Pelé: The Man Who Invented the Beautiful Game

Pelé is Number 2 in 90min’s Top 50 Footballers of All Time Series


“The ambition should always be to play an elegant game.”

The world was far less connected 60 years ago. Each footballing nation was isolated from the next, and international competitions were a chance to learn more about the mysterious stars from every corner of the globe. 

In 1958, one boy was waiting impatiently to burst onto the football scene and announce himself to the rest of the world, as arguably the greatest footballer to have ever played the game. 

Pele

That boy was Edson Arantes do Nascimento – or as he’s more commonly known, Pelé. 

The teenager had been making waves in Brazil, playing professional football from the age of 15 with Santos, and at 16, he had become the league’s top scorer. Frightening stuff. 

So Brazil entered the 1958 World Cup in confident mood, possessing a secret weapon which could destroy every nation that dared stand in their way. The Seleção boasted some of the greatest players in world football at that time, with Garrincha on the right-hand side, Vavá in a central position, and Pelé playing just behind him in a number 10 role. 

Plenty of responsibility was weighing on the 17-year-old’s shoulders to bring creativity into their play. Luckily, he was the right man for the job. Pelé was an acrobat of a footballer. He recaptured and perfected the art of ‘ginga‘, which in football terms is the ability to control the ball with any part of your foot, and bring free-style skills into the prism of professional football. 

And the starlet was at his best when freed from his shackles, where he could express himself on the pitch in a way only he truly could. Along with his flamboyant and spell-binding approach to the game, Pelé also possessed blistering pace, and an ability to dribble past any defender. His lightning speed combined with naturally quick feet and silky skills made him a nightmare for every opponent.

Pelé was only slight in build, and despite being 5’8 in height, he could out-jump most defenders and was an excellent header of the ball. For the Brazilian star, football was an art, and he was playing the game the way he believed it should be played. And no one would argue that he was wrong by the time he finished. 

Basically, he had the lot. No matter which situation he found himself in, the forward had the answer – and then some. It’s hard to put into words just how good Pelé was, but simply put, the world of 1958 was about to witness a talent and quality of player it could not have even dreamed of before. 

Only, they all had to wait a little longer for Pelé’s big arrival. The teenager was injured for the opening two fixtures, but he was introduced in the final game of the group stages, as Brazil qualified for the quarter-finals with ease.

Pele

This is where the world’s greatest footballer was born. Brazil beat Wales 1-0 and Pelé scored the only goal of the game. And it was very much a sign of things to come. Collecting the ball with his back to goal, Pelé flicked the ball inside his marker and volleyed home, showing an unbelievable level of calmness and flair to his raw game. 

The Brazil star then bagged a hat-trick in his side’s 5-2 semi-final hammering of France, before facing host nation Sweden in the final. Entering the match as the youngest player to ever play in a World Cup final, you could have forgiven Pelé for letting the occasion get to him. 

Instead, he scored a brace, including one of the greatest goals in Brazil’s history, where he brought a high cross under control with his chest, flicked the ball over the defender’s head and lashed home. 

Brazil lifted the prestigious trophy for the first time ever and Pelé was hailed as the best young player of the tournament. It was only the beginning for a true sporting legend, who would amass an astounding 87 goals and over 100 assists in 1958 alone. Staggering. 

So that was it. His status as one of football’s stars was in full flight, and all of Europe’s biggest clubs were counting their pennies in an attempt to lure him away from Brazil. But Pelé chose to stay with Santos, stating that he had no reason to leave, given all of the world’s best players were in the Brazilian league. 

FRANCE-PELE

​Sound logic, in fairness. 

A year later, Pelé guided Brazil to second place in the 1959 South American Championships (the now Copa America), scoring eight goals and winning Player of the Tournament in the process. 

​But it wasn’t only at international level that the Brazil star enjoyed his many successes. 

Santos won the 1958 Campeonato Paulista (Brazilian First Division) and Pelé helped them to lift it once again 1960 and 1961. If you had to sum up Pelé’s year in 1961, you’d probably opt for the word ‘prolific’; Pelé bagged 110 goals in the calendar year for club and country, and by the age of 20, he’d managed over 400 career goals. 

Having won the league for the third time, Santos entered the Copa Libertadores, hoping to claim the prize for the first time in their history. 

Once again, Pelé saved his best moment for the biggest of occasions, scoring a brace in the final to bring glory back to Brazil, as Santos held aloft the 1962 Copa Libertadores trophy. 


​To say he dominated Brazilian football would be an understatement. From 1957 to 1965, Pelé was named the league’s top scorer every year. That’s nine consecutive seasons. And Santos dominated Brazil with their superstar by their side, scooping up title after title at domestic level. 

Pele,Gerson

Pelé was also part of the 1962 Brazil World Cup winning squad, although he hardly featured due to a muscle injury he picked up early in the competition. But he would come back stronger in 1970, when Brazil lifted their – and Pelé’s – third World Cup. He remains the only man to have achieved this remarkable feat. 

​But all of the records and goal tallies pale in comparison to the genuine skill and flair that Pelé possessed, and his ability to win a game all by himself with his magic touch. Pelé was always thought of as a pioneer of the game, who brought glamour and style to a sport which was crying out for an identity. 

It seems only fair that he is remembered as responsible for coining the phrase ‘The Beautiful Game’.

After all, nobody played it better.


90min’s ‘Top 50 Greatest Footballers of All Time’ can be found here.

Number 50: Luka Modric

Number 49: John Charles

Number 48: Hugo Sanchez

Number 47: Jairzinho

Number 46: Omar Sivori

Number 45: Paolo Rossi

Number 44: Paul Breitner

Number 43: George Weah

Number 42: Kaka

Number 41: Lev Yashin

Number 40: Gunnar Nordahl

Number 39: Kevin Keegan

Number 38: Hristo Stoichkov

Number 37: Gianluigi Buffon

Number 36: Johan Neeskens

Number 35: Xavi Hernandez

Number 34: Luis Suarez

Number 33: Karl-Heinz Rummenigge

Number 32: Andres Iniesta

Number 31: Rivelino

Number 30: Bobby Moore

Number 29: Socrates

Number 28: Sandor Kocsis

Number 27: Lothar Matthaus

Number 26: Ronaldinho

Number 25: Ruud Gullit

Number 24: Bobby Charlton

Number 23: Giuseppe Meazza

Number 22: Raymond Kopa

Number 21: Romario

Number 20: Eusebio

Number 19: Marco van Basten

Number 18: George Best

Number 17: Zico

Number 16: Franco Baresi

Number 15: Cristiano Ronaldo

Number 14: Ferenc Puskas

Number 13: Paolo Maldini

Number 12: Gerd Müller

Number 11: Mané Garrincha

Number 10: Alfredo Di Stefano

Number 9: Roberto Baggio

Number 8: Michel Platini

Number 7: Ronaldo

Number 6: Zinedine Zidane

Number 5: Johan Cruyff

Number 4: Franz Beckenbauer

Number 3: ​Lionel Messi


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