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The Best, The Best, and The Best

A game of foosball being played by a man in yellow

I owned a football encyclopaedia as a child, dating from around 1980 and now sadly lost, in which Jimmy Greaves rates the top ten footballers of all time. Pelé is number two. Greaves notes that he can’t be considered the best ever, because he was never tested in the English League, the toughest competition in the world. So George Best gets the accolade instead.

I’m older now, and since the birth of the Premiership nobody listens to Greaves anymore, but the claim and the attitude behind it has always perplexed me. Not least because it prevails to this day. Recently, for example, Roberto Mancini arrived at Manchester City an unproven quantity—three Serie A titles and three Coppa Italia wins made him a risky appointment compared to, say, Sam Allardyce. Why would anyone hold such a bizarre view?

Pelé’s whole club career until his first retirement was with Santos—seventeen seasons, from 1956 to 1972. However, it’s not easy to quantify exactly what he achieved there—there isn’t a Football League equivalent from the era to compare. Brazil was the last of the major football nations to adopt an official national championship, in 1971, and even that wasn’t refined into the accepted double-round-robin format until 2003. Initially it was a group-and-knockout affair and fluctuated wildly from year-to-year. Santos finished somewhere in the middle of the pack when Pelé played (and even that’s not easy to work out—teams played different numbers of games, depending on how the competition progressed). But that was toward the end of his career. Better to look at his early days.

Football had traditionally been organised along state lines. The Campeonato Paulista ascended to primacy at some point during the early thirties, together with a greater professionalism in the Brazilian game as a whole. It continued, and continues, in parallel with the national championship, and has only declined in relative importance in the last decade or so. On a national level, the Taça Brasil was established to provide the Brazilian entries to the newly-created Copa Libertadores and ran from 1959 to 1968.

So how do the records stack up? Pelé comes out rather well. In the fourteen years from 1956 to 1969, Santos win the Paulista ten times and finish runners-up twice. Only in 1963 and, ominously, 1966 do they miss the top two. Pelé is top scorer ten times during the period, including every year from 1957 to 1965, with tallies ranging from 17 to 58. In the Taça Santos are runners-up in the inaugural competition in 1959, miss out entirely the following year, then win five in a row from 1961 to 1965. Again, 1966 marks the end of the run, Santos losing that year’s final. Pelé is top scorer in ’61, ’63 and ’64.

In the Copa Libertadores itself, Santos make their first appearance in 1962 and win. They win again in 1963. Pelé is second-top scorer both times. The next two years they go out in the semifinals. But by now Argentine and Uruguayan sides have taken over. Other countries barely feature until the 80s, and Pelé doesn’t appear in the competition again.

The total, then, is staggering—from ‘56 to ‘69 he wins seventeen out of thirty domestic titles and the Copa Libertadores twice. And individually, he finishes as top scorer about as much as is humanly possible.

But what of the standard? Here it becomes difficult. Like the European Cup, the Copa Libertadores was a quickfire competition in its early years—Santos play 8 games to win it in 1962, just 4 to win in ‘63. In 1964 they play only two, having been given a bye to the semis, and then 8 again in ‘65, when Pelé top-scores. However, as they follow up both victories by winning the Intercontinental Cup (defeating Benfica and Milan) it seems fair to allow that Santos, in their peak years at any rate, were at least the equals of anything Europe could offer.

Domestically, the standard of the opposition is the great unquantifiable. Does Pelé look good because he got an easy ride, or did he make the ride look easy simply by being brilliant? Unfortunately, we can’t compare the domestic competitions directly. There’s little way of knowing whether Jabaquara, Noroeste and XV de Piracicaba provided as stong a test, on a season-long basis, as did Sunderland, Southampton or Coventry. Those teams didn’t play each other regularly.

One can make an assessment in general terms: a 30 or 34 match season in Brazil, as opposed to 42 games in England, suggests that the English League may well have been more demanding. Few would argue that England is more mud-ridden than Brazil. Adapting the Soccernomics principle that quality at international level is a rough function of a country’s population, wealth, and football history, one would conclude that the English league should have been much stronger—England’s population of roughly 40 million in 1960 was far greater than São Paulo’s at perhaps 14 million (albeit with a far greater hinterland), England remained far wealthier, and its history of organised professional football far longer. The test seems fair, as leagues were almost entirely dependent on local players in those days, but you may spot an obvious flaw—more or less identical factors also apply to the two countries’ international sides, and it’s hard to conclude that during Pelé’s career England were more successful than Brazil. But of course that doesn’t count.

Nevertheless, however demanding the English League was in that era, it’s hard to see why success in it should be a guarantee of quality. Only Liverpool and Manchester United won repeat titles during the sixties, suggesting that the slog might have served to randomise results, rather than allowing talent to assert itself.

English teams did do well in the European Cup throughout the decade—Tottenham (with Greaves), Liverpool and Manchester United all reached the semifinals—before United’s win in 1968, with Best himself scoring the crucial goal and winning European Footballer of the Year for his efforts. But Everton and Manchester City also made first round exits during the period, and 1968 was the first appearance in the final by any English club. Spain, Portugal and Italy had already enjoyed dominance in the competition before then, and it was nearly ten years before an English club became champions of Europe again.

Best’s personal record is certainly superb domestically. A league winner twice, with 171 goals in 435 games during the nine seasons following his debut in 1963—all achieved not as a classic hitman striker so much as an inside forward, sharing the glory with Charlton and Law in a way that Pelé never had to do at Santos. Personally his impact was enormous, and can only be judged in criteria which can’t be quantified, such as the extraordinary interest and affection he attracted even while repeating descending into disgrace, which of course Pelé would never do.

So again we run out of criteria to judge them. Internationally the two couldn’t be compared, even if Greaves allowed us to try. Best is eternally crippled by being from Northern Ireland, and therefore not just bereft of Pelé’s medals, but also of the chance to feature at all. Of performance on the highest stage, which allows us to distinguish a Gary Lineker from a Clive Allen, a Henrik Larsson from a Kris Boyd, we get only a fleeting glimpse.

It’s impossible, then, to disprove Greaves’ argument. Greaves isn’t attacking Pelé—why, he’s the second-best there ever was—he’s attacking his achievements. And, the inference is, Greaves should know. Success in a foreign league? Greaves succeeded at Milan, after a fashion, but didn’t care for it much and came back to the toughest league in the world. Where he continued to score at a phenomenal rate, finishing as league top scorer six times in his career—well, Pelé might have got more, but in a foreign league. Three World Cup wins? Two words: George Best.

But here we get to the rub. I alluded to 1966 as a dark year for Pelé. It is, of course, the blot on his career—the year that he was hacked out of the World Cup by Bulgaria and Portugal. The year Brazil didn’t win.

England won instead. Greaves started the competition as England’s top goalscorer, with 43 goals in his 51 games. But he didn’t find the net in the group games, got injured against France and was replaced by Geoff Hurst—who kept his place and performed the greatest scoring feat of all in the final.

The greatest scoring feat of all, that is, unless you realise, as Jimmy Greaves does, that the World Cup isn’t the true test. That’s reserved for the toughest league in the world—and the record there, if you care to look, still stands today at 413 goals in 602 games, from 1957 to 1972 . . . by one Jimmy Greaves.

Ismael Klata is a Liverpool fan, and thus considers himself amply qualified to deal with longstanding disappointments and nurseable grievances.

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The Best, The Best, and The Best

by Ismael Klata · August 18, 2010

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