Exclusive: Pele on 'Son' Neymar, Lionel Messi and 'Complicated' 2022 World Cup

Alex DimondUK Lead WriterMarch 24, 2015

Getty/AP Composite

You get the sense that Pele knows what you are going to ask him even before you start to formulate the words.

Perhaps it is just natural intuition, the same instinctive understanding for human behaviour—and how he can use that to his own advantage—that helped make him the greatest footballer, and the most prolific goalscorer, the sport has ever seen.

Or perhaps it is simply a matter of repetition, an inevitable by-product of practice: The three-time World Cup winner perhaps does not count the interviews he has done in the same way he so famously, and meticulously, counted his goals (1,281 in all games—a certified world record), but if he did it is a safe bet that number is now much further into four figures, if not five.

Pele will be 75 years old this year, but he is showing no interest in slowing down and settling into a comfortable retirement. He is involved in many ventures, an ambassador for plenty of brands and projects, which means he travels all across the world and puts his name and reputation—"you don't need to introduce yourself, everyone knows who Pele is," as U.S. president Ronald Reagan once told him—to considerable use.

Last weekend one of those responsibilities took him to England, where he was guest of honour at Anfield as Manchester United beat Liverpool in a thrilling Premier League game.

"It is a pleasure to be here," Pele tells Bleacher Report, when we speak before the game. "To come to England one more time, it is always fantastic to be here.

"In Brazil every week we have games on TV to follow the Premier League, it is one of the most important leagues in the world. The thing I like is the passion. I love football—and it is fantastic to see it here."

Pele was a popular guest at Anfield on Sunday
Pele was a popular guest at Anfield on SundayAlex Livesey/Getty Images

Feeling fit and healthy once again—after a scare earlier in the year, he is now much better—it was the health of the English game that was a cause for concern when we spoke, after all of the Premier League's representatives were dumped out of European competition before the quarter-final stage.

Pele does not believe that such failure is symptomatic of a decline in the league's quality.

"No doubt," he says, when asked if he thinks it remains one of the best leagues in the world. "The level of the football in England is fantastic. The teams, with some Brazil players, have a lot of great players. The Premier League is a huge league around the world."

There may be some Brazilian players plying their trade in England, but the biggest stars remain elusive. Pele seems to anticipate it when the conversation turns to Neymar, whom he believes is continuing to flourish into one of the world's brightest stars this season at Barcelona.

"It's no surprise. I have talked about Neymar a lot," Pele says (something of an understatement). "He is like our son: He played for Santos, I played for Santos, my son, Edinho, who played as a goalkeeper for Santos, was his trainer, so we are very proud of Neymar.

"I think that his play, from last year to this year, has improved fantastically. He still has a lot to learn with the football, but he is a good player."

BARCELONA, SPAIN - MARCH 18:  Neymar of FC Barcelona looks down during the UEFA Champions League round of 16 second leg match between FC Barcelona and Manchester City at the Camp Nou stadium on March 18, 2015 in Barcelona, Spain.  (Photo by David Ramos/Ge
David Ramos/Getty Images

It seems he is almost envious of the 23-year-old, his long-nominated heir apparent, for the quality of team he gets to play in at Barcelona. Pele, of course, was never allowed to leave Santos—after being assigned a "national treasure" by the Brazilian government at an early age, to prevent him departing when the big foreign clubs came calling.

"It must be fantastic to play for Barcelona, because Barcelona are not just [Lionel] Messi and Neymar," he says. "Messi, for me, is no doubt one of the best players ever, but they also have two or three other excellent players, like [Andres] Iniesta and Xavi, and the way they play together, they contribute a lot."

He is clearly a huge fan: "It is fantastic to see how Barcelona play. They have some good players, some high-quality players—and the football they play is fantastic for the public."

That sentiment—that football, ultimately, is about how it makes people feel—seems to be one that resonates with Pele. Either that, or the many interviews he has done have taught him how to avoid controversy in the same way he once evaded defenders. A question about the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, for example, leads to an answer acknowledging some of the issues but preferring to focus on the hope that all parties will now come together to make the best of the situation.

"It is a change," he acknowledges. "FIFA made the decision, and then there was a little issue to decide it [officially], but now I think this week they have decided to play it in the winter. For us it will be like the summer still…but I hope it will be OK.

"The important thing is to make a nice World Cup for the people. The place, and the moment, that is not so important. But it will be a bit complicated, this big change to play in December—it is not a little change, but we have to make the most of it now."

FIFA have confirmed the 2022 World Cup will take place in the winter
FIFA have confirmed the 2022 World Cup will take place in the winterEnnio Leanza/Associated Press

He is hopeful that his beloved Brazil will be able to win in the Middle East, at any rate, if not in Russia four years earlier. Obviously last summer's World Cup was a huge disappointment, but Pele believes the Selecao, and Neymar, will be stronger for the experience.

"It was a little shock for the Brazilian people, because nobody expected Brazil to lose this World Cup, no?" he says. "The two World Cups we have played in Brazil, we have lost. In 1950 we lost in the Maracana, and now Brazil lost again, against Germany. But all the World Cups Brazil have won, they won them outside Brazil. This is football though."

Pele famously won the first World Cup he played in, as a teenage wonder in Sweden in 1958, yet Neymar's first experience of the tournament ended in pain—both literal and figurative, as he broke a bone in his back against Colombia and subsequently missed the 7-1 semi-final loss to the eventual champions.

"That is hard to judge," he observes, when asked if Neymar will be negatively affected by the experience. "It was one of the worst moments, because Brazil lost the World Cup, but what happened to him happened to Ronaldo, it happened to me when I was here in 1966—I did my meniscus against Portugal because they were kicking my knee.

"But Neymar is strong. He is recovered, and there is no problem. I think, and hope, he will return and be ready to deliver us the World Cup next time around."

Pele spent time with fans in London last week
Pele spent time with fans in London last weekSubway

In many ways, Neymar is being asked to live up to the achievements of Pele (and perhaps in that regard the constant questions hardly help), but the game's most famous No. 10 has left a considerable impact wherever he has been.

The United States was the only place he played his club football outside Brazil—after being allowed to move to the New York Cosmos as he reached the latter stages of his career—and Pele is obviously proud of the impact he has made on the game there, seeing Major League Soccer today as the fruits of his earlier labours.

"In the beginning, we worked hard to promote soccer—sorry, football!—in the United States, and we had a lot of good players. It was excellent promotion because we had some excellent players—Franz Beckenbauer, Carlos Alberto, George Best, Pele. So there was a big boom.

"So I think today, soccer in the United States is the reality [of what we started]. They have a good team, and they did well in the World Cup in Japan and South Korea, and in Brazil, and I hope they will continue to progress."

He is involved once again with the revived Cosmos, and hopes to see them in MLS soon: "No doubt. We are going to work hard to see what we can do with the team."

Pele and George Best during their time playing in the United States
Pele and George Best during their time playing in the United StatesGetty Images/Getty Images

That is just one part of Pele's legacy, however, a legacy that sees him generally accepted as the game's greatest player. Recently, however, it has started to look as if some of his long-standing records will eventually be broken: Neymar looks certain to take his goals record for Brazil at some point (Pele scored 77, Neymar already has 42), for example, while Messi could feasibly break his all-time league goals record (541 goals), if not the (occasionally disputed) overall figure before all is said and done.

Is he worried about some of his records being surpassed, of his place in history eventually being challenged?

"If I understand well, every time somebody tries to get me to compare with Pele," he says. "I like to joke [about it]. We have Messi, who is an excellent player, but he is a different player [to me]. We have Cristiano Ronaldo, one of the best players in Europe playing today—he is a very good scorer.

"These are the best players in the world now, but the style of Ronaldo and Neymar, the style of Cristiano Ronaldo and Messi, it is different. I like Xavi—he is an excellent player too—but what is important is that they make the people feel something.

"But then someone always wants to compare them with Pele, and then I say: No way! No chance whatsoever [they are the next Pele]. Because my father and mother closed the machine!"

The message is clear: There are plenty of great players today, but there was, and will always be, only one Pele.

 

Pele was speaking on behalf of Subway, encouraging fans to eat healthy. Subway is the official training food partner of Liverpool FC.