Why Pele Will Always Stand Above Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo and the World

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Why Pele Will Always Stand Above Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo and the World
Jared Wickerham/Getty Images

For the first time in two decades, Pele has a genuine challenger to his crown of Greatest Ever Player. In the form of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, the three-time World Cup winner is confronting an enormous threat against an accolade which has belonged to him for the best part of half a century.

A little under two years ago, the scorer of over 1,000 professional goals claimed Neymar—then of Santos—was better than the Barcelona and Argentina forward.

His comments drew little agreement. At the time, Neymar was another wonderkid off the Brazilian production line, built up as the next big thing to emerge from this corner of the world.

Of course, potential does not always translate to stardom. Think Kerlon, or, more recently, the travails of Paulo Henrique Ganso.

Messi, meanwhile, has gone on to become the first player in history to win the World Player of the Year award on four occasions. And he did it in consecutive seasons no less.

He has waltzed clear of the 232-goals record set by former Barcelona great Cesar Rodriguez. It really does seem that the world is there for the taking for the adopted Catalan, whilst Pele's comments appear a thinly veiled escape from fact.

But who would come out on top between the Brazilian and Barcelona's current darling?

Comparing players from different eras is always a tricky ask. Any conclusions reached are subjective and the best that can be achieved is an assumption based on the evidence laid before us.

There are however several theories pertaining to the argument that Pele remains untouched by either Lionel Messi or his own rival for the title of the world's current best, Cristiano Ronaldo.

Football is thought to have been a tougher game during the 1950s and 1960s, when Pele played the majority of his career. Teams were more evenly balanced, both on the pitch as well as in the account books, meaning contests could begin on a more even keel.

Advances in sporting equipment have supposedly made the game easier, notably in relation to the ball. Nowadays balls are far lighter, making them considerably easier to head.

Clive Brunskill/Getty Images
Lionel Messi is a four-time World Player of the Year, but is still not better than Pele

To ease the burden further, the extra swerve one can inflict on the ball makes a goalkeeper's job that much harder.

The introduction of yellow and red cards, which only came into mainstream use during the 1970 World Cup, have made the life of a skilful goal threat more comfortable. During Pele's era, a defender could unleash his frustration on an opponent's shins without fear of serious retribution.

Then there is the argument of titles won. Pele won three World Cups, in 1958, 1962 and 1970, although his participation in 1962 was minimal after collecting an injury in the first game that ruled him out of the rest of the tournament.

Neither Lionel Messi nor Cristiano Ronaldo have yet lifted the greatest prize in the game.

There are arguments against Pele too. The physical side of the sport and the preparation that goes into each game have reached levels of incredible intensity.

One only has to look at the way in which Cristiano Ronaldo's body has developed since the gangly teenager that arrived at Old Trafford in 2003. The Real Madrid player now boasts a physique not dissimilar to Johnny Bravo.

Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images
Cristiano Ronaldo has bulked up considerably since arriving at Manchester United as a teenager

Pele was part of a golden generation in Brazil. His team-mates included Nilton Santos, Didi, Garrincha and Jairzinho, all of whom could be considered some of the best players of the era. A player's job becomes easier when surrounded by world-class talent, even if said player is the most gifted to decorate the record books.

Simply stripped to bare numbers, Pele is an outright winner. In his first 350 games as a professional, he scored an incredible 448 goals at an average of 1.28 goals per game.

There remains the old adage that Pele spent the majority of his career playing in a Sao Paulo state championship as opposed to a national league. But his goals are spread across the Rio-Sao Paulo tournament, Copa Libertadores and international fixtures, including significant roles in two World Cup triumphs, something no other player can lay claim to.

Pele announced himself to the world with a hat-trick as a 17-year-old in the 1958 World Cup final. He subsequently led the charge of arguably the greatest team the planet has ever seen, Brazil's 1970 world-dominating side.

For Messi and Ronaldo, their careers are far from over as they remain locked in skirmishes both domestic and global. But they, for all their wonders, remain behind the man deified by close to 200 million people, who redefined the game like no other past or present.

The striker who remains royalty long after Brazil became a republic. The man known as “The King.”

 

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