Pele and the 20 Greatest Brazilian Footballers of All Time

Christopher Atkins@@chris_elasticoContributor IJanuary 15, 2013

Pele and the 20 Greatest Brazilian Footballers of All Time

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    Brazil has produced some of the most iconic players in the history of world football. From Pelé to Garrincha and Ronaldo to Kaká, the country has a back catalogue of stars that is scarcely believable.

    No other nation can match it. For all of Italy, Germany or Argentina's great pedigree as footballing powers, they are no equal for Brazil in terms of star power and status.

    Even now, there are children the planet over who know the names Zico and Socrates. They may have no idea where they played, or even who they were, but they have heard these names spoken of in hallowed terms by their elders.

    Brazil's teams in 1958, 1970 and 1982 are widely mentioned in the context of the greatest footballing sides of all time. World Cup winning efforts in 1994 and 2002 also packed a punch on the star radar.

    But, where do the individual players rank in relation to each other?

    Without further hesitation, let's take a look at who I personally rate as the Top 20 players in Brazil's footballing history.

No. 20: Careca

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    A veteran of the 1986 and 1990 World Cups, Careca was a national champion in both Brazil and Italy in a career that took him from 1978 through to the late 1990s.

    Having missed the 1982 World Cup through injury, Careca's early career was marked only by domestic success.

    Before leaving for Italy in 1987, he would win the Brazilian championship with both Guarani and São Paulo. For the latter of those titles, in 1986, he finished as the Brasileirão's top scorer with 25 league goals and was voted Placar magazine's Player of the Year.

    That same year, though, he would spring to wider attention as the second top-scorer at the 1986 World Cup in Mexico, before moving to Serie A giants Napoli the following season. He would later add two more World Cup goals to his tally in 1990.

    At Napoli, he would form an effective partnership with Argentine superstar Diego Maradona, who would lead the club to unprecedented success. In 1989, the Partenopei would secure the only continental title in their history by winning the UEFA Cup, while the Italian Serie A title followed a year later.

    Following Maradona's departure from the club, Careca would later strike up a partnership with a young Gianfranco Zola, before moving on to Japan in 1993. He would spend three years there with Kashiwa Reysol, before returning to Brazil with Santos in 1997.

No. 19: Heleno De Freitas

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    Heleno de Freitas is as famous in Brazil for his off-pitch antics as he is for his performances on it. However, when it comes to his on-pitch performance, there are few who could claim to be his equal.

    The biggest idol in the pre-Garrincha history of Botafogo, Heleno scored 209 goals in 235 matches for the Carioca giants between 1940 and 1948.

    It was at this point in his career that he was selected to play at international level, starring at the 1945 South American championship, where he scored six goals. He would end his international career with 19 goals in just 18 games.

    In 1948, in what was the biggest transfer in the history of South American football, he moved to Argentine giants Boca Juniors. However, his time at the club would last just one year.

    At 30, he would achieve state championship success with Vasco da Gama upon his return to Brazil, but failed to hold down a spell of any notable duration at any of his remaining clubs.

    The tall, elegant striker's career was on a downward spiral as personal issues began to take full effect.

    From early in his career, he had endured problems with drug addiction, while his famed love of women ultimately led to his demise.

    Heleno died in 1959, aged 39, having spent his final years in a hospice after contracting syphilis, which led to madness.

    Sadly, he was denied the chance to represent his country at a World Cup due to the competition's absence during the Second World War.

No. 18: Clodoaldo

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    A World Cup winner in 1970, Clodoaldo is widely regarded as one of the greatest defensive midfielders ever to play the game.

    A Santos supporter, Clodoaldo joined the club in 1963, aged just 13, and would remain with the Peixe until 1980, playing on 510 occasions for the historic Alvinegro outfit.

    Clodoaldo is best remembered as a skillful defensive midfielder who brought great composure to the base of the team's attack. He was also renowned for his marking ability.

    Sadly, having achieved glory in 1970, he would not have the opportunity to defend his World Cup title, missing the 1974 tournament after picking up an injury just 10 days ahead of the event.

    It would mark the end of his international career, aged 25.

    To add to his World Cup, Clodoaldo would also add five state championships, a national title (Roberto Gomes Pedrosa) and a Intercontinental Super Cup with Santos.

    The highlight of his 38 international caps may have been a 1970 semi-final goal in victory over Uruguay. However, he is best remembered for the piece of skill captured in the video, which sparked possibly the greatest World Cup goal ever.

No. 17: Júnior

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    Two-footed, skillful, a brilliant long-passer of the ball and a feared set-piece taker, 70-cap left-back Júnior was an integral part of the Brazil side for an entire generation in the 1980s.

    He is best remembered, at least to the international audience, for his role at the 1982 World Cup where he played all five fixtures for the Seleção, That team is often regarded as one the greatest footballing sides in history, despite failing in their quest for glory.

    Sadly, Júnior would never achieve World Cup success but, at club level, would achieve much during his two spells at Flamengo in particular.

    Between 1974 and 1993, Júnior played a club record of 865 matches for the Rubro-Negro, helping his side win a Copa Libertadores, an Intercontinental Cup, four Brazilian championships and a Copa do Brazil in that period.

    In 1992, as testament to his ability, Júnior was voted best player of the Brasileirão at the age of 38, by that time appearing as a midfielder.

No. 16: Didi

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    "I´m nothing compared to Didi. I'll never be anywhere near as good as he is. He´s my idol, he's the guy I look up to. The very first picture cards I bought were of him." - Pelé at World Cup 1958 (FIFA.com).

    Another Botafogo icon, central midfielder Didi was a double World Cup winner in 1958 and 1962, having also played in the 1954 edition.

    "The Ethiopian prince," as he was nicknamed by playwright Nelson Rodrigues, was famed for his stamina, composure and laid-back demeanour in a career that brought 62 international caps.

    Besides his classy, languid midfield style, he also became famed for his free-kick striking ability, or the so-called "folha seca" (dry/falling leaf) technique. He would strike the ball in such a manner that it would dip suddenly on its approach to goal, with the style proving successful throughout his career.

    In Brazil, Didi would win four Rio de Janeiro state championships (three of which came with Botafogo), as well as a national title in 1962.

    A brief stint with Real Madrid would also see him collect a European Cup winners medal in 1959-60. However, it was his Player of the Tournament award at the 1958 World Cup that would go down as his greatest achievement.

    Off the pitch, Didi is also famed for coining the phrase "the beautiful game," although that claim remains contested. (Daily Telegraph)

No. 15: Tostão

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    A World Cup winner in 1970, Tostão is perhaps the  greatest player in the history of Minas Gerais giants Cruzeiro.

    Tostão made his Brazil debut in May 1966, earning a late place in his country's 22-man squad for the World Cup in England just a month later. He would score in his only appearance of the tournament, a Pelé-less 3-1 defeat to Hungary.

    With 10 goals in qualifying, Tostão was Brazil's top-scorer in qualifying for the 1970 World Cup and struck up a fine partnership with Pelé following Garrincha's exit from the international scene. At the tournament itself, supported by Gérson and top-scorer Jairzinho, the duo helped fire Brazil to a third world title.

    Unfortunately, following complications suffered after a detached retina in 1969, Tostão was forced to retire in 1973. He was yet to turn 27. The "vice-Rei" (vice-king) to "O Rei" Pelé, Tostão would still go down as one of Brazil's greats.

    He finished his Cruzeiro career with 249 goals to his name in 373 matches and, to date, is still the club's top-scorer of all-time.

No. 14: Leônidas

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    Known as the "Black Diamond," Leônidas was one of the most important Brazilian football players of the early 20th century.

    The forward, famed for his use of the bicycle kick, was one of the greatest Brazilian goalscorers of his era and, but for the World War, would have surely played in more than two World Cups.

    In 1934 and 1938, though, he did have that opportunity and he finished the latter as top-scorer, scoring seven times in five appearances. It was at the event that he brought the bicycle kick to wider attention.

    Initially playing as an inside-right, before developing into a fine centre-forward, his major breakthrough came at Bonsucesso, before moving on to enjoy successful spells at Peñarol (Uruguay), Vasco da Gama and Botafogo. He would become Rio de Janeiro state champion with both the latter two sides.

    Late in his career, though, he would enjoy prolonged spells at Flamengo (153 goals in 149 games) and São Paulo (141 goals in 212 games). At the latter, Leônidas would win the São Paulo state championship on a remarkable five occasions between 1943-49.

    Leônidas would eventually retire in 1951 having scored in every World Cup match in which he featured. In total, he played 15 official games for Brazil, scoring on 16 occasions. (Sambafoot)

No. 13: Rivellino

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    The "Reizinho do Parque" (Little King of the Parque São Jorge), Rivellino refined his footballing skills by playing futsal as a boy, before joining and making his name in football at Corinthians.

    Famed for his "Elastico" dribble, as seen in the video, the attacking midfielder used his excellent close control to great effect in the 11-man game. Contrary to popular belief, Rivellino himself denies inventing the move. (YouTube)

    A key member of the Brazil side for nearly a decade, the 1970 World Cup winner would also go on to play in both the '74 and '78 tournaments. In total, he played 96 official matches for the Seleção, scoring 26 goals.

    His 474 games for Corinthians, though, did not bring any state championship success. In 1974, following a defeat to Palmeiras in the final of that tournament, for which he was blamed, he decided to move on from the club.

    Later, with Fluminense, Rivellino would go on to win Carioca state titles in 1975 and 1976, before moving to Al-Hilal and claiming a Saudi championship title in the 1978-79 season.

    He holds the distinction of having been the idol of a young Diego Maradona, who later went on to achieve footballing greatness himself. (YouTube)

No. 12: Carlos Alberto Torres

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    Pictured in his time as Flamengo coach, Carlos Alberto became known simply as "O Capitão" for his leadership of the Brazilian national team in success at the World Cup of 1970.

    It was at that tournament that the flying wing-back wrote his name into footballing history, having been a shock omission four-years pior. In the final, with just minutes to go, he scored a goal that is considered by many to be the greatest ever scored in World Cup competition. (YouTube)

    Although he came through at Fluminense in Rio de Janeiro, it was at Santos where Carlos Alberto would celebrate his biggest triumphs at club level

    In eight years at Pelé's side, he won a South American Super Cup, two Brazilian championships and five state titles—although he never achieved Copa Libertadores glory.

    While Nilton Santos started the transition, it was Carlos Alberto who refined fully the new wing-back role.

    Due to the level of his success in the position in 1970, he quickly became the model on which many of the world's best wing-backs since have based their game.

No. 11: Nilton Santos

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    "When you played the ball as much as he did, the position didn't really matter. When all's said and done, Nilton Santos wasn't a defender or a fullback. He was just a star, as simple as that." - Zito to FIFA.com

    Another iconic player to have emerged from Rio de Janeiro's famous Botafogo club, Nilton Santos was a twice World Cup winner in 1958 and 1962.

    Beginning in 1950, the left full-back would be selected for four consecutive tournaments, winning a grand total of 75 official caps for his nation. He would also win one South American championship.

    He is also famed for helping to redefine the role of a full-back.

    A converted forward, Nilton Santos was one of the first full-backs to push forward while in attack and is often regarded as being influential in creating the later concept of a wing-back.

    With Botafogo he would win four state championships, as well as two national titles (Torneio Roberto Gomes Pedrosa), but it was perhaps his role in guiding a young Garrincha that was his biggest contribution to the club.

    Eight years Garrincha's senior, the young star is said to have revered Nilton and the duo became close friends off the pitch. For all Garrincha's issues with alcohol, he is said never to have touched a drop in front of his elder colleague.

No. 10: Gérson

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    Another of the victorious 1970 World Cup squad, Gérson achieved global fame as the creative hub of that illustrious side.

    Known as the "Golden left foot," Gérson was renowned for his ability to pass the ball with incredible accuracy. As a child, he had first learned his trade on the beach, before becoming an early convert to futsal.

    He began his career at Flamengo, turning professional in 1959, and was called to the Brazil 1960 Olympic side the following year. During his time at the club he won one Rio-São Paulo tournament and one state championship.

    In 1963, though, he moved to the great Botafogo side of Garrincha, Didi and Zagallo. It was at the club that his career truly took off, winning a Copa do Brasil and two state titles.

    It was also at this time when he was called to play a major role in the Brazilian national team, even if the 1966 World Cup ultimately turned out to be a disappointment.

    In 1970, though, everything would come together. With Clodoaldo sitting deeper, he would form part of Brazil's golden forward line, also containing Tostão, Rivellino, Jairzinho and Pelé. His performances rightfully earned him a place in the Team of the Tournament.

No. 9: Ronaldinho

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    A World Cup winner in 2002, Ronaldinho is the first player on our list to enjoy his biggest achievements at club level outside of Brazil. It was, instead, on the coast on eastern Spain at FC Barcelona that the Porto Alegre-born playmaker would shine brightest.

    For a period of time in the early 2000s, he was the best player on the planet and, at stages, seemingly by some distance. In his five years at the Camp Nou, two league titles and a solitary Champions League crown almost seem a disappointing return for the performance levels produced. He was that good.

    At the 2002 World Cup, he had been the young support act to the experienced, world-leading talents of Ronaldo and Rivaldo. By 2006, it was he who was the main attraction. That tournament, though, was a major disappointment for a much-hyped Brazil side.

    The FIFA World Player of the Year in 2004 and 2005, Ronaldinho unfortunately could not maintain those standards and, in 2011 at the age of 30, he made an early return to Brazilian football.

    The pace that once terrorised Real Madrid at the Bernabéu may have deserted him, as his lifestyle choices took their toll, but his close control and eye for a pass remain.

    In 2012, following a fine first season at Atlético Mineiro, he was named Best Player of the Brazilian Championship by Placar magazine.

    Calls have since resurfaced for him to add to his 94 Brazil caps ahead of the 2014 World Cup and, with the return of Luiz Felipe Scolari as Brazil head coach, it may just happen.

No. 8: Falcão

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    A three-time Brasileirão champion with Internacional, Falcão was a key member of the Brazil 1982 World Cup squad that thrilled a global audience under manager Telê Santana.

    That side may not have won the tournament, but they captured the hearts and minds of a generation of football fans worldwide.

    Falcão, playing his regular box-to-box midfield role in the Brazilian midfield, scored three times in five appearances at the event and was regarded as one of the stars of the tournament.

    At the time, he was playing for Roma in Italy, where the Santa Catarina-born star had been christened the King of Rome for his impressive performances. In a five-year spell in the Italian capital, he helped the Giallorossi to two Coppa d'Italia titles, as well as a Serie A triumph in 1982-83.

    A Brazil return came in 1985, where Falcão spent one final season in professional football with São Paulo, before moving on to pursue a career in football management.

    There was, though, still time for a call-up to the Brazil squad for the 1986 World Cup in Mexico at the age of 33. Recovering from injury, he wouldn't start a single game at the tournament and he promptly retired following Brazil's quarter-final exit to France.

No. 7: Romário

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    "The best player I have coached? It has to be Romario. You could expect anything from him. His technique was extraordinary." - Johan Cruyff to Mundo Deportivo, 2012. (H/T Goal.com)

    He may be no easy customer to deal with, but there is no doubting Romário's talent as a footballer. The Golden Ball winner at the 1994 World Cup, his five goals at the tournament were a major factor in Brazil's eventual fourth global success.

    His career statistics of 55 goals in 70 fixtures for the Brazil national team show the extent of his importance to the Seleção during the 1990s. However, due to injury and indiscipline, he was limited to attending just two World Cup finals, as a reserve in 1990 and as the team's focal point in 1994.

    At club level, Romário's footballing achievements have led to him becoming a fan favourite for three of Rio de Janeiro's big four sides—an unusual distinction.

    While his claim to have scored 1000 goals in his career may be questionable, his seven Carioca state championship top-scorer crowns cannot be disputed, nor his three seasons as the Brazilian championship equivalent.

    In Europe, Romário scored 128 goals in 140 games to help PSV Eindhoven to three Eredivisie titles between 1989-92, before guiding Barcelona to the 1993-4 Spanish league title with 30 goals in 33 appearances.

    To add to his World Cup triumph of the same year, Romário was also named FIFA World Player of the Year in 1994. He became the first Brazilian to win the award following its conception in 1991.

No. 6: Jairzinho

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    "I knew Jairzinho was going to be a big success. And not only because of his ability to score goals, but also because he was in frighteningly good shape, physically...He had the physique to be a right-winger, a midfielder, a centre-forward...all at once." - Former Brazil coach Mario Zagallo to FIFA.com

    A No. 10 by trade, 1970 World Cup winner Jairzinho is remembered primarily as a right-winger for Brazil.

    That said, Jairzinho's position was never quite defined, as Zagallo points out. He began his Botafogo career in 1959 as a makeshift centre-forward, moved to the right-wing, before eventually maturing into his second-striker role.

    At international level, it was a similar story. In 1966, he was moved to the left to accommodate club teammate Garrincha. In 1970, he finished as top-scorer and, although starting from the right, filled in as the team's main striker. In 1974, it was the right-flank that called once more for the forward.

    It was the 1970 tournament, though, that cemented Jairzinho's status among the greats. Seven goals in six games saw Jairzinho named the "Hurricane of the Cup," having scored in each of his side's fixtures.

    At club level, Jairzinho was part of a Botafogo side who won two state championships in the 1960s. He then moved briefly to Marseille, before quickly returning to Brazil with Cruzeiro where he won the Copa Libertadores title in 1976.

    He also enjoyed spells in Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador late in his career.

    It was his pace that set him apart from most, while his excellent dribbling made him nearly impossible to dispossess. Often overlooked, though, was his ability to pick the right pass to find a colleague.

    By the time of his official international retirement in 1982, Jairzinho had scored 33 times in 81 games for Brazil.

No. 5: Sócrates

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    "He was an amazing guy. As a player what is there to say, he was one of the best who ever played." - Zico to FIFA.com

    There was much more to Sócrates than just footballing ability, and plenty has been written in that respect since his sad passing in December 2011. As a footballer, though, he was simply phenomenal.

    The 6'4" attacking midfielder was incredibly graceful for a man of his physical stature and, with terrific passing ability off both feet, was an excellent distributor of the ball from central areas.

    He is famed for his use of the backheel pass, a previously seldom-used technique which he employed to great effect. His terrific ball-striking also made him a threat from both open play and set-pieces—a wonderful example of which can be seen in his strike against the USSR from the 1982 World Cup. (YouTube)

    At club level, he became greatly associated with Corinthians, spending six successful years at the Parque São Jorge. However, Fiorentina, Flamengo and Santos fans all also hold fond memories of the former Brazil captain.

    Both on and off the pitch, Sócrates was a leader and his impassioned views on issues outside of football earned him a reputation as a deep thinker in all areas of life.

    He would go on to represent Brazil once more in 1986, where he famously took his penalties with no run-up. However, it would be his influential role in the 1982 side that would forever be remembered as the pinnacle of his career.

    Sócrates played 60 official games for his country, scoring on 22 occasions.

No. 4: Zico

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    Another of the revered 1982 generation, Zico was making waves in Rio de Janeiro with Flamengo from an early age.

    At just 18, having been put on a regime to bulk up early, he helped the side to both the 1971 Copa Libertadores and Intercontinental Cup titles. He would go on to win seven state titles and four Brazilian championships over two spells totaling 16 years at the club. 

    In total, he played over 800 times for the Rubro-Negro and scored in excess of 500 goals.

    For Brazil, the story was little different. Having broken into the Seleção in 1976, Zico would alternate with Mendonça for a starting position at the 1978 World Cup. Four years later, though, he was fully installed as the central playmaker for his side.

    While Brazil's memorable challenge in 1982 ended in disappointment, Zico scored four times in his five appearances and was named in FIFA All-Star Team of the Tournament.

    Like so many of his colleagues, Zico would also attempt the 1986 tournament, but was far from fully fit as his side fell to defeat against France in the quarter-finals.

    Late in his career, the diminutive playmaker moved to Japan and was integral in the development of the sport in the Asian country. He would later also manage the Japan national side.

    Zico was famed for his skill and finishing prowess, as well as his set-piece delivery. It was his wonderful vision, though, that set him apart from his rivals.

    Although he is fourth on our list, there are many in Brazil who hold him second only to Pelé in the Brazilian hierarchy.

No. 3: Ronaldo

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    Had it not been for injury, I have no doubt that Ronaldo would be even higher on this list than he is. Considering his woes, it is remarkable even that he achieved as much as he did.

    By the age of 21, heading into the France '98 tournament, Ronaldo had already scored over 200 career goals across four countries, won a World Cup in 1994, and twice been crowned FIFA World Player of the Year.

    At that tournament, he was the star attraction. Brazil were deprived of Romário through injury, but the likes of Bebeto, Rivaldo and Edmundo were all playing second-fiddle to the Rio de Janeiro-born youngster.

    Ronaldo would finish the tournament with a Golden Ball, for the competition's best player, and four-goals to his name. However, the tournament would ultimately leave an unhappy memory for the striker, having suffered a fit prior to the final and failed to perform when eventually named in the starting lineup.

    He had, of course, already won a World Cup title as a 17-year-old in 1994. However, having not featured in that tournament, he was still searching for his defining moment on the biggest of all footballing stages.

    That moment arrived in 2002. Following three years of almost constant absence through injury, Ronaldo returned with a bang to score eight goals at the tournament and secure a fifth title for his country.

    His two goals to defeat Germany in the final will be remembered as one of the truly iconic moments in footballing history, as Ronaldo banished his own personal pain of France '98 to secure his place among the greats of the game.

    In 2006, despite not enjoying the best of tournaments in a faltering Brazil side, Ronaldo added three more World Cup goals to his tally. His final effort, against Ghana, saw him become the tournament's greatest scorer of all-time, with 15 goals to his name.

    In total, Ronaldo made 98 appearances for Brazil, scoring 62 times.

No. 2: Garrincha

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    "When he was on form, the pitch became a circus. The ball became an obedient animal, and the game became an invitation to party. Garrincha would shield his pet, the ball, and together they would conjure up some wonderful tricks that would have the spectators in stitches." - writer Eduardo Galeano (H/T FIFA.com)

    To complete our collection of Botafogo greats in this Top 20, we have Garrincha—the greatest of all the club's former players.

    He would only join the Carioca club at the age of 20, having won his place in a training session where he famously nutmegged the club's star defender Nilton Santos. It was a beginning of a close bond between the pair.

    Garrincha became the hero of the people, with his collection of tricks and feints greatly entertaining the adoring masses. He suffered from a bent right-leg following surgery to correct physical deformities from birth, but it did not affect his ability to run at speed with a football.

    His abilities took the global stage by storm, with Garrincha voted into the Team of the Tournament at the 1958 World Cup, before being elected Player of the Tournament four years later. Brazil, of course, won both competitions.

    While Pelé is generally remembered as the most complete player of all time, Garrincha often overshadowed his colleague with his impudent displays from the right flank. As opponents frequently commented, you could never tell what he would do next.

    As Brazil lost against Hungary at the 1966 World Cup, Garrincha suffered his first ever international defeat in his 50th international appearance. With Pelé absent that day, it remains a fact that the Seleção never lost a fixture in which both stars featured. A phenomenal achievement.

No. 1: Pelé

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    "My name is Ronald Reagan, I’m the President of the United States of America. But you don’t need to introduce yourself, because everyone knows who Pele is.” - Ronald Reagan

    “The greatest player in history was Di Stefano. I refuse to classify Pele as a player. He was above that.” - Ferenc Puskas (H/T FIFA.com)

    Arguments as to the greatest of all-time will rage on forever. However, in comparison with his rivals for the honour, we can surely say without doubt that Pelé was the most complete player that football has ever seen.

    He had the technical ability to beat players one-on-one, his eye for a pass has been praised by all those he partnered, his prowess in the air is legendary and there can, of course, be no argument over his ability to finish given his goal record.

    At the age of 17, Pelé became the youngest player to feature in a World Cup final in 1958. He scored on six occasions in the Sweden-based tournament, including a semi-final hat-trick and two more in the final.

    It was to be the first of three World Cup triumphs.

    In 1962, Garrincha would carry the mantle for his side as Pelé recovered from an injury suffered in the Group Stage. Brazil, though, were victorious once again. The 1966 tournament would not be so successful, with Pelé once more suffering from injury as Brazil suffered a first-round exit.

    Pelé was coerced into returning for a fourth tournament in 1970 and was part of one of the best attacking units ever compiled—alongside Jairzinho, Rivellino and Gérson.

    While Jairzinho top-scored, Pelé added four more to his World Cup tally and, of course, claimed his third winners medal. He remains Brazil's highest goalscorer of all-time with 77 goals in 92 appearances.

    This is all, of course, before we move on to his feats at club level. The King.