Brendan Crossan: Pele, Messi, Maradona - beauty is in the eye of the beholder

Pele during the 1970 World Cup finals
Pele during the 1970 World Cup finals

IT’S amazing to think that Pele’s near-misses and goal assists during the 1970 World Cup finals in Mexico were arguably more famous than the four goals he scored during the tournament.

His soaring effort from the halfway line against Czechoslovakia that narrowly missed the net, his beautiful downward header that was miraculously turned over the crossbar by Gordon Banks of England and his wonderful dummy on the Uruguayan ‘keeper, collecting the ball on the other side only to watch his angled effort breeze past the upright.

The legend’s passing last week, just days after Lionel Messi won the World Cup with Argentina, prompted an outpouring of grief, nostalgia and re-ignited the ‘Greatest-ever’ debate.

In ‘Brazil 1970: How the Greatest team of all time won the World Cup’, author Sam Kunti dedicates rich swathes of his engaging book to Pele’s magnetism and peerless talent, but he rightly points out: “The world never saw the Pele at his best. TV simply wasn’t around in the early 1960s.”

Tostao, that wonderful jinky, cerebral left-footer of that that Brazil side, said: “Those who didn’t follow Pele from the start have a distorted view – that Pele had his peak at the World Cup in 1970. From 1957 to 1964, more or less, that was his pinnacle.”

Respected football writer Jonathan Wilson reckons Pele was “probably at his greatest” in the two-legged final of the 1963 Libertadores Cup – South America’s equivalent of the Champions League – where he inspired Santos to a 5-3 aggregate win over tough tackling Boca Juniors of Argentina.

Kunti observes: "Pele was a study in precision at an inconceivable pace... His brain matched his feet."

The physical archives of Pele’s peak years either don’t exist or can only be sparingly found on the well-worn grainy black and white TV clips that we're all familiar with.

It’s generally accepted, though, he was past his best by the time the 1970 World Cup finals came around.

Nevertheless, football lovers all over the globe are eternally grateful for the miracle of satellite and technicolour where Brazil’s most celebrated number 10 was on its exciting cusp and was able to deposit a series of unforgettable, ageless moments - quality that remains undisputed after all these years.

“Everything felt thrillingly modern,” Wilson writes of the 1970 World Cup finals in Mexico.

On so many levels, Pele’s brilliance in Mexico was similar to that of Messi's in Qatar.

Both players were past their best and had evolved into players of moments – devastating moments – who relied on their peerless game intelligence to influence outcomes on the greatest, most demanding stage.

The only discernible difference was that Pele was surrounded by world class players – Gerson, Tostao, Carlos Alberto and Jairzinho – while Messi was buttressed by technically proficient, hard-working footballers and still managed to guide them to the Promised Land.

So, who is the greatest footballer of all-time? Is it even a fair question comparing eras and when so much of Pele’s playing career wasn’t recorded by television and remains solely in the mind’s eye of those who witnessed his glorious days at Santos?

Then again, Messi’s playing career couldn’t be more scrutinised and at the end of it all is as close as you'll get to flawless.

And his gold-plated standards are all the more remarkable when you consider his longevity, close to two decades now.

Our favourite players are often our choices for the greatest players of all-time. People love Cristiano Ronaldo for his remarkable goal record and titles he’s won in top leagues around Europe.

The greatest tribute you can pay the former Manchester United and Real Madrid attacker is that he’s a brilliantly manufactured success.

To evolve from being a teenage winger of extravagant ability at Sporting Lisbon to the goal machine that he became at Madrid is a glowing parable of self-improvement.

But even some CR7 evangelists are finding it more and more difficult to resist Messi’s claims on being the GOAT.

Messi didn’t need to win a World Cup to prove his credentials, but what his performances in Qatar did do was reject the enduring notion that the little Argentine couldn’t lead a team, like Diego Maradona did during the Mexico ’86 finals or how he guided modest Napoli to two Italian titles.

And, said the critics, how could Messi fail during Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona reign when he was surrounded by greatness in Iniesta, Xavi and Puyol?

Since Qatar, some have maybe revised their opinions and realised that without Messi Barcelona might not have won Champions League titles in 2009, 2011 and 2015.

Guardiola famously once said that if it wasn’t for Messi, he’d be coaching in the third tier of Spanish football.

What also binds Pele and Messi is that they were/are ultimate team players. They have always been noted for getting as much joy from a pass or an assist than scoring a goal themselves.

You only have to look at Pele’s set-up play for Jairzinho’s winner against England in the group stages of the 1970 World Cup or his nonchalant lay-off for Carlos Alberto to score that screamer against Italy in the final.

Pele was elegance, beauty and unbelievable athleticism rolled into one - easily the best of his generation.

“He never had specific fitness coaching,” says Tostao. “He was a natural phenomenon. He had speed, acceleration and physical capacity, all without preparation.”

Who knows what resides in those unseen years of Pele during the late 50s and early 60s or indeed how good he could have been in this modern era where we have the luxury of watching every game in full from a million different angles and don’t have to rely on the same overplayed, grainy black and white footage.

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