Pele is the one player who transcended soccer. With the possible exception of Muhammad Ali, he is the most famous and popular sportsman of the last Millennium. He is certainly the greatest footballer, writes Frank Malley.

It remains one of the most enduring images in World Cup history. On the one hand Edson Arantes do Nascimento — otherwise known as Pele. On the other Bobby Moore, otherwise regarded as the golden talent of English football. That shot of a bare-chested Pele exchanging shirts with Moore, unable to speak each other's language but with a hand on each other's face in mutual admiration, after Brazil's 1-0 victory against England in Guadalajara in the group stage of the 1970 World Cup is the epitome of respect and sportsmanship.

Quite possibly it was also a meeting of the greatest attacker and defender the World Cup has ever witnessed.

Moore certainly thought so of Pele, capturing his essence more powerfully than any mere observer. "Pele was the most complete player I've ever seen," Moore once said. "He had everything. Two good feet. Magic in the air. Quick. Powerful. Could beat people with skill. Could outrun people. Only 5ft 8in tall, yet he seemed a giant of an athlete on the pitch. Perfect balance and impossible vision.

"He was the greatest because he could do anything and everything on a football pitch. I remember Saldanha, the coach, being asked by a Brazilian journalist who was the best goalkeeper in his squad. He said Pele. The man could play in any position."

Who are we to argue with the verdict of one as honourable and knowledgeable as Moore, even if all such observations are necessarily subjective, if only because there have been so many superlative performances among the hundreds of players who have graced football's most prestigious tournament since hosts Uruguay beat Argentina 4-2 in the inaugural final in 1930.

In any poll of greatness clearly it is impossible to compare out-and-out defenders with pure goal-scorers. The demands are totally different, although their value to the team might be comparable. But for the sake of debate, one aired frequently in pubs and bars around the world, let's try to find the best goalkeeper, the best defender, the best midfielder and the best attacker ever to grace the World Cup finals.

Some will merit inclusion because of their enduring quality over several tournaments. Some will stand out for a treasured moment so supreme that it has entered the annals of World Cup folklore. For instance, ask anyone about Gordon Banks' contribution to England's World Cup history and after mentioning the triumph in 1966 they will point you to "that save" against Pele in the 1970 finals.

Arguably it is the greatest made, Banks flinging himself across the goal, reaching backwards at full stretch and with the ball inches from the goal-line managing to get enough on Pele's powerful header to tip the ball up and over the bar.

You can watch the tape of that save 100 times and each time it appears more spectacular than before.

In the realms of goalkeeping it lifts Banks above Italy's Dino Zoff, who appeared in three World Cup finals and lifted the trophy as captain in 1982 at the age of 40. Zoff's work was solid rather than spectacular but both he and Banks would have to take a back seat to the greatest goalkeeper of them all — Russia's Lev Yashin.

So athletic and agile, Yashin's three World Cup performances between 1958 and 1966 were instrumental in redefining the role of the goalkeeper. He was the first truly to dominate his penalty area, rather than be content to be merely a shot-stopper. He also perfected the art of the throw-out to launch swift counter-attacks, his stunning performances guiding Russia almost single-handedly to the semifinals in 1966.

But if the goalkeeper is the pivotal point in any defence then just as crucial are defenders of composure and class, not just there to stop but also to create.

Brazil's captain in 1970, Carlos Alberto, was such a player, a wonderful passer and a surging overlapping full-back. Roberto Carlos currently is in the same mould, but for all their dynamic qualities going forward they did lack defensive consistency.

At least they do when compared with Italian legend Guiseppe Bergomi, who as an 18-year-old marked Germany's Karl-Heinz Rumenigge out of the 1982 final, which Italy won 3-1.

West Germans Paul Breitner and Andreas Brehme oozed class in an era of Teutonic dominance while Holland's Ruud Krol possessed the ability to play anywhere in the Dutch era of `total football'. Italians Paolo Maldini and Franco Baresi also deserve a mention but there are two defenders who roll off the tongue in terms of sheer footballing excellence — Bobby Moore and Germany's Franz Beckenbauer.

No-one before or since has perfected the `libero' position quite like Beckenbauer, who played behind his fellow defenders, mopping up loose balls, making crucial interceptions and then breaking out from his deep role to run through the opposing midfield with a power and elegance which was unique. On top of that his tactical genius allowed him to become in 1990 the first man to have captained and managed World Cup winners. But even so he does not usurp Moore's place as the most cultured defender the game has seen. Moore was by no means the fleetest of foot but mentally there was no swifter reader of the ebb and flow of a football match. His understanding of where his team-mates were, or should be, was instinctive and he was equally adept at starting as stopping attacks.

His technically perfect tackle on Pele in 1970 is one of the World Cup's classic moments, although many might have forgotten the two precision passes which led to two goals of Geoff Hurst's hat-trick in the 1966 final.

The midfield berth is the engine room where World Cup success invariably is manufactured and Brazilian genius abounds in great names such as Garrincha, Jairzinho, Rivelinho and Socrates. There is a touch of French elan too in Michel Platini and Zinedine Zidane, the latter's two goals in the 1998 final against Brazil announcing him as one of the game's great midfield talents.

Italy provide Roberto Baggio and Germany the evergreen Lothar Matthaus and the all-round athleticism of Wolfgang Overath, a man who possessed a thunderous left-foot shot and who helped Germany finish second in 1966, third in 1970 when he was voted the tournament's best midfield player and finally first in 1974.

That last year, however, was the tournament that saw the blossoming of the best midfield player never to win a World Cup in Holland's Johan Cruyff.

Cruyff scored goals, made goals, consistently provided the heartbeat for any team in which he played. He could play anywhere and sometimes it looked as if he was running through his arsenal of positions in a single match. He only competed in one finals, refusing to play in the 1978 tournament after a dispute with the Dutch FA, but his displays in 1974 were stupendous.

So much so that they gave football a new move — the `Cruyff turn,' a manoeuvre often emulated today but was jaw-droppingly stunning when it was first performed to the embarrassment of an opposing full-back.

And that brings us to the strikers, the men who live longest in the memory because they do the most difficult job of all — score the goals, which make history.

The list of supreme quality is long, reads like a who's who of football's most famous characters and evokes so many memories of Golden Boot winners such as England's Gary Lineker, six goals in 1986, Portugal's Eusebio, nine goals in 1966, Germany's Gerd Muller, 10 goals in 1970, Italy's Paolo Rossi, six goals in 1982, Argentina's Mario Kempes, six goals in 1978, and the undisputed World Cup goal king Just Fontaine, 13 goals for France in 1958.

But when it comes to the art of making and scoring goals two men, one in the blue and white stripes of Argentina, the other in the thrilling yellow of Brazil, dominate World Cup history — Diego Maradona and Pele.

If ever one match summed up the contrasting sides of Maradona's nature then it was England's 2-1 defeat at the hands of Argentina in 1986. Who could forget Maradona chasing through after a missed clearance by Steve Hodge sent the ball spinning into the air in the English penalty area? As England goalkeeper Peter Shilton raced from his line, Maradona leapt in front of him and knocked the ball into the net with his hand.

The officials must have been the only ones in the ground not to have seen the infringement and the goal was given, later to be described famously by Maradona as the `Hand of God'. It was blatant cheating but what came next demonstrated why Maradona was regarded as the world's best player.

He picked up the ball in his own half, a drag-back took him neatly away from Peter Beardsley and he was off and running at the English defence. He flew past Peter Reid, brushed aside Terry Butcher and without breaking stride rounded Shilton before sliding the ball into the net for arguably the greatest World Cup goal ever scored.

Maradona's brilliance went on to win the trophy for Argentina and in 1990 he was instrumental once more in taking a much more negative Argentina to the final where they were beaten by Germany. His World Cup career ended in shame, however, when he failed a drugs test in the United States in 1994 and it is that scar on his reputation, which tips the finest of balance in favour of Pele when it comes to choosing the greatest World Cup footballer.

Quite simply, no-one has brought more sunshine to the world of sport, let alone football, than Edson Arantes do Nascimento.

Pele is the one player who transcended soccer. With the possible exception of Muhammad Ali, he is the most famous and popular sportsman of the last Millennium. He is certainly the greatest footballer.

Just savour the achievements. His international reputation was established in the 1958 World Cup when as a 17-year-old he scored a hat-trick in the semifinal and two goals in the 5-2 defeat of Sweden in the final. He won two more World Cup medals, in 1962 though injury kept him out of the final and in 1970. He won his 111th and final cap in 1971 and scored 97 goals for Brazil.

In all Pele played 1363 first class matches, scoring 1281 goals and later added two more in special appearances.

That is a phenomenal and unsurpassed strike rate, but bare statistics cannot do justice to a player with a serene temperament, a sharp and inventive mind, a powerful and athletic body and a reputation as a quiet, modest, sincere gentleman.

Not that he was a soft touch. Indeed, when during a mini-World Cup in Brazil in 1964 Pele was being hacked without mercy by Argentinian defenders, he laid one out on his back, nose splattered, on the edge of his own penalty area.

It is a testament to Pele's reserve and talent that his skills flourished, despite being the world's most marked player throughout his career.

Pele was kicked out of the World Cup in England in 1966 by a Portuguese side, not especially dirty, just scared witless by his magical talents. He threatened to quit the game after being carried from the Goodison Park pitch that day.

Thankfully his love for football made him rethink, otherwise football lovers would not have enjoyed the cherished memories of the 1970 World Cup and Pele inspiring what is generally regarded as the best side in history.

Every fan has HIS special Pele moment from that glorious tournament. His outrageous dummy against Uruguay, when he ran away from the ball to bamboozle the goalkeeper before still managing a shot on goal.

His shot from the halfway line, the header which brought that wonder save from Banks or the simple trap and pass in the penalty area to set up Carlos Alberto for the clinching goal in the World Cup final against Italy.

There were so many.

Pele retired at the end of the 1974 season but a lucrative contract with New York Cosmos in the United States saw him return the following year. He pulled in crowds of 70,000 to the Giants Stadium, even though people didn't know what soccer was before he arrived. When he finally hung up his boots for good in 1977 the NASL effectively died.

Despite considerable material success Pele has always remained modest and approachable, characteristics which served him well in his political ambitions which saw him rise to the post of Brazilian sports minister in 1995 when he led a campaign to tackle corruption in football.

His philosophy has always been simple. "Football is the ultimate in team sport," says Pele. "And no individual can win a game by himself. Pele is a famous name, but Pele made his goals because another player passed to him at the proper time.

"And Brazil won games because Pele didn't try to make the goals by himself, but passed to others when required so that the goal could be scored."

It is the true definition of the Beautiful Game — by the man who made the sun shine on football.

@ PA Sport, 2006, All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, re-written, re-distributed or commercially exploited.

Sportstar is not responsible for any inaccuracy in the material.

© PA Sport, 2006, All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, re-written, re-distributed or commercially exploited.

Sportstar is not responsible for any inaccuracy in the material.


Pele: More than anyone Pele represents the way football should be played. Dribble, head, shoot, tackle, he could do it all. The outrageous dummy against Uruguay in 1970 still defies belief. Won three World Cups in 1958, 1962 and 1970, scoring twice in the final against Sweden in 1958, having already hit a hat-trick in the semi-final. A living football legend.

Maradona: The most naturally talented player in football history. Infamous for cheating with the `Hand of God' goal against England in 1986 and tainted by drug taking in the latter half of his career, but when he was on the ball the world watched in awe. His second goal against England in 1986 remains the greatest World Cup goal.

Johan Cruyff: The perfect `Total Footballer'. Unorthodox, he started matches at centre-forward in his trademark number 14 shirt but could operate anywhere in midfield or attack. Led Ajax to three successive European Cups, was European player of the year three times and scored against Brazil to book Holland's place in the 1974 World Cup final.

Bobby Moore: Only England captain to have lifted the World Cup and Pele rated him as his toughest opponent. Possessed an uncanny ability to read the game and spot potential danger but was also a composed and inspirational leader. Died of cancer in 1993, displaying all the courage and class, which marked him out as a special player.

Franz Beckenbauer: A deep-lying defender but `Kaiser' Franz could pass and shoot as elegantly as any forward. Captained Bayern Munich to three successive European Cups between 1974 and 1976 and West Germany to the 1974 World Cup on home soil. Also coached the Germans to two World Cup finals, in 1990 becoming the first person to win the World Cup as player and coach.

Gerd Muller: Nicknamed `Der Bomber' and simply the greatest goal-scorer in international football. Netted 68 goals in 62 appearances for West Germany, signing off in 1974 with the winning goal in the World Cup final. Scored 14 World Cup goals in all, including 10 to win the Golden Boot in 1970.

Jairzinho: Real name Jair Ventura Filho and the only player to have scored in every round of a World Cup tournament, scoring seven goals in Brazil's triumph in 1970, including the winning goal against England. Known for his dribbling, he was equally adept as a goal-poacher.

Zinedine Zidane: France's midfield genius. Zidane combined brilliant ball control with magical vision. His two headed goals in France's 3-0 victory over Brazil in the 1998 World Cup final only enhanced his reputation as the complete player.

Lev Yashin: Always dressed in black, the Russian was the only goalkeeper to be voted the European Player of the Year. Brought glamour and panache to the last line of defence and graced three World Cups between 1958 and 1966. On his death in 1990 Russian news agency Tass hailed him as "the most famous Soviet sportsman ever".

Mario Kempes: The striker synonymous with the tickertape World Cup of 1978. Devastating acceleration, especially when surging into the penalty area, plus close control brought him six goals to pick up the Golden Boot. Scored twice in Argentina's 3-1 final triumph against Holland.

© PA Sport, 2006, All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, re-written, re-distributed or commercially exploited.

Sportstar is not responsible for any inaccuracy in the material.