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Who is the greatest of all soccer players? Pele’ of course

In any language, he is numero uno after 21 years of Numerous record goals, world championships with the National Team as well as other titles with Santos, and finishing up before a sold-out Giants Stadium in 1977

By Arnie Leshin 
Arnie Leshin

It was in October of 1977 and Giants Stadium in Rutherford, N.J. filled up once the gates opened. It was a record crowd of 82,355, but it wasn’t a New York Giants football game.

It was a soccer exhibition and its greatest-ever player, Pele’, was playing his final match. He was also ending his three years playing for the professional New York Cosmos, so it was fitting that Club Santos FC was invited as the opponent.

He was winding down his 21 years on the pitch, and at age 15, Santos was his first team. It was 1956, and as young as he was, Pele’ was already gifted enough to join Brazil’s number one team.

On this night, the stadium called it a sellout two hours before play began. It was a night where the stars lit up the skies and a star was being honored on the playing field. Wearing his number 10, Pele’ decided to wear the Santos shirt for the first half and change into the Cosmos shirt for the second half.

It was his night. Every time he touched the ball, the crowd reacted. It went wild when he attempted his bicycle kick that just missed the goal, and he was always smiling, always waving to the crowd.

Following the 2-0 Cosmos’ win, he remained on the field hugging both teams and their coaches. One look around the stadium indicated that not many of the crowd had exited, and they just kept applauding and cheering every time Pele’ waved. In the interview room, the fire law kept many of the reporters outside, even me, and it took awhile because Pele’ was never in a hurry and stayed around until they ran out of questions.

No matter, everyone in the area broke out with applause, and when he reached the locker room, waiting for him was heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali.

How elite was Pele’? Well, a recent poll was conducted by writers who had covered the world’s most popular sport for quite some time. They named the top 25, and just like a coin with heads on both side, it came up Pele’ as the best to ever play the game.

No surprise. It was like Wayne Gretzky in hockey, Babe Ruth in baseball, Michael Jordon in basketball. Here, it was Edison Arandes de Nasimento, who was only 10 when he outplayed all the others using a worn-down ball.

He even showed them his many moves, and when there was no worn-down ball to practice with, Pele’ used a rolled-up sock stuffed with bags. He was just getting started. This was going to be his career. In a little more than two decades, he came away with at least two dozen records, became soccer’s global ambassador, won a record three World Cups with the National Team. He still makes about $30 million a year with endorsements and his sports and marketing business

The name he made famous, Pele’, was given to him at the age of 10 in the village of poverty where he lived with his family until he turned 15. There have been many different meanings given to the name, but officially it’s a Portuguese namingcustom or Hebrew name for ‘miracle.’ His given name of Edison came from American inventor Thomas Edison.

Now 78, he was invited to the World Cup in Moscow in 2012 and arrived in a wheelchair after a recent hip operation. In 2016, it was held in Rio de Janiero, the capital of Brazil, but he never made an appearance there, not even on TV, and it was said he was still weak while recovering from kidney surgery. He said he was saddened by missing such an event and unable to see the finest players in the world.

It was said that Pele’ was the one to convince the World Cup committee to hold the 2016 games in Brazil. He beat out representatives from five other nations in the first time it was hosted in South America.

He has wealth, is reported to be one of his country’s richest person, and will always be a celebrity there, a famous one. When able to, he donates a lot of his time to help the less fortunate. He is known to give to charities and when not ill, he makes frequent appearances in the areas of the less fortunate. He is known to bring toys to the youngsters, as well as food.

He was only 16 when he was named to the National Team in 1958. That same year, he won his first World Cup, scoring eight times that included a pair of goals and an assist in the final against rival Argentina.

It was also when he changed his uniform number to a permanent No. 10. He  also won the World Cup in 1962 and 1970. His position was mostly as a forward, but he did play attacking midfielder at times.

He once told the Santos coaches that he could play anywhere, even as the goalkeeper. So one time in practice they tried him as the goalie and he stopped about every shot. But you can’t score from there and that was what Pele’ did best. 

But when a reporter asked the Santos head coach who is his best goalkeeper, he quickly answered “Pele”, and added that he could play anywhere. On the field of play, the 5-foot-8 Pele’ remains the all-time Santos scorer with 72 goals in 92 games. He is the game’s all-time leading scorer with 1,284 goals in 1,363 matches. He once scored in 18 straight games. The date November 19, 1963, was a proud time for him as he reached 1,000 goals.

With Pele’ in their lineup, the Cosmos went 67-14-11 and won two league titles. He brought huge crowds wherever he played. When he played at the Miami Strikers at Lockhart Stadium in Fort Lauderdale, the lines were about four blocks long. They did add some bleacher seats, but it was sold out an hour before the game began.

When the match ended and Pele’ had deposited two goals in the 4-1 triumph, the first thing the Strikers did was hound him for autographs, but he was so gracious, he made sure every player got theirs. Security had to stop fans from going on the field, so they resorted to calling his name and he waved.  

His style of play was so awesome, it was difficult to copy. He could dribble the ball for awhile, no one could take it away, and then he would pass it. He was very creative, a playmate similar to a point guard in basketball. He brought amazing skills to the game, plus his power resulted in hard-hit shots.

Then there was his bicycle kick, and in the movie Escape to Victory, he came off the bench in the final minute to score the winning goal via the bicycle kick.

During his school days, he would dart out of the room when the final bell rang, and all his older soccer friends would be waiting. When they chose sides and someone picked Pele’, the other team was granted two picks.

In 1974, he took some time off and then signed with the Cosmos. Three years later, he was playing his last game before a record crowd.

No question about it, he was the best.

The list naming soccer’s all-time best:

1. Pele’ – Brazil

2. Lionel Messi – Argentina

3. Diego Maradona – Argentina

4. Zinedine Zidano — France

5. John Cruyif Netherlands  

6. Franz Beckenbauer — Germany

7. Ronaldo — Brazil

8. Critiano Ronaldo — Portugal

9. Alfredo DiStefano – Argentina

10. Paolo Maldini — Italy

11. George Best — Ireland

12. Marco Van Basten — Holland

13. Ferenic Puskas — Hungary

14. Michael Platini — France

15. Carincha — Brazil

16. Eusebio – Portugal

17. Dino Zoff — Italy

18. Gerd Muller — Germany

19.  Zico — Brazil

20. Gianluig Buffen — Italy

21. Ronaldinho — Brazil

22. Pomario — Brazil

23. Franco Baresi — Italy

24. Bobby Charlton — England

25. Zlatan Ibroahimovic — Sweden

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