Ironically, for a man who stood alone at the pinnacle of his sport for so long, it feels difficult today to get a clear, unimpeded view of Pelé.
You approach him from one angle and you see Diego Maradona there with him, half-obscuring him. Move around to the opposite side and there’s Lionel Messi, standing on his toes, waiting to be weighed and measured. One facet of Pelé reflects Johan Cruyff, one Ronaldo Fenômeno, one Neymar, one Kylian Mbappé. There is a part of him in all of these players and countless others; there is a part of him that, some would assure you, is his alone, the true heart of greatness.
The man not known the world over as Edson Arantes do Nascimento died Thursday in São Paulo at the age of 82, after a lengthy battle with cancer. Many, many people believe him to be the greatest soccer player who ever lived. Many, many others crowned a new Greatest of All Time less than two weeks ago, which makes it even harder today to talk about Pelé in a vacuum. It is nearly impossible to separate his actual greatness from the long-tail remembrances of that greatness, the career from the weight of institutional memory that built up after it, the man from the symbol that he would become.
Comparison was inevitable because Pelé did not break the mold. He built the mold. Our ideas of what makes for a great soccer player were fitted around him, and everyone to come after was stuffed inside to see how they measured up. You had to score goals, yes, but merely scoring goals wasn’t enough. You had to be a creative problem solver, an artist with a spark of inspiration in how you devastated defenses, whether that was through your passing or your dribbling or your shot-making—or all of the above. What Pelé did was to codify the notion that a soccer player, that a sportsman, could be a genius, and that some level of genius was required for your legacy to stand with the all-timers.
Indulge a different, more granular comparison to help illustrate Pelé’s genius, which was apparent from the very beginning. He earned the nickname O Rei, the King, at age 17 while leading his country to its first-ever World Cup title in 1958. He scored two goals in the final, which finished 5–2 in favor of Brazil over the hosts Sweden. But it’s the nature of the goals that turned him into a global superstar while still a teenager. To see the first goal in the game, scored by Sweden’s Nils Liedholm, is to confirm all your worst prejudices about the game’s previous eras. The defending is amateurish, the shot is poor, Liedholm beats two defenders in approximately five yards with essentially one drag back.
Brazil’s first two goals, only one of which is included in this clip, both came from low crosses on the right which squeaked through the defenses and were nudged home by the forward Vavá. These are not embarrassing, but they are ordinary.
And then, Pelé. He slides around an unsuspecting defender to take a cross from the left off his chest, then juggles the ball up and over the head of the next Swede before volleying it home without letting it hit the ground. It is balletic, improvisational brilliance, happening at a speed decades ahead of Liedholm’s opener. The contrast could not be more stark. Somewhere in between that game’s first and fourth goals, the Beatles played The Ed Sullivan Show, man walked on the moon, Star Wars was released in theaters. The world would never be the same. If all soccer looked like Liedholm’s goal, it wouldn’t be worth watching. Pelé’s genius, and the desire to replicate that genius that spread around the world, transformed the sport into one of the planet’s most ubiquitous entertainments.
He won that World Cup at 17, and won two more before his career was over. He scored nearly 1,300 goals in his career, counting time at Santos in Brazil, where he was declared a national treasure and forbidden from transferring to Europe; with the national team; and with the New York Cosmos of the North American Soccer League in the twilight of his career. Instead of letting Pelé play for a European power, Santos spent extended periods barnstorming the continent, playing teams in lucrative friendlies so the whole world could pay to get a glimpse of Pelé. Today the Brazilian league is considered a step below that of Europe’s top competitions. Today we wouldn’t count goals scored in friendlies on an official total. In the 1960s, neither of those things was true. The measuring sticks we use have changed, and it’s tough for us to know by how much.
But Pelé’s career is staggering whether you’re taking it in its totality or zooming all the way in. His control was impeccable, his arsenal of shots unrivaled. What stands out most watching the highlights that survive is how little room he needed to beat a defender. He was a master of waiting for the moment when they could not stop him, for their weight to be shifted in the wrong direction or for their feet to be positioned in the wrong places before cutting suddenly past what they didn’t even realize was their weak side, and of creating those weaknesses himself through feints and leans.
A widespread sentiment in the hours after his death, shared by Manchester City forward Erling Haaland and countless others, was the catchphrase “Pelé did it first,” often accompanied by a video cut together last year showing a litany of past and modern stars performing moves followed by grainier video of Pelé doing the same move, often decades earlier. There go those comparisons again.
Truth is, the contrast between his goal and Liedholm’s is an oversimplification. There were great players doing fantastic things before Pelé; some of them might even have done them first. But he is in many ways where the game’s institutional memory really kicks into gear, with assists from a growing mass media and the rise of television and the burgeoning globalization of the era. I know that Leônidas and Giuseppe Meazza and Alfredo Di Stéfano and Ferenc Puskás were among the best players of their eras, but I know how Pelé was good, and that, as much as his extraordinary, incomparable skills, is what made him the game’s first (and perhaps still best) true global superstar, the mold by which all others are measured.
The ongoing impulse to use his career as a gauge, the defensiveness with which he himself sometimes insisted on doing so, is ultimately counterproductive to achieving a clear-eyed view of what he accomplished. He was great enough that we will never know whether he was the GOAT or not, not for sure. He was a pioneer off the playing field, reaching a level of global fame previously inaccessible to a Brazilian and to a Black man. He was a genius on it, one the sport had never seen before, one everyone who played it has been trying to live up to since.