Robson Sharuko–H-Metro Editor
SOME of the greatest footballers inevitably won the World Cup — Messi, Zidane, Rossi, Ronaldo (Brazil), Maradona, Charlton and Beckenbauer.
They also share something in common in their paradise of greatness — they paraded their real names.
Only one of them didn’t even need his real name to stamp his signature of greatness around the world.
And, he remains the only one to briefly stop a bloody war as the opposing forces agreed a ceasefire to honour his golden presence.
Just as well his nickname was a simple four-letter word – just like love, hope, good, jazz – as if the football gods wanted everyone to sing it without any complications.
And, for 64 years, since his explosion as a teenage star in Sweden in 1958, his name became a password of acknowledgment of the best there was, the best there is and the best there probably will be, in football.
Such a simple name, such a beautiful image of excellence, such a defining identity of greatness and such a timeless reminder of brilliance.
The only man to win the football World Cup three times, the first to score more than a thousand goals and sport’s original global superstar.
The only footballer to have a law passed in parliament declaring him a national asset to effectively bar him from being traded to wealthy European clubs.
The man credited with making Americans to finally fully appreciate the beauty, and magic, of the real football and not their unique football where handling is considered an art rather than an offence.
He had such a powerful appeal, around the world, his club Santos used to make a fortune in global tours where they paraded his talent around the globe.
Pele didn’t need social media, television and the internet to preach his football gospel and convert millions of followers into his little kingdom.
He didn’t need Peter Drury to provide the perfect motion picture soundtrack to give a true reflection of his genius.
He didn’t need all the advancement in today’s technology, including lush green pitches and sports scientists, to create the perfect specimen of a footballer.
Neither did he need the protection, which today’s referees offer in abundance, for him to excel against defenders for whom brutality was a part of the DNA of their art.
He simply expressed his talent and, at just the age of 17, scored in the World Cup final and was crowned a champion of the global game.
Pele won again in 1962 in Chile, despite injuries curtailing his impact, and provided a fitting closing chapter with another success story in the Mexican sunshine in 1970.
That a player whose breakthrough came in 1958 continues to fascinate us the way Pele has done, is testimony of his status as the greatest of them all.
To understand how good Pele was one just needs to remember the story of Alfredo di Stefano, the original Argentine superstar before Maradona and Messi came along.
This is a man whose name is now attached to the training ground at Real Madrid as an expression of gratitude for the services he offered this colossal football giant.
In short, the message from Real Madrid is that, in their ranks, no one has ever come as close as Di Stefano, when it comes to the greats, who wore their famous white shirts.
Now, this is the same Di Stefano who exploded at about the same time as Pele and, around the world, he doesn’t have even a tenth of the status which the great Brazilian has.
Messi is a once-in-a-generation talent and, in a way, so was Maradona.
I would actually put Diego ahead of Messi because I don’t think the latter would have gone to a backyard club like Napoli in the ‘80s and transformed them into champions of Italy and a major force in Europe.
We had the privilege of watching both Maradona and Messi from our VVIP ringside seats and it’s understandable why they probably appeal to us better than Pele.
But, it’s also important to acknowledge that without the benefit of science, Messi would probably never had played football at a high level.
We didn’t see a lot of Pele but, for me, that’s what defines his greatness.
The fact that he didn’t need the benefit of HD television images to reinforce his greatness is in itself an acknowledgment of how great he was.
He didn’t need to score goals to express his brilliance and some of his most iconic moments came on the occasions he didn’t put the ball into the back of the net.
There was that downward header at the ‘70 World Cup, which ended with Gordon Banks producing what is widely regarded as the tournament’s greatest save.
Then, there was that outrageous dummy, which fooled the ‘keeper only for him to direct his effort just wide at the same Mexico tourney.
Fate, it appears, decided that the finest moments for both Pele and Maradona would come at the World Cup in Mexico – the Brazilian in 1970 and the Argentine in 1986.
But, Diego didn’t stop a war.
Forty years ago, Pele visited a war-torn Nigeria and made such a huge impact that the warring factions held back their fire for 48 hours as a mark of respect for the visit.
By then he had already conquered Europe, South America, North America and the world during a period spanning three different decades.
They didn’t give him the Ballon d’Or because, in those days, as a non-European player, he didn’t qualify for the gong.
But, this was a special footballer who didn’t need the award to justify his greatness.
Because of him, the number 10 became football’s iconic number.
And, it’s probably a mark of respect to him that both Maradona and Messi were wearing it in their finest hours.
The King is dead, long live the King.