It takes genius to become top dog at 17 in a team containing Didi, Vava and Garrincha, and then, twelve years later, stay top dog amidst names like Gerson, Jairzinho and Tostao. The argument between Pelé's ability to rise above great contemporaries and Diego Maradona's relative one-man act in less gifted company will never be resolved.
It's almost terrifying to think that none of Pelé's glittering World Cup deeds may have come to occur had Vicente Feola, Brazil's coach in 1958, heeded the advice of Joao Carvalhaes, the psychologist who travelled with the team to Sweden.
“Pelé is obviously infantile,” Carvalhaes wrote in his assessment. “He lacks the necessary fighting spirit. He is too young to feel the aggression and respond with the proper force to make a good forward.”
After the 17-year-old Pelé sat out Brazil's first two games with an injured knee, Feola unleashed him against USSR, disregarding Carvalhaes's words.
“You may be right,” Feola said to Carvalhaes. “The thing is, you don't know anything about football. If Pelé's knee is ready, he plays.”
And how he played. Pelé contributed six goals, all in the knock-out stage — the only goal against Wales, three swept past France and two cracking efforts in the final: controlling the ball on his chest, lobbing it over a defender and smashing in the first on the volley before looping a header into the top corner.
Injury restricted Pelé to just a game and a half each in the 1962 and '66 World Cups, with the violent hacking of group opponent Portugal in '66 leading to his exit from the tournament on a stretcher, vowing never to play in a World Cup again.
Thankfully, he relented in time for Mexico '70, and lit up television screens worldwide, resplendent in yellow in the first World Cup telecast in colour. Brazil came to the tournament with possibly its greatest ever line-up, and romped unbeaten to its third title. Along the way, Pelé found the net four times, and memorably laid on the final pass in the bewitching move that ended with Carlos Alberto's sweeping finish to the final goal of the tournament. Even more memorably, Pelé put his name to three of the greatest misses of all time: the lob from his own half against Czechoslovakia, the header that elicited the 'save of the century' from England goalkeeper Gordon Banks and the dummy-cum-run-around that hoodwinked Uruguay 'keeper Ladislao Mazurkiewicz in the semi-finals, only for the great man's shot to roll past the wrong side of the post.
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