Point, Counterpoint: Pele v. Maradona

Joe GSenior Writer IOctober 31, 2008

This article is part one of a series done in collaboration with fellow Bleacher Report writer Eric Gomez. You can find Eric's argument for Maradona by clicking here.

About a month ago, fellow B/R writer and football nut Eric Gomez approached me with a great idea for a new series entitled "Point, Counterpoint." Basically, we pick a topic, one writer chooses a side, and we each write a column in support of our side of the issue.

I expect this to result in some very interesting and entertaining submissions because even with our debut column, one of us (Eric) will be stuck taking a side that he doesn't support.

Edition number two will no doubt feature Eric extracting sweet revenge on me for this.

Pele is without a doubt one of the greatest players to ever set foot on the football pitch. He was renowned for his sublime skill on the pitch and his career achievements have only been approached by a select few

When Pele took the pitch, time seemed to stand still. Cities shut down so people could watch the man play. He even had the power to stop war. In 1967, the two warring sides in the Nigerian Civil War ordered a 48-hour cease fire so Pele could participate in an exhibition match in Lagos. It's difficult to name ANY other historical figure with this power, much less an athlete.

The man's power was so great that he transcended sport and prejudice.

I could sit here for pages and bore you with his statistics and personal accolades, but none of those will show why Pele was the greatest footballer in the world. No, Pele's greatest act was simple: he got Americans to pay attention to football.

On the surface, it sounds so simple but in reality it's a near miracle. Until Pele signed with the New York Cosmos of the now-defunct NASL, many football leagues had sprung up across America, only to fail because they lacked any star power. The Brazilian legend changed all of this.

First, his signing by the New York Cosmos came about in unprecedented fashion. The Brazilian government had dubbed him a national treasure and during his long career with Santos, refused to allow him to sign elsewhere because they did not want to lose a cultural icon. It took intervention on behalf of US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger (a big football fan, incidentally) to convince Brazil to release Pele to the US.

Can you imagine George W. Bush petitioning Gordon Brown to allow David Beckham to play in the States? Didn't think so.

Before attending his first Cosmos practice, Pele was adding to his legendary reputation. When he finally arrived at his first practice, it was mayhem. The media frenzy was unheard of for a footballer in America. Granted, it was probably partially due to the Cosmos being owned by the Warner Brothers and the Ertegun brothers, but plenty of people were curious about Pele on their own.

Suddenly football was relevant in America, and it was all due to Pele. The Cosmos, who had been struggling to attract even 5,000 fans per match before Pele, were now drawing over 40,000 fans regularly, including stars like Steven Tyler of Aerosmith.

Beckham-mania is nothing compared to Pele fever. It's like comparing the sniffles to tuberculosis. And Beckham is a pretty big deal, too.

Pele is probably the greatest ambassador for the game of football that the world will ever see. Without Pele, we don't have fond memories of the NASL helping to jump start MLS in the early 1990s. In all honesty, we probably don't have MLS, period.

Without Pele, the NASL suffered greatly and eventually collapsed despite still having starts like Gerd Muller, Johann Cruyff, and George Best. This should definitively prove the effect that Pele had on the American football scene. The best players in the world weren't enough to keep a league alive without Pele, and that's incredible.

Pele wasn't the greatest because of his great goalscoring prowess, or his penchant for making highlight reel plays. No, Pele was the greatest of all-time because he single-handedly made a entire country that had been ignorant of football stop and pay attention.