Pele or Diego Maradona? Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo?
Endless discussions of the greatest player in men’s soccer history can often see cheap jabs directed at Pele, who died on Thursday aged 82, with the claim that he hasn’t proven himself in European leagues.
The argument is that Pelé didn’t prove himself against some of the best clubs in the world, and other football greats did.
But despite spending most of his career with Brazilian club Santos, and later with the New York Cosmos of the North American Soccer League, Pelé faced some of the best European opponents.
And he scored many goals.
Pelé played seven times against Benfica, led by the great Portuguese Eusébio and considered one of the great European clubs. Santos won six of those games, drawing the other. Pelé scored nine goals in total.
As Santos toured the world in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s to showcase their biggest star, Pelé rose to the level of teams like Real Madrid, Barcelona, Juventus, Inter Milan, AC Milan and Rome.
Dennis Tueart, a former England player who replaced Pele at the Cosmos, said it didn’t matter that the soccer icon never played in a European league.
“You had European players in the World Cup and he won it three times. You can’t say anything against him,” Tueart told The Associated Press. “We used to play exhibition matches and we would travel around the world to Indonesia, Singapore, Hong Kong, Japan and Australia and the one everyone wanted to talk to was Pelé. It was humiliating to watch.”
Pelé and Santos often faced weak opponents during those tours, whose main goal was to make money. But beating Pelé’s Santos was a challenge that the host clubs took seriously, often fielding their best players in contrast to pre-season tournaments now.
Everyone wanted to see Pelé play. Some 110,000 fans reportedly watched Santos defeat Inter Milan 4-1 at the San Siro stadium in Italy in 1961. In 1972, newspaper reports at the time said that 50 people were injured before Santos’ match against the Rome in Italy when 70,000 fans turned up for the match. Stadium with capacity for 50,000 people.
Some of Pelé’s matches in Europe were in the Intercontinental Cup, now the equivalent of the FIFA Club World Cup. Pelé remains the top scorer in the history of the Intercontinental Cup with seven goals.
Pele said he had offers to play for European clubs, including Real Madrid and Inter Milan, but at the time “there wasn’t this need” for big players to move to European soccer. Instead, he decided to go to the United States after ending his career with Santos in 1974.
“It wouldn’t have made any difference to go to Europe,” Pele said.
Pelé scored 12 goals in 14 World Cup games and is the only three-time world champion, winning titles in 1958, 1962 and 1970.
He never received any Ballon d’Or award for best player because the award did not take non-European players into account during Pele’s time.
According to Santos, Pelé played 353 games abroad, scoring 361 goals. In Europe alone, he played almost 200 games and scored more than 200 goals.
Pele said one of the best performances of his career came in Santos’ 5-2 win over Benfica in the 1962 Intercontinental Cup final.
Pelé also faced another all-time great, Alfredo Di Stéfano, in a 5-3 friendly loss to Real Madrid at the Santiago Bernabéu Stadium in 1959, scored by the Brazilian. On Santos’ European tour that year, Santos defeated Inter Milan 7-1 with four goals from Pelé and beat Barcelona 5-1 with Pelé scoring two goals.
“People in many countries only knew about Brazil because of what Pelé did,” former Brazilian star Zico said. “He made us feel proud to be Brazilians for everything he represented and for everything he did.”
AP Global Soccer journalist James Robson contributed to this report.
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