Pele, supposedly (not everybody agrees, we’re amongst them), is the greatest football player that ever lived. According to him, it’s titles that count. Now that the European Championships have finished, it’s time to reflect on this wisdom. We don’t have to do that much reflecting; we disagree.
Pele and Maradona were, ex-aequo voted the two best players of the world in the last century (or any century, we don’t actually remember too many 19 century players. Anyone?). It was the start of something of a feud. Maradona did not show up for the celebrations, as he clearly felt that he was better (we agree).
Pele argued that he had been world champion three times, and that was proof enough he was better than Maradona, who had been world champion only once. It was actually an argument he had used before. When he was asked about another great football player, the Dutchman Johan Cruyff, he argued that he would have been amongst the greatest, if only he had won the world cup.
Yet, funny enough, from the year that he looked like actually doing that, in 1974, more people remember the team that lost the final (the Netherlands with a slightly sub-par Johan Cruyff), than the team that actually won, the Germany of Franz Beckenbauer, another all-time great.
Aricco Sacchi, the emblematic trainer of another all-time great team, the AC-Milan of the late 1980s, early 1990s, once pointed to an article from France Football (a French football magazine, if you hadn’t guessed already). There was a poll on the greatest teams in history.
First came the Hungarian team that lost the final of the world-cup in 1954 (against Germany, the Bern miracle, reestablishing some much needed self-respect after the horrors of the second world war). Second came the Brazil of 1970 (yes, they won, and yes, Pele was amongst them). Third was that Netherlands team of 1974.
Fourth by the way, came that AC Milan team coached by Sacchi, surprisingly ahead of Real Madrid and Ajax Amsterdam (each multiple winners of earlier versions of the European cups, and the first two club teams to grace Fifa’s hall of fame). Two losing teams in the top three. Apparently, you don’t have to win to be considered a great team, even the greatest team of all time.
In a sport increasingly dominated by money (especially on the club level, we wrote about that earlier here), winning is apparently not everything. Greatness is. Who, apart from the Greeks, remembers that they won the European championships four years ago? People might remember because it was a rather big surprise (even to the Greek themselves), but the rather dull way they went about that tournament certainly did not add to those magical moments in the sport.
That’s one reason why Germany is respected and feared, but not widely loved, notwithstanding the fact that they hold three world cups and three European cups. They have created surprisingly little real football magic. They practice a craft, rarely reach the heights of football as an art.
Johan Cruyff the greatest?
When asked about that lost final in 1974 against the Germans, Cruyff himself points out that people everywhere (even in Germany) remember that Dutch team as the outstanding one of the championships, and one of the outstanding teams of all-time. The novel way they played is still discussed extensively today (see here for a very nice example). And that had much more to do with Cruyff than with the coach (Michels).
At least outwardly, he does not seem to have been greatly frustrated by that loss (unlike almost the entire generation of fellow country people, for whom that loss left a burning scar), exactly because that team is still hailed as one of the all-time greatest.
Now, we will give you a couple of reasons why he was indeed the best player of all-time.
- His abilities as an individual player are at least equal to those of Pele, and only a fraction off those of Maradona (if at all)
- His presence on the field and his influence on the team was without equal. Apart from a great player, he was an architect, dominating procedures on the field like no other player before or after him, not in the individual manner of Maradona (“give me the ball, and I’ll sort it out”), but as a team architect (“give me the ball, and go where I tell you to go, at exactly the moment I tell you”)
- He almost singlehandedly changed the football DNA of a whole nation, and done so in a pretty emphatic fashion.
That last reason especially is something that neither of the two other of what is normally considered the trio of all-time greatest can claim. Holland just didn’t exist as a football nation before Cruyff. Not at all. And after Cruyff, it is still known until this day as a nation with a distinct (attractive and attacking) football style (even if it doesn’t always live up to that).
Maradona can lay claim to the following: he almost singlehandedly made a relatively modest team world champion (Argentina 1986), but Argentina already had a great football tradition, Maradona didn’t change anything. He was just a truly outstanding player.
Pele was surrounded by an astonishing amount of talent. Arguably, those teams (Brazil in 1958, 1962, 1970) would have been world champions without him. Funny then, that Pele actually derives so much of his claim of being the greatest ever from these statistics. He is plain wrong about that.
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