Edson Arantes do Nascimento, better known as Pele, is widely regarded as the best player to ever play the game of football. Despite never playing in Europe, which was far from the dominant force it is today, Pele captured the imagination of fans worldwide in a way that no other footballer had done previously. He was football's first global superstar.
Pelé played for his beloved Santos for 19 years, famously scoring over 1000 goals for the club if you choose to include friendly encounters. He would then, at the age of 34, choose to finish his career in the USA with the New York Cosmos where he was also a great success.
There are many across the Atlantic, though, who would have loved to have seen him play in European competition—even if just for a season or two.
Let's just imagine for a moment, then, just how it may have worked out for "O Rei" on the Old Continent.
When to move?
Thinking logically, the most feasible times for Pele to have moved in his career would have been after a World Cup. That limits us to 1958, 1962, 1966 and 1970.
At the time of the 1958 competition, he was only 17 years old, and even in 1962 he may have considered it too early to think about departing his beloved Santos. Thus, for the purpose of this article, I will use 1966 and the World Cup in England as the suggested time for a transfer.
In 1966, Pele would have been 25 years old and have just come off the back of a disappointing World Cup for Brazil in which he picked up an injury early on. Santos' continental successes would now be three years previous, and just six months earlier Pele had picked up a fifth consecutive Brasileirão title.
The question is, where would he have ended up?
Examining some possible destinations:
Real Madrid: Crowned European Cup winners for the sixth time shortly before the 1966 tournament, the Spanish giants would have been the natural home for a star like Pele. With Alfredo di Stefano having left the club two years earlier, and Ferenc Puskas leaving that summer, a player of Pele's ability would have seamlessly continued the club's tradition of signing global superstars.
It would be a long time before Los Merengues would win a European Cup, but would that have been different with Pele in the side? The next three years brought league title wins, but exits in the European Cup to Internazionale, Sparta Prague and Rapid Vienna. With Pele in the No. 10 shirt, it is tempting to suggest that some of those narrow exits could have been very different.
At Real Madrid, his star status would have found a natural home. The club have played host to many of football's biggest names, and Pele would surely have become a club legend had he spent any significant time at the Santiago Bernabeu.
Internazionale: The "Grande Inter" side of Helenio Herrera were another of Europe's dominant powers at the time. However, whether they would have opted to sign Pele is another story. Clearly Pele would have a role in any side, but in his favoured No. 10 role would have stood Italian legend Sandro Mazzola.
However, given his versatility, it is easy to imagine that Pele could have slotted into the side in place of Renato Cappellini as the most forward-positioned player Herrera's side. It would be interesting, though, to see how Pele would have felt about Inter's catenaccio game plan of scoring one goal and then sitting back upon the lead.
There is no doubting that Pele would have succeeded in Italy—he was good enough to succeed anywhere. At Inter, though, he may not have had the tactical freedom to uphold his global standing. He could have become a club legend, but Pele's talent deserves freedom to shine.
Manchester United: The move that would have perhaps changed the course of football development more than any would have been if Pele had decided to remain in England after the World Cup and join Sir Matt Busby's Manchester United.
His arrival would likely have seen a positional reshuffle at the club, with inside forward John Aston dropping out of the side to allow "O Rei" to take his place alongside the Holy Trinity—Sir Bobby Charlton, George Best and Dennis Law.
United would go on to win the European Cup in 1967-68, and become the first English side to win the competition. It was a result that would define the careers of many involved, and had Pele been involved, would have propelled him straight to an almost untouchable status in the English game.
It is a myth that still propagates to this day that Brazilians cannot cope with the English game. Pele, nearly 50 years ago, would have almost certainly countered that argument before it had even begun. It might have been a transfer that changed the course of English football for good.
Would Pele's star status have been altered?
Assuming he would have gone on to be successful in Europe, the simple answer is no. Indeed, he may even have made himself a folk hero in another country as well as his own—in a similar way to Maradona's relationship with the Napoli support.
However, there is also an argument to be made that Pele's star shone so brightly across the world because he was a rarity. For the majority of fans, he was seen at World Cup competitions every four years—a tournament he won three times. It was that competition that made him a legend.
In Brazil, where his star also shone bright as part of a virtually untouchable Santos side, he has to somewhat share the attention with Garrincha. Indeed, there are many who claim that the "Joy of the People" was the better player.
In Europe, the same comparison does not exist. Pele was the prodigy who shone at a World Cup at the age of 17. He was the global star that everybody looked forward to watching. That is not to doubt his greatness, but simply to say it was perhaps enhanced by a lack of regular exposure.
Had he failed to win regular competitions in Europe, it is entirely possible that he would not be placed on the same pedestal.
The argument that Pele needed to go to Europe is a modern fallacy, with South American clubs of his era regularly beating their European opponents. However, there is a very real argument that only seeing his talents on the biggest stage of all means that his global legacy lives longer in the memory of the casual observer.
The King of football carried an aura wherever he went, his reputation went before him. But, unlike so many, he was consistently able to back it up on the pitch. That was the key to Pele's greatness.