Start at the base: Pele’s advice to Indian football

A nation, which has the pleasure of watching the best of world football, but not the ability to produce world-class players, sought its deliverance from the dichotomy by popping the question to the king of the sport — Pele.

Brazilian football legend Pele (right) with former Indian cricketer Sourav Ganguly (left) as industrialist Sanjiv Goenka looks in Kolkata on Monday.   -  Ashoke Chakrabarty

A nation, which has the pleasure of watching the best of world football, but not the ability to produce world-class players, sought its deliverance from the dichotomy by popping the question to the king of the sport — Pele.

“Please suggest a way for the development of Indian football,” Sourav Ganguly, who has seen India reach the top of excellence as its cricket captain, put the question to Pele as one of the owners of the ISL football franchise Atletico de Kolkata, on Monday.

“Start working at the base, it is important to train kids for the future,” Pele said. Ganguly, who is a recent entrant in sports administration being the president elect of the Cricket Association of Bengal, asked specifically about another underdeveloped aspect of Indian football – infrastructure.

“You have to give chance to players to go abroad and play from where they can gather experience. They can then come here and share their experiences. But firstly you have to support the base,” Pele replied. “You should have football in universities, schools and colleges. It is important to start the sport at the right level,” the man who made Brazil the most successful football nation by helping it win three of the five World Cup titles, said.

Ganguly was just repeating the question on development, first put to Pele by the then Mohun Bagan captain Subrata Bhattacharya when the Brazilian legend first visited the city in 1977 with New York Cosmos. Pele did not give an answer then, as Bhattacharya remembers, but the Brazilian great, wise with age and experience, chose to reply to the question that has retained its pertinence even after four decades.

A lot of questions were reserved for Pele on the controversy and allegation of corruption at the highest level plaguing FIFA. The Brazilian legend chose to reply in one line saying, “No, I do not have the intention of becoming the president of FIFA.”

The questions next veered to the comparisons of the best players in world football and specifically about the current state of football. “At my time the players belonged to their respective clubs. Now, however, they belong to the ‘impresarios’ (agents),” Pele said.

“Modern day football is tough, but yes I would have still achieved the same feat that I had so many years back. Footballers are born and gain skills as the gift of God,” he said recalling the support of many talented colleagues who made him what he is today.

“I had some great team-mates like Garrincha, Didi and Vava. Later, I played with the likes of Zico. When I was with New York Cosmos, I played alongside Franz Beckenbauer and Giorgio Chinaglia, who were also great footballers. I did not play alone. There was someone who always played beside me to make us succeed as a team,” Pele said.

When he was asked to pick the best football player he has seen, Pele partitioned his preferences saying Bobby Moore of England as the best of his time while anointing Argentine Lionel Messi as the best player to have played in the last 10 years.

“People do not take much notice of defenders. To me the best was Bobby Moore. But over the last ten years without a doubt it is Messi.” Pele said. Again on comparison between the Portuguese star Cristiano Ronaldo and Messi, Pele said, “Lot of people compare Messi with Ronaldo. But they are players of different kind. Roanldo is more of a scorer, more like a centre forward. Messi plays more deeper, but both are fantastic.” Pele went on to add name of Brazilian star Neymar in the comparison. “Neymar, no doubt, could be one of the best players at the moment. I hope Neymar wins a trophy for Brazil. He hails from Santos, the club I used to play for. My son Edinho was the one who trained him, so I feel proud and happy,” Pele said.

The Brazilian legend rued the absence of good club league structure in his own country which sees the players moving to Europe and failing as a team when turning out for Brazil. “We have some of the best players in Brazil but unfortunately we did not have much time to prepare the team before the World Cup. You have to have the players together for a longer time to prepare better but that is not possible as most of them are playing in Europe. Nowadays, players’ managers decide for them if they would be playing for the country or the club,” Pele ended with a note of concern.