Before you grab your pitchforks and march upon Dream Team offices, just hear me out.
First of all, yes, I know Pele is the only player to win three World Cups — an undeniably incredible achievement unlikely to be repeated.
And sure he scored a few goals (over a 1,000 if you believe the man himself) during his career with Santos, New York Cosmos and Brazil.
But I’m just not convinced.
The main gripe I have with Pele is that I don’t think the overall standard of football was as good back in Pele’s era.
The nature of football (and most sports) is that the quality increases as time goes on due to technological advancements, evolution, greater understanding, etc.
Pele may have been a unique talent that would have thrived in any era, but the average standard of his opponents would have been noticeably lower than the modern equivalent.
It’s also worth noting that approximately 390 of his estimated 1,033 club goals came in friendlies, some of which were played against teams as prestigious as the US Navy…
Most football fans will have seen the below clip.
But there’s a reason editors often cut it short.
After the inspired dummy, Pele misses an open goal…
Now let’s talk about his World Cups.
Not even the great man himself would claim that he contributed greatly to Brazil’s 1962 World Cup win.
He sat out most of the tournament due to injury while Garrincha led his country to victory with some breathtaking performances.
Also, he never won the Golden Boot — in 1958 he scored six goals (a decent effort admittedly) while France’s Just Fontaine bagged 13.
Injuries restricted him to just a single goal at each of the 1962 and 1966 tournaments.
And in 1970 he scored four, with Gerd Muller netting ten times and Brazilian team-mate Jairzinho scoring seven goals.
Pretty much every second of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo’s career has been captured on camera.
Future generations will be able to study them and adopt informed opinions of their quality.
This is not the case with Pele.
Perhaps some of his moments of genius were never captured on camera, and so how can we truly judge him?
This animated video recreates a goal Pele allegedly scored for Santos, although I have a hard time believing this is how it actually played out…
I’ll just pop that in here, pal…
Nostalgia does funny things to our brains.
We innately seem to prefer things we treasure from the past to stuff we like in the present.
We do it with films, music and, inevitably, footballers.
I am guilty of believing players from the 1990s are better than they actually were.
It’s natural to feel a connection to the players who ignited your passion for the game and that are seen as historical pillars of the sport you love.
Perhaps Pele is the greatest beneficiary of footballing nostalgia?
An appreciation that has been passed on from generation to generation and accepted blindly.
However, it’s extremely likely I’m chatting absolute s**t.
Why? Because of what Pele’s opponents at the time have said about him throughout the years.
Undisputed legends like Ferenc Puskas, Franz Beckenbauer and Bobby Charlton have described the Brazilian No10 as ‘The greatest player in history,” “Incomparable” and “A magical player the game was invented for.”
My use of the word ‘overrated’ should not be confused for criticism of his ability, more a criticism of the reputation thrust upon him by others.
It’s possible to be one of the best of all time and still be massively overrated through cult-like levels of worship.
Comparing players from different generations is one of the hardest aspects of football analysis.
But for my money, surely Messi and Ronaldo stand alone as they two greatest players ever.
Maybe we will have to wait until twenty years after their retirements before that is common opinion.
As for Pele, he was undoubtedly a special player, the best of his era, but I suspect his legacy is actually more mythology.