When you think of legends of the beautiful game, one name still stands above them all; Pele.
Edson Arantes do Nascimento’s achievements are often denigrated because of the way in which the game has changed over the years, and how Ronaldo, Messi and their ilk have moved football to ever greater heights.
But Pele was to football what Elvis was to music. The first true global superstar.
That he is still revered as an icon some 40 years after his last professional game (October 1, 1977 – NY Cosmos v Santos) says everything.
At 76-years-old, he is still as much in demand as he ever was, even if the endless rounds of signings, sponsor-led events and meet and greets are beginning to take a toll on him.
And yet, being the gentleman that he is, nothing is too much trouble for his adoring public.
Perhaps it is that above all which still endears him to those that are lucky enough to spend time in his company.
There is genuine warmth in the way in which he engages and his eyes light up if a question enthuses him. He isn’t shy in giving a strongly held opinion either.
When I asked him about Bobby Moore, surely West Ham and England’s greatest ever ambassador, his response wasn’t in the least bit surprising.
The iconic embrace that was shared in 1970 after Mooro’s magnificent 90 minutes against the samba stars of Brazil remains one of Pele’s fondest memories.
‘Bobby Moore was a great player, a talented player and I kept telling people “look at this guy, he’s like a Brazilian.’ Good ball control, great dribbling ability.’
They do say greatness always recognises greatness of course, and Pele still has Mooro right up there with the best to ever play the game.
‘He was a very nice guy, a fair player and I always compare him with the likes of Beckenbauer and Cruyff. I wish we had more players like him because we don’t at the moment.’
Though we all tend to look back at how football used to be with rose-tinted specs, there’s simply no denying that in one of the best teams of all time – Brazil 1970 – Pele was the man.
Going even further back, to his Santos pomp in the early ‘60s, there simply wasn’t anyone close to ‘O Rey’ – on or off the pitch.
He transcended his sport in the same way that Muhammad Ali did in the boxing ring.
Given his incredible athleticism and goal scoring ability, Europe’s finest came calling but he had everything he needed at Santos.
‘I had offers from Italy, Germany…’ he continued. ‘But I was happy at Santos.’
There just so happened to be another great team around in the 60s – Ron Greenwood’s Hammers.
‘Would you have liked to have played with Bobby at West Ham?,’ I asked, and it drew a wicked smile from his heavily lined face.
‘I never wanted to leave Brazil… but I loved Bobby.’
They did of course get to play alongside one another in Escape to Victory, some 11 years after the Mexico World Cup.
‘Sylvester Stallone was the star but in three weeks of filming he still couldn’t control the ball,’ Pele laughed.
‘I was supposed to be the goalkeeper in the film. I enjoyed it, being with Michael Caine, Stallone and, of course, Bobby.’
There is a huge contrast between the way in which Pele has always been held in such high esteem by the CBF (Confederação Brasileira de Futebol) and how Mooro was seemingly only ever respected by the Football Association after his untimely passing.
Indeed, Brazil have been as good for Pele as he has been for them.
But the same can’t be said of Bobby Moore, a player who gave everything for his country including their only World Cup, and then was cast aside by the top brass when his playing days were over.
One can only continue to imagine the good work that one of West Ham’s finest exponents would be doing now were he still with us.
In any event, what’s also interesting, and actually quite refreshing with Pele, is that he is still willing to embrace all facets of the game of football.
Far too often nowadays we hear ex-professionals harp on about the way it used to be and that the traditions have disappeared from the game.
Brazilians by their very nature have always enjoyed the game as their own, and there’s no doubting that the love and affection is genuine for it stretches far beyond the usual 90 minutes of physical effort.
‘It’s another different and wonderful expression of the beautiful game,’ Pele said when asked if he liked freestyle football. ‘We now have lots of other ways to play. Futsal, beach football… I think we should all enjoy these ways of playing.’
When listening to him, you get the feeling that somehow, if he were he still playing today, Pele would slot into any style with consummate ease.
He’d adapt his skill set accordingly and still be head and shoulders above the competition. Moreover, he’d bring a natural joy back to the game that’s long since disappeared.
Thankfully the passage of time and the advent of the internet haven’t necessarily dulled his achievements.
Nor should they because they evidence that he absolutely deserves to be at the head of football’s top table.
He made his professional debut at only 15 years of age, for Santos against Corinthians on September 7, 1956.
By 16 he was already in the Brazil national team and at 17 years and 249 days, he won his first World Cup, scoring two in the final against hosts Sweden.
Above anything else, that’s the tournament that holds the fondest memories for him.
‘I was injured yes,’ he said, referring to his arrival at the tournament when a knee injury looked likely to stop his dream in its tracks. ‘But, thanks to God, I was able to play. Not like in 1966, in England, when I couldn’t properly recover from my injury in the first match [against Bulgaria].’
Pele would be kicked and roughed up to such an extent in Brazil’s third and final game in ’66 against Portugal, that he limped around for most of it and vowed afterwards never to play in another World Cup. Thankfully he reversed the decision in time for Mexico ’70.
But back to 1958. ‘I felt love from the good people of Sweden,’ he confessed, and upon being shown a replica of a Sweden shirt from the tournament, Pele’s emotion was clear. ‘That is a very special shirt for me,’ he said.
Right from the very beginning of his career, Pele set the bar for others to aspire to and to list all of his achievements since then would probably take up this entire magazine.
One in particular is surely deserving of wider acclaim however – his goals tally.
His 58 in the Campeonato Paulista in 1958 is a record that still stands today, and during the time that I spent with him, he mentioned his total amount scored on three separate occasions – and why the hell shouldn’t he!
Though it’s true that his final tally of 1,281 goals in 1,363 games includes friendlies and tour matches – something which has led to mockery from certain quarters – there simply isn’t anyone that is likely to ever come close to that record.
It’s something that Pele is rightly proud of. One mark that had been broken just prior to our meeting was for international goals scored.
Cristiano Ronaldo’s 78th for Portugal took him one clear of the Brazilian icon, but it didn’t concern Pele too much.
Ben Hayward of Goal.com was with me in Barcelona and Pele told him; ‘I take this opportunity to send a big greeting to Cristiano Ronaldo for that victory. Now he has to score more than 1,283 goals!’
After attending to various other corporate commitments in Barcelona, Pele was whisked off for a short rest and to watch Spain tear Italy apart before another round of work in London and Madrid.
At an age when most people are happy enough to be sat in their favourite armchair watching daytime TV or some such, football’s finest ambassador is still jet-setting his way around the world. Above everything, it’s that which he loves.
‘To travel everywhere, all over the world, and understand different cultures and philosophies on life… football gave that to me,’ he said. ‘I would’ve played on the moon [laughs]. So yes, that’s the most important thing to me – to have travelled and got to know so many people.’
As humble a person as you could wish to meet which is the truest sign of greatness.
The same could be said of Bobby Moore of course.
After almost 25 years without him, West Ham supporters and most involved with English football still miss him. Take comfort in the fact that the best to ever play the game genuinely does too.