What does it take to be considered the greatest player of all time? Welcome to IBWM Alex Dimond.
First and foremost, an acknowledgement: I am more than aware that the subject of this article is incongruous with the name of this website, but unfortunately there is not too much anyone can do about that.
For better or worse, Pele is widely regarded as the greatest footballer ever to play the game. There may be a sizeable number of supporters of El Diego out there, and his claim to the crown might be just, but it remains a fact that, were a Family Fortunes host to ask 100 people at random to name the greatest footballer of all time, Pele would be the top answer.
This a fact worthy of further discussion, if only because the last time Edison Arantes do Nascimento showed off his skills on the field in a competitive encounter was all of 33 years ago — and since then only the aforementioned diminutive Argentine has truly forced himself into the conversation as a realistic usurper to the thrown.
The question, then, if no-one has really come managed to launch a successful challenge to Pele’s status in the half a decade or so to date since he began his career, is what will any player have to do to eventually surpass the great man and become widely regarded as the best to ever play the game?
It is an interesting question, especially as the game progresses tactically and individual skill becomes a welcome addition to a successfully drilled team; rather than the most important facet that the other 10 players are organised to complement. Arguably such a discussion has only become even more relevant in recent seasons — with the way Barcelona’s Lionel Messi and Real Madrid’s Cristiano Ronaldo have been playing — but to an extent each man’s relative successes in recent times have only served to highlight such changing nature.
But that’s a discussion for another time.
In theory, then, what will either current star have to achieve by the end of their career in order to provide a reasonable challenge to Pele’s current status?
Unfortunately, the answer is ‘one heck of a lot’.
The first area they will likely need to match Pele is in their achievements. For brevity’s sake, here is a pertinent selection of titles the forward, the most decorated player of all time, won in during his 21-year career:
§ 11 league titles
§ 2 Copa Libertadores (European equivalent being the Champions League)
§ 3 World Cups
On the first two counts, both players might actually have a shot. Ronaldo already has three domestic titles and one Champions League, while Messi has an even more encouraging four and two (although not all as a star). With at least another ten years left for both men, they could easily reach the 11-title mark, and could possibly even surpass Pele’s continental competition haul.
The problem, especially if both remain in the Primera Division, is that only one will manage to reach 11 titles, even if Real and Barca evenly split the domestic crown for the next decade.
On the World Cup front, however, it will be almost impossible for either to match Pele’s formidable record (surely any player needs to win at least one to be considered eligible such status — a problem for Johan Cruyff, for example — whether or not they play for an international powerhouse — sorry, George Best and Ryan Giggs). The Brazilian won world crowns as a fresh-faced 18-year-old, four years later as a more established force and then again as a 30-year-old veteran, almost the perfect way to squeeze so many titles into such a short space of time.
Unfortunately for Messi and Ronaldo, neither has won a world crown yet — so despite being 23 and 25 respectively, they are already running out of time.
Messi, the more ‘likely’ of the two to replicate the feat, will be 39 by the time the 2026 competition rolls around, so will realistically have to win the prior three on the trot to match Pele — an unlikely prospect.
Indeed, for anyone to ever match Pele’s haul they will likely have to again come from Brazil or, at a push, Italy and Germany — the only countries to ever win the tournament on the ‘regular’ basis required. They would also likely have to play the same position as Pele (an attacker rather than an out-and-out striker; someone both creating and scoring goals for his team, rather than solely providing the finishing touch), another requirement that narrows down the field somewhat.
Even then, they would have to crack the national team early (before their early twenties) and stay for practically the rest of their career. And even then they would be relying on the quality of their team-mates remaining high enough to sustain such a level of performance.
In essence, it would require as much luck as judgement to achieve.
The proliferation of individual awards (and the fact that Pele, due to his South American base was never eligible for the most prestigious prizes like the Ballon d’Or) in the modern game could see either player easily receive the sort of recognition that might lead some to enter them into the equation to be the greatest ever.
Both Messi and Ronaldo already have an aforementioned Ballon d’Or to their name — among many, many other prizes — and could conceivably add a few more before they call time on their career. But football is a team game, and as such it is team achievements that will always be looked at first.
And, even if by some magical coincidence someone did match Pele’s prize haul blow-for-blow, there is an additional dimension they would have to match the great one — in style and lore.
After all, Kobe Bryant might yet match Michael Jordan’s record of six NBA rings (he needs one more), but even if does manage to reach the same level as the Chicago Bulls legend (or even surpass it), no experts will seriously consider him to be superior.
It is not just titles, then, but the manner in which they are won that also counts.
Part of Pele’s mystic is not just that he won, but that he won in style and with a smile on his face (it is perhaps this aspect of Maradona’s career, his character, that has elevated him to a similar level in the minds of so many). Pele is regarded as a man of great character and almost no flaws (adverts for erectile dysfunction and some slightly wooden acting in Escape to Victory aside) and is also credited with doing things with a football that no-one had done before.
He didn’t just win throughout his career; he won with style and grace. Such is what often separates the best from, well… the greatest.
In the modern game, such an achievement will arguably be even harder to attain than the medal haul. With 24-hour rolling news and an ever-more invasive sporting media, it is harder than ever for players to keep any character flaws out of the public eye for the entirety of their career. Ronaldo is perfect example — both on and off the pitch (as a diver and a disco diva) he struggles to hold the respect of so many. It would take a special person, as well as a special talent, to progress through a 20-year career without his reputation being regularly smeared by the media side of the game that has only grown more sizeable and less manageable in the internet age.
Then (the variables just keep on coming) there is the curious phenomenon whereby anything past is instantly considered superior to the present. Pele’s achievements are phenomenal even without the benefit of rose-tinted glasses — with them they are nigh-on impossible to replicate.
But the modern era also offers some benefits. The increased standard and greater level of competition of modern teams and countries acts are both an added obstacle to success and an accurate yardstick for those lucky few who truly occupy the upper echelons. To rise above the average they must be something truly special.
The globalisation of the game will also provide some leeway, with observers likely to realise that it is now far harder to win titles (at international level at least) on a regular basis, with the depth of opposition so much greater and the sheer physical demands of the modern sporting calendar far more likely to cause big moments to be missed or careers to be shortened more than in previous generations (although to an extent modern medicine seems to rectify this)
Something as simple as YouTube will also be of great advantage to the case of modern players — with a showreel of their greatest moments always available for anyone to see.
Nevertheless, the worrying conclusion we are leaning to is that it will be incredibly difficult for anyone to ever manage to conclusively knock Pele off his perch. The trophy haul alone looks an impractical target, let alone also doing it in awe-inspiring manner.
Using arguments of generation and opposition are unsatisfactory ways of challenging Pele’s exalted place in the pyramid of footballing stars, and at any rate such situations work out like the judicial appeal system — if there isn’t enough evidence to overturn the status quo, it won’t be.
Yet, on the other hand the mere laws of probability suggest it is unlikely that the best player to ever player the sport would grace it during its relative infancy (within three decades of the first ‘proper’ World Cup).
The variables might be great, but it seems probably that they will eventually fall into place (the World Cup conundrum being the great one) for one individual who is both gifted and, equally significantly, lucky.
Great players will play on great teams and win great titles, and one will surely eventually rise above the rest to match the vast majority of Pele’s achievements (even surpassing him in some areas), doing it in a similarly unique manner. Manage all that, and they will be in a realistic position to wrest from him a crown he looks set to hold for some time.
To achieve all that, though, they will have to be a truly transcendent talent.
Just like Pele, really.
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What does it take to be considered the greatest player of all time? Welcome to IBWM Alex Dimond.