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Tim Vickery Column: 'Pele and the World Cup are synonymous'

The Brazil forward won the trophy three times
Action Images
On Monday I was on a BBC radio programme where a group of us tried to select an all time World Cup team.

Four Brazilians are included; Cafu at right back, a tribute to a man who played three consecutive World Cup finals and never knew the meaning of defeat; Zico is in, a tribute to his wonderful contribution to that much loved 1982 side (though it is probably true that had we been allowed to consider Johann Cruyff as a midfielder rather than a striker in our 4-4-2 system, he might have had to be content with a place on the bench); Garrincha is there – and how could it be otherwise?  I had to make a powerful case for his inclusion, since he predates the mass TV age. 

Thankfully the panel also included Jimmy Armfield, the distinguished former England right back, who suffered from the Garrincha at first hand in the quarter final of the 1962 World Cup.  Armfield was emphatic that Garrincha had been the difference between the two sides, and I was able to add that he took on extra responsibility in that campaign.  At 29 he was the second youngest player in an ageing team, and he understood that he would have to play not on the right wing, but from the right wing.  Perhaps the only finest individual contribution to a World Cup winning campaign was that of Diego Maradona in 1986.

Even so, there was more argument about the inclusion of Maradona than there was about his attacking partner.  None of us had the slightest doubt that Pele deserved a place in our team.

Pele and the World Cup are synonymous.  He won the tournament three times, and produced some of its most breathtaking moments.  The striking thing, though, is that it is probably true that the World Cup never saw him at his very best.

In 1958 he was the exuberant seventeen year old, captivating in his joy, mind blowing in his audacity.  But, lean and colt-like, he was still some way short of the finished article.  In the quarter final against Wales he was making little impression.  Leonidas, the great former striker who had been top scorer of the 1938 World Cup, was analysing the game for Brazilian radio.  Pele had to be dropped from the side, he said – until Pele conjured up a goal in reduced space that finally broke the deadlock.  Little wonder that he rates it as the most important goal of his career – it gave him the confidence and the platform to go on to greater things.

Many of those things happened twelve years later in Mexico.  Desperate to leave a good impression in his final World Cup, Pele trained hard.  By this stage he knew all the moves, and was inventing new ones as he went along.  He had the calm in the heat of battle that is the sign of the truly great.  But in physical terms, he does not compare with the Pele of a few years earlier.

By 1970 he had lost some of the spark of the Pele of a few years earlier.  Tostao, his strike partner in that World Cup, was adamant about it when I spoke to him on the subject a few years ago.  The best Pele, he said, was before 1964.  "After that he bulked up, put on muscle, was stronger, conserved his technique but got heavier and lost some of his mobility."

The man himself says that the greatest performance of his career came in Lisbon against Benfica in the final of the World Club at the end of 1962.  Watching the images of his performance in that game is to witness a force of nature – one which could have had his finest hour in a Brazil shirt in that year's World Cup.

Of all the goals that Pele scored in the tournament, the most dazzling came in Brazil's debut match of the 1962 campaign against Mexico.  He charges through the defence with the ball bouncing around him like an obedient puppy, with pace and power, two footed skill and single minded purpose.  It is a goal that the teenage 1958 Pele would not have been strong enough to score, and the veteran 1970 model no longer had the sinuous movement.

The mind boggles at what Pele might have done in the rest of that 1962 tournament.  But he was injured in the next game and took no further part in the tournament – which forced Garrincha to dig deep and show the full repertoire of his talent.  And yet so outstanding was Pele's overall contribution to the World Cup that he can walk into an all time tournament team even without being able to show himself at his barely credible best.


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