Pelé - Everyone's favourite fraud

Pele is, detached from football, a Brazilian icon. He represents what is almost a Hollfywood story of a poor boy raised in the slums, making it as a star and to be fair, I could not even begin to fault the way in which he has made a name for himself and has become a global star with millions to his name. However what I would begin to raise issue with is not the fact that he was an immensely talented footballer – because he most certainly was – all I would argue is that he was nowhere near close to being amongst the best players of all time.

If you asked a hundred football fans who they believed were the top five greatest players of all time, I can guarantee nearly every list will have Pele’s name in it. And I would argue he does not deserve to be put in that category – and I have the facts to prove it.



An appropriate place to examine Pele as a ‘greatest ever’ player is through his goal scoring tally. People will often argue that as he was a striker, the sheer number of goals he scored is what gives him the greatest claim to being at the very top, but there’s something very curious about the numbers, I find, which maybe doesn’t lend itself to helping Pele’s case.

The man himself, will often hotly boast scoring 1,283 goals in his career and on its own that may appear to be a staggering statistic but what is often failed to be mentioned is that fact that 526 goals came in unofficial friendlies and tour games. He played in an era where the top teams would tour the continent almost as the Harlem Globetrotters do now in basketball, and so playing in these friendlies, he would count any goals he scored towards his total, which of course players from Maradona’s era right up to the present, cannot do. In addition this, the opposition he faced whilst playing in these friendlies were not other top teams – they were largely semi-professional local teams across Brazil. To put that into a modern context, it’s like Barcelona playing San Marino and the Faroe Islands in friendlies and Messi counting goals he scored against these teams towards his total tally.

He even counted games he played for the Sixth Coast Guard in a military competition against no professional opposition so that’s why I would regard the figure of “1,283” as somewhat misleading.

Indeed I could go ahead and count screamers I’ve scored in my back garden, for my Sunday league side and goals I’ve scored on Fifa and my tally would also look quite impressive.

He officially scored 757 goals in 812 games which is still a very respectable tally but it gives him a goals-to-games ratio of 0.93, worse than Ferenc Puskas’ 1.01 goals a game, Josef Bican’s 1.52 goals a game and Fernando Peyroteo’s 1.77 goals a game.

I would also argue that scoring the most goals does not make you the greatest player. Ali Daei of Iran has the most international goals ever, with 109 in 149 caps and we would obviously not even consider him near the greatest players of all time.


It’s also worth mentioning that Pele is seen as a world cup icon, having won the competition three times, and becoming the youngest person to win the tournament at just 17. However for some strange reason, apart from his record of age, he holds no discernable World Cup records, even though he played in perhaps the greatest international side ever alongside some of the greatest players ever.

Pele prides himself on the number of goals he’s scored yet he doesn’t even have the most in World Cups, that accolade belongs to Miroslav Klose (16). He also doesn’t have the most goals in one tournament (despite being the striker of perhaps the greatest team ever), that record is held by Just Fontaine (13). And other records which would seemingly make him a great World Cup player are all held by other people:

Most World Cup goals in one game – Oleg Salenko, 5

Most World Cup games – Lothar Matthaus, 25

Most World Cup games won – Cafu, 16

Perhaps I’m being harsh, or maybe just blind. I’m looking across the whole of World Cup history after all, so allow me to observe just the four World Cups Pele played in.

In 1958 he scored 6 goals, Just Fontaine more than doubled that with 13.

In 1962 he scored just one goal, six players tied for the golden boot with four.

In 1966 he again scored just one goal, Eusebio scored nine.

And in 1970 he scored four goals, but Gerd Muller scored 10.


Oh right, he was outperformed in all of them…

To be fair, Pele was injured during the 1962 and 1966 World Cups but undeniably when he was fully fit for the 1958 and 1970 World Cups, he wasn't the top goal scorer. He wasn’t even close for that matter.

In fact, he wasn't even Brazil's top scorer during the 1970 World Cup. That accolade went to Jairzinho who scored seven.


"When Messi's scored 1,283 goals like me, when he's won three World Cups, we'll talk about it" Pele told French newspaper Le Monde back in 2011 when asked if the Argentine had surpassed his level of greatness. Now I understand that Brazilians are always going to take jabs at Argentines and vice versa in terms of footballing talent, but surely even someone as horribly deluded and vain as Pele can’t believe that.

Now I’m a huge fan of Lionel Messi, it’s hard not to be. In fact I not only think he’s the greatest footballer on the planet but I also believe he is the greatest of all time so I certainly find that comment to be particularly baffling. It’s baffling mainly in that I obviously think Messi is greater than Pele anyway, but he’s picked out two reasons why he thinks Messi will not even be close for some time.

The first one, as I’ve explained, is total nonsense and his figures are misleading. The second is similarly misleading as though he was part of the Brazil squad that won three World Cups, his involvement particularly in the 1962 tournament was minimal. He was helped massively by the fact he had such a talented group of players around him and the same could not be said to the same extent about the Argentina squads Lionel Messi has been involved in since 2006.

True, there have been many great players to have played for Argentina while Messi has been there but through no fault of the little genius has the country failed to win the World Cup on the last three attempts. For instance, had Gonzalo Higuain been more clinical in the 2014 final (a stage which Messi had the biggest impact in getting his team get to) then Argentina would most probably be the current world champions. But he couldn’t. And Messi cannot be blamed for that.

The abject failure of his teammates unfortunately reflects quite harshly on Barca’s number 10 and if Pele were in that same Argentina team with colleagues so wasteful in front of goal, then he would be missing out on similar international accolades. By the same reasoning, if Messi played in an international side that was undoubtedly the best in the world with players who evidently did not need him in the squad to win the tournament, then he would have an enviable collection of World Cup winners medals.


In a different interview, Pele can also be quotes as saying: "I like Messi a lot, he's a great player. Technically, we're practically at the same level”. Don’t flatter yourself. Great footballing brains who have seen both playing, recall Messi as the most skilful and technically brilliant they have ever seen:

"Who is the Best Player in the World? Leo Messi. Who is the Best Player Ever? Leo Messi." -Arsene Wenger

“Souness, Gullit, Venables and now Rooney agree Messi is the best they have seen. He plays a game with which we are not familiar." - Gary Lineker

"Messi is the best player ever. And this is said by someone who has seen Maradona and Pele play." - AC Milan chief Adriano Galliani

"In my entire life I have never seen a player of such quality and personality at such a young age, particularly wearing the heavy shirt of one of the world’s great clubs” – Fabio Capello

“Two years ago I said that the best player I played against was Maradona and the best player I have played with was Bestie. But I can now say I have never seen a player as good as Messi. He’s in a league of his own." - Former Tottenham star Gerry Armstrong


So I’m sorry Pele, but essentially trying to praise someone who is better than you ever were by saying they are “practically” on your level will simply not cut it for me. And saying Messi needs World Cups to be validated as a player is also complete nonsense because yes, Pele was a member of three World Cup-winning teams, but he sat out the large majority of one of them and wasn’t the key man in the other two.


It is hard to believe that from an era that produced Bobby Moore and Franz Beckenbauer, lied some very questionable defending. I may pinpoint this as perhaps the most important reason Pele can boast the kind of goal figures he does as through a combination of his team (Santos) being the best in the continent with some of the world’s best players and the standard of defending being laughable compared to the last few decades, you get matches such as these:

Santos 11-0 Botafogo Riberao Preto (Pele with 8 goals)

Santos 10-0 Nacional (Pele with 5 goals)

Santos 11-1 Maringa (Pele with 5 goals)

Santos 10-3 Nitro-Quimica (Pele with 5 goals)

Santos 10-1 Royal Neerschot (Pele with 5 goals)

Santos 10-2 Guarani (Pele with 5 goals)

Santos 10-1 Juventus* (Pele with 5 goals)

*NB: This is not Italian superpower Juventus but rather Brazilian minnows Juventus-SP who compete in the second tier of a regional league in Sao Paulo.

And if you believe that these scores are just a result of Santos being that much better than every other team rather than the defending being of a poor standard, just look at these scores from England’s First Division back in Boxing day 1963:

Blackpool                       1-5  Chelsea

Burnley                          6-1  Manchester United

Fulham                         10-1  Ipswich

Liverpool                        6-1  Stoke City

Nottingham Forest         3-3  Sheffield United

Sheffield Wednesday    3-0  Bolton Wanderers

West Bromwich Albion  4-4  Tottenham Hotspur

West Ham United          2-8  Blackburn Rovers

Wolverhampton Wndrs  3-3  Aston Villa

Defenders are undoubtedly better now and I believe the standard of football as whole has improved drastically so very simply, I feel the best players of all time, on ability, are from the last 20 or 30 years and Pele could not boast anywhere near the same records in the modern game. So no comparisons to Messi and Ronaldo I’m afraid.



Pele has done a lot of self-promotion and this has been key to making his name one of the most recognisable in sporting history. It’s unclear whether Pele can truly believe what he says with regard to some great players after his time but former Brazil coach Luiz Felipe Scolari said in 2002: “I believe that Pele knows nothing about football. He has done nothing as a coach and all his analysis always turns out to be wrong. He’s an idol in all of Brazil, but his analysis is worth nothing.”

He does seem to rate himself particularly highly and in 2004 he released a list of his 100 “greatest living players” ever and the players he included show just what kind of person he was. He (knowingly or not) left out some of the greatest players who helped him become the player he was, including Gerson - who was the Xavi of his time and provided the assists for many of Pele’s goals and Jairzinho - who was Brazil’s top scorer and best player in their famous 1970 World Cup triumph and played alongside Pele for much of his career.

This to me just shows Pele to be nothing less than a self-centered ego-maniac, believing himself to be the jewel in Brazil’s crown and the greatest player ever. But if his list and comments about players like Messi are anything to go by, his opinion is one to be taken with a pinch of salt.

Oh and in his list of 100 greatest living footballers, he included El Hadj-Diouf. No Gerson, Jairzinho or Tostao (teammates who made Pele look better) but there was Diouf.



You may be wondering, if everything I have said thus far is true, then why is he held at such high regard in the footballing community and seen as a sporting icon? Well, the story of Pele is what has propelled him to stardom. A poor black boy growing up in one of Brazil’s poorest towns and through his love of football, turned professional and won the World Cup. It’s Hollywood stuff.

As part of his famous Santos side, he was even toured around the continent almost as a gospel, playing three times a week in exhibition matches and that’s how the brand “Pele” rather than the player, spread and grew in notoriety.

Contemporary reports of the 1958 World Cup final mention Pele’s role in the side, but reserve most praise for Garrincha - the most exciting player on the pitch. Indeed Brazil-based writer Alex Bellos explained in his book Futebol “Brazilians do not love him [Pele] the way they love Garrincha” and this is a recognition of true talent against the Hollywood story. Garrincha’s place in footballing folklore is just as fitting as Pele’s, yet he shares an underwhelming amount of the spotlight.

Pele attempted unsuccessfully to use his fame to lever himself out of doing national service at the age of 18. He argued: “I’ve already fought for my country. Surely I don’t need to go to the army to do it again?” so even at that age he had built up the level of egoism which would drive him to make his name as big at it could be.

Money proved to be a massive incentive for him as his sponsorship deals with Adidas and various cameos such as in Subway adverts have made him a global phenomenon, so you could forgive me that when I pick my greatest players of all time on ability, I struggle to place Pele anywhere close to the top.

Jonathan Liew from The Telegraph writes: “Many Brazilians will tell you that Garrincha was at least as good a footballer as Pele, if not better. Pele would beat a man because he had to, Garrincha would do it because he wanted to. Garrincha virtually won the 1962 World Cup single-handedly. Pele could never claim that.”


I will just close with this. Every generation of football fan is always inclined to say that players from their own era were the best. And true, being my age it would always be hard to argue about the ability of a player who retired decades before I was born. And whilst I would never discount Pele as a vastly talented individual, the opinions of those who have seen both him, and modern players playing, coupled with some vital statistics lead me to believe there were too many that were better, to rank him amongst Messi, Ronaldo and Maradona.