Brazil icon Pele exclusively speaks to Sport360 about how his spectacular life and the World Cup are intertwined
More than the deified striker’s 1,283 goals in 1,363 games, the story of football’s defining career is told through memories formed by its grandest stage.
It is a tale of redemption which begins with a nine-year-old child forced to console his distraught father during 1950’s infamous Maracanazo as hosts Brazil are left forever scarred by Uruguay’s upset victory on home soil in the final.
Joyful successes bookmark adventures in 1958 and 1970.
Injury-ravaged appearances in-between feature a bit-part role for 1962’s victory and painful group-stage elimination during 1966. As the now 77-year-old illustrates in this exclusive interview ahead of the latest World Cup in Russia, the competition provides “the great history of my life”.
“The World Cup to me, it is amazing and it means a lot,” says Pele, now frail in body but certainly not mind, at Hublot’s Match of Friendship in Dubai.
“A lot. First of all, I have one In the World Cup in 1958, Brazil won and I was there. 1970, as well. This is the great history of my life history to tell to the people. My father was a football player and when Brazil played the 1950 [World Cup] in Brazil, they lost.
“I was almost 10-years old and I saw my father cry because Brazil lost. He was a footballer, too. Then I did not know what to say to my father. I said: ‘Father, do not cry as I will win the World Cup for you, do not worry, do not worry’.
“In the World Cup in 1958, Brazil won and I was there. 1970, as well. This is the great history of my life.”
Pele was the beguiling, 17-year-old prodigy in 1958 who struck a semi-final hat-trick against France. To add to his nascent legend, a brace followed against hosts Sweden in the decider.
These are goals that still place him in the record books as the youngest footballer to do so at the finals.
Fast forward 12 years, past the washouts caused by the brutal treatment of malevolent defenders, and Edson Arantes do Nascimento, to give his full name, is the talisman of an intoxicating team who fittingly led the tournament’s charge into glorious Technicolour.
Alongside the likes of Rivelino, Jairzinho, Gerson, Carlos Alberto, Tostao and Clodoaldo, arguably the finest team on record combined to lavish effect. ‘The Beautiful Game’ nickname popularised and used so adoringly by Pele never appeared more apt.
This victorious summer in Mexico saw the legend of ‘O Rei’ (The King) grow beyond the fathomable.
It featured an attempted lob from the half-way line against Czechoslovakia, England goalkeeper Gordon Banks scrambling away a header for the best save on record, a famous feint to dumbfound Uruguay shot stopper Ladislao Mazurkiewicz and the nonchalant blind pass which Alberto fired home in the final against Italy for the greatest team goal ever scored.
In total at World Cups, he won three – the most by any player – and scored 12 times. A record for the ages.
This lineage is passed down to Neymar. The 26-year-old is the current arbiter of the five-time champions’ hopes, a forward gifted with a preternatural touch on the ball ready for action after three months of inactivity caused by his broken metatarsal.
When asked which superstar of the current generation he would most like to play alongside, Pele’s admiration and affection for the €222 million (Dh952.8m) Paris Saint-Germain forward is made abundantly clear.
“Neymar,” he replies. “It is difficult to measure, but individually he is a very good player.
“I just make a joke with him sometimes and say: ‘Listen, you are a good player and you have everything. But you’ll never be like me, because you do not score goals with your head – you must be good with your head, too.’ This is because he is very good at dribbling, and off both feet. But he is a fantastic player, no doubt.”
Correlations between Pele and Neymar move beyond their shared experiences with Santos and Brazil.
Colombia full-back Juan Zuniga’s unpunished foul in the 2014’s quarter-finals broke a bone in the latter’s back and ruled him out of the semi-final.
From there, the Mineirazo inflicted by eventual-champions Germany’s 7-1 humiliation caused pain which sent Pele back to his childhood.
“I do not like to talk about this,” he says, accompanied by a mournful laugh. “But this is football.
“Brazil was an excellent team, and then we had a little problem. Neymar got an injury and football is a box of surprises.
“I think Brazil now has a young team and I think Brazil could make a very good World Cup this year.”
The current generation are strong contenders at World Cup 2018.
Charismatic and learned head coach Tite has lifted the gloom inflicted by Luiz Felipe Scolari and then Dunga.
Electric football under the new man saw the Canarinha go from sixth in CONMEBOL qualifying with a third of the campaign gone, to booking their flights to Russia with four rounds to spare.
Manchester City striker Gabriel Jesus, Barcelona playmaker Philippe Coutinho and goalkeeper Alisson provide a burgeoning support cast.
Neymar is a talent barely without compare.
One of just two rivals with superior graces – the other being Portugal and Real Madrid’s Cristiano Ronado – is former Barcelona team-mate Lionel Messi.
The Argentina idol’s candidacy to join countryman Diego Maradona and Pele at the highest echelon falls flat in some quarters for a simple reason – he has never lifted the World Cup. At 30-years old, the last viable chance to join the joint FIFA Players of the 20th Century could be imminent.
This promises to be the next edition’s main narrative. Is it one Pele, the tournament’s totemic advocate, can agree with?
He says: “He [Messi] doesn’t need to win to be good – he’s good anyway, you know?
“But it is important for a player like him to have an opportunity to win the World Cup. He is an excellent player, no doubt.”
For Pele, this debate was ended 60 years ago. A sporting life continues to be lived without compare.