a five-way tie between Platini, Garrincha, Zico, Muller, Baggio.

These lists focused on the previous century. Newer lists include players who have risen to prominence in this century.

According to a latest list, which I give preference because they’ve stated their selection criteria, the top 10 reads: Pele, Messi, Maradona, Zidane, Beckenbauer, C Ronaldo, di Stefano, Cryuff, Platini and Xavi.

For contrast, another list published this year shakes things up a little bit: Maradona, Messi, Pele, Cryuff, C Ronaldo, di Stefano, Beckenbauer, Zidane, Puskas, Ronaldo

Based on these data sources, I narrow down the top 8 players based on a set of criteria — for all players appearing at least twice in the above lists, I take a sum of the ranks i.e. lowest score is best. As wildcard, I will include Xavi. Although he appears only once above, he has won every trophy on offer for club and country, at least once, which makes him strong on my international trophies criteria.

My selection pool has 9 players:

Pele, Messi, Maradona, Zidane, Beckenbauer, C Ronaldo, di Stefano, Cruyff, Xavi

Verdict

Pele is the clear winner in all criteria. His three-time World Cup winning feat, from four World Cup appearances, is unlikely to be matched. Pele scored a Guinness World Record 1279 goals in 1363 games and also collected the following personal records along the way:

  • Youngest winner of a World Cup,
  • Youngest scorer in World Cup — age of 17!
  • Top scorer of Brazil National Football Team — which given their abundance of attacking riches speaks for itself
  • One of only 3 people to have scored in 4 World Cup events

Scoring twice in the Final (1958) aged 17, when in most countries people of that age are considered too young to drive or vote!

When we factor in the heavier footballs back in the day, the ‘liberal’ hacking of forwards (Red and Yellow cards were only introduced in World Cup in 1970) and generally aged technologies in terms of pitch, clothing etc. Pele’s legend shines out even more.

Winning 3 World Cups is enough in itself as a differentiating criteria. Add to it the above records: the debate is over.

Wikimedia

Close…but no cigar

Maradona, often considered an alternative contender for the greatest footballer title, scored 312 goals from 590 club appearances with another 34 for Argentina from 91 games. He has one World Cup to his credit.

With 774 appearances and 610 goals, Messi has good goals and longevity stats, and is indeed the leading goal scorer for Barcelona, La Liga and Champions League. Where he loses ground is international trophies (zero so far). His contemporary and archrival, C Ronaldo compares well (615 goals from 875 appearances) but goes better due to his European Championship medal.

Cruyff (401 goals from 709 appearances) loses ground for having no international trophies. Alfredo di Stefano is identical for international trophy count (zero) and similar for appearances, but has scored more (510) goals.

Zidane, is lower in goals (156) from the above players but up there for appearances (789) and has a good international trophy record having won the World Cup and European Championship. Beckenbauer has the same trophy record as Zidane, fewer goals (108) but more appearances (812). Considering that he was a defender, his goal tally is quite good. Midfielder Xavi has a similar goal count (114) but from over a 1000 appearances. However, Xavi’s international trophy cabinet stands at 3, similar to Pele, but of course only 1 World Cup (and 2 European Championships).

It becomes obvious that the battle really is for second place. Pele is head and shoulders above the rest — no pun intended.

For the common person, the top 3 of all time, anecdotally, would probably be Pele, Messi, Ronaldo or Pele, Maradona, Cruyff depending on your age or frame of reference. This group of players will make up most Top 3 almost every time.


My ranking

When I assign a rank based weighted scoring metric to my criteria, and assign points to our selection, some interesting points emerge.

Pele, of course, is first and — by a significant margin.

  • Cristiano Ronaldo and Xavi take second and third place. This is explained by their number of appearances (both), goal scoring record (Ronaldo) and international trophy count (Xavi).
  • Zidane and Messi come 4th equal. Messi due to his goalscoring record and Zidane bouyed by international trophy count.
  • Beckenbauer, Cruyff, di Stefano and Maradona fill in the remaining spaces. This sequence is interesting because Beckenbauer is a defender and leads 3 of the best forward/attacking midfield talents ever. Cruyff and di Stefano hold on despite not winning international trophies. This group in many ways shows that genuine talent comes through via one dimension or another.

Of all the 9 players in our selection, only Ronaldo and Messi are active. In all likelihood, Messi will overtake Ronaldo in terms goals and appearances. This brings us to what commentators world-wide have been saying for some time — Messi needs a World Cup to establish his legacy as a true great. While Pele most probably won’t be surpassed, this achievement for Messi could help settle the debate between C Ronaldo and Messi.


Pele was in his prime between 1958–1970 and even today, the contest is not even close.

My idols tend to be more from the great Dutch and Italian sides of the late 80’s/early 90s and from players between then and now (e.g. Henry, Messi etc.). It is not easy to compare across generations but in this case, the difference is clear.

When we consider his off-field work with FIFA and UN, his legend transcends football even. When we add his humble beginnings and the prevailing social context of that time, any comparison halts summarily.

Indeed, if we are comparing across generations, that only further the legend of Pele because he was one of the earliest definers of football. He played over 60 years ago and the skills he pioneered are still being emulated by players today. In fact, the older generation deserves more credit in any comparison because they tried it first. They did it first. Subsequent generations had the advantage of seeing them, learning about their styles and setting off from there. But the original generation were the pioneers on whose shoulders (borrowing from Isaac Newton) the newer generation has seen further.

Pele remains the “Face of Football” and the benchmark for total achievement both on and off the field. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) named Pele as the Athlete of the Century, proving how his appeal and legend now transcends even football.



Greatness

So far, we’ve looked at the differences between Pele and the rest. More importantly, the similarity between the greatest players is more telling.

Generally speaking, the top 10 players in football have incredible talent but also statistics to back their claim to greatness. Football is full of talented players. In fact, anything less than a top 100 does not do justice to the types of skills we’ve seen. In our selection, 7/9 have won international trophies and collectively, have a median count of around 400 goals from around 800 appearances. Staggering.

I am constantly being asked about individuals. The only way to win is as a team. Football is not about one or two or three star players. — Pele

More importantly, all players in our selection, played (or play) a pivotal role in their team’s performance.

They’ve directly impacted their team’s performance. Be it a crucial cup-winning goal, game-changing skill, thought leadership (e.g. total football), or indeed even intelligent defence (sweeper), these players have been instrumental to team success — and visibly so.

They make a tangible difference and do so repeatedly — at the highest level. Ultimately, this is what greatness is truly about.


Postscript: Stats as of Nov 2017. Since then, the statistics of Ronaldo and Messi have only changed marginally. With both exiting the World Cup in the knockout rounds, and all the rest retired, the rankings don’t change. Kylian Mbappe has become the first teenager to score in a World Cup Final since Pele, although he was almost two years older.

If anything, every new statistic that is added or broken, only reconfirms Pele’s status as the greatest of all time.