Pele is pitch perfect

Pele is considered by many as the best soccer player in history. His skills, including the bicycle...

Pele is considered by many as the best soccer player in history. His skills, including the bicycle kick, are world famous. (Calgary Sun Photo Illustration)

ERIC FRANCIS -- Calgary Sun

, Last Updated: 8:07 AM ET

Who's the greatest of all time? That question is the basis of many heated sports debates -- in pubs, on sports radio call-in shows, even in locker-rooms. All this week, Sun columnist Eric Francis talks to athletes, refs, analysts and other assorted experts to gauge who are the greatest players in five sports: Golf, baseball, soccer, football and hockey. Francis might even throw in his two cents worth, too. We also want your opinions all this week -- log onto www.calgarysun.com to have your say.


From the time he became the youngest player to not only win, but star, in a World Cup final, there was little doubt 17-year-old Pele would live up to the expectations he'd be the greatest soccer player of all time.

Scoring Brazil's lone goal in the quarterfinal, adding a hat-trick in the semifinal and potting two more to clinch the 1958 tourney, the man who introduced an unmatched flare and excitement to the sport's biggest stage wasted no time establishing himself as a household name.

"To say Pele is hands-down the greatest of all time is not so much opinion as it is fact," said Calgary Flames defenceman and avid soccer fan Andrew Ference.

"No one even comes close."

So poor he grew up kicking around a sock with newspaper in it, the man born Edson Arantes do Nascimento scored 1,282 goals professionally, which includes 77 in 92 caps. Retiring in 1977 as the only man to win three World Cups (1958, '62 and '70) the classy striker famous for the bicycle kick used soccer to become perhaps the most famous sportsman of our time.

"The thing you always look for in any athlete is someone who delivers when one must deliver -- Pele did that," said former Crazy Canuck Ken Read. "As an athlete who helped his team and as an ambassador for the sport, he also had charisma that allowed him to transcend his sport."

So brilliant was his scoring and playmaking ability, he was declared a national treasure by the Brazilian government, preventing Santos FC from transferring him to Europe for record offers.

"He had a skill level way before everybody realized the importance of skill," said TSN's FIFA World Cup host Gino Reda.

"Now you've got a lot of flash from current guys like Ronaldinho and Ronaldo but in his day he was the first in skilled players -- no one took it to that level. What's more, his vision of the game was second to none."

Named FIFA's Footballer of the Century in 2000, an online vote actually found Argentina's Diego Maradona to be more popular with the younger generation which hadn't seen Pele play. For soccer purists, it was an infuriating show of support for the Argentine who blatantly cheated with his 'Hand of God' goal en route to captaining Argentina to the 1986 World Cup.

Stamps kicker Sandro DeAngelis saw Maradona play live on several occasions, prompting him to put the Argentinian on par with Pele.

"They could both absolutely take control of a game and dribble through a whole team," he said.

The major difference between the two lies in how they graduated from the game. Maradona's life has since been filled with drug, weight and medical problems while Pele has remained a successful ambassador for the sport, his country, the UN and even Viagra.

Former Stamps kicker and president Mark McLoughlin refuses to anoint Pele or anyone as the game's greatest, instead saluting the rogue style of George Best, the fierce competitiveness of Johan Cruyff, the leadership of Franz Beckenbauer and the combination of showmanship, skill and charisma of today's stars like David Beckham, Ronaldo and Zinedine Zidane.

"Obviously Pele brought a skill set that raised the bar and expectations on the international stage," he said.

And in the world's most popular game, isn't that where it matters most?


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