For as long as I can remember I have been bothered by the fact that Pele is widely assumed to be the best player ever to play the game. There are a number of players who have arguably had an equally significant impact on football, but it seems because Pele tells you he was the best, it is largely accepted.
Before I proceed, this is not intended particularly as a swipe at Pele. More as an open forum to appreciate that there are other players who could be considered similarly deserving of the status as the greatest. In that vein, I won’t be comparing Pele with Diego Maradona or Lionel Messi simply due to the fact that they are widely perceived as the only real challenger to the Brazilian’s title.
It’s fairly clear why a lot of people presume Pele to be the best ever. 3 world cup wins and the leader of the country with the most wins. He stands alone as the only player with a hat trick of world cups (’58, ’62 & ’70). Then there is the issue of goals scored. I’ll only being dealing with goals in official, competitive club or international matches. Friendlies are in my opinion, as relevant to the debate as one Pele put past one of his mates in goal when he was 11.
Obviously as with any intergenerational comparison, there are significant differences that must be taken into account. For instance Diego Maradona won five South American Footballer of the Year awards, Pele just one. This isn’t representative though, due to the fact that the award only introduced by El Mundo in 1971. This shouldn’t prevent a detailed comparison though. Fortunately for the sake of this particular debate Puskás and Pele overlap.
I’ve chosen initially to compare Puskás to Pele rather than Muller, Cruyff, Di Stefano et al. because I believe he offers the best alternatives to the reasons it is suggested Pele is the finest player to grace a football pitch. I will, in subsequent posts compare others with Pele.
Pele’s goal scoring record is a subject of some debate. As previously mentioned though, I’ll be disregarding goals in friendlies, Pele’s living room, on the street – anything but in officially recorded competitive matches.
So first and foremost - goal scoring. Ferenc Puskás in actual fact had a better scoring ratio than Pele at club and international level. Addressing club football, the records are as follows -
Puskás: Official Club Total: Apps – 620, Goals – 616
Pele: Official Club Total: Apps – 720, Goals – 680
“The Galloping Major” hit 616 club goals on his way to three European cups and ten domestic titles divided equally between Honvéd and Real Madrid. Interestingly the International Federation of Football History & Statistics declared Ferenc Puskás the top scorer of the 20th century, casting aspersions on the credibility of Pele’s goal scoring.
Similarly to the difficulty in comparing generations, it is difficult to compare European and South American football. However it must be taken into account that for Real Madrid, after the successes in ’59 and ’60, they faced the test of two of the most revered club sides of the 20th century.
The emergence of Béla Guttmann’s Benfica and Helenio Herrera’s cattenaccio equipped Inter suggests that Puskás was scoring goals at the very highest level of continental football. This is by no means to suggest that the Peñarol side who had won the Libertadores two years consecutively (and who Santos eventually had to overcome in the 1962 final) weren’t an excellent side.
Internationally too, Puskás proved more lethal than Pele, scoring more international goals than the Brazilian.
Puskás: Apps – 85, Goals – 84
Pele: Apps – 92, Goals – 77
At club level it is fair to say that Puskás had teammates with greater ability than Pele, playing alongside the likes of Di Stefano, Francisco Gento and Raymond Kopa. At international level the tables were turned however. While Puskás undoubtedly played in a fine, fine team – the greatest Hungary side ever – with the likes of Nándor Hidegkuti and Sándor Kocsis, numerous members of the Seleção during Pele’s time are adored as some of the greatest players to play the game. The likes of Garrincha, Zagallo, Jairzinho and Rivelino to name but a few.
The issue of the teammates of the two men I found particularly interesting due to the fact that seemingly Pele had a team that was particularly focused on him; few of the aforementioned Brazilian greats were remembered for their goal scoring. Whereas for Real Madrid Puskás shared the goals with the man who left Madrid as the club’s top scorer of all time, and for Hungary played alongside Sándor Kocsis – the man with the fourth most international goals of all time (second and third placed being the two players in question here, and the top international scorer of all time making an excellent pub quiz question).
A brilliant team with the purpose of serving one outstanding player, and another, separate team of individual brilliance, that rings a bell.
The angle from which I will conclude this debate is the moments in their career the two are best remembered for.
The crowning moment of Puskás’ career will eternally be the four goals scored in the 1960 European Cup final against Eintracht Frankfurt. Arguably the greatest European cup final of all time, featuring two hat tricks, ten goals and one of the greatest attacking performances the world has ever seen, at the highest level.
Six years prior to that final in 1954, Puskás had his most significant year in international football and the two games he is most remembered for on that stage. On the 23rd of May 1954 England – who had thought a lot of themselves as an international force prior to the 6-3 beating Puskás & co. dealt them in 1953- were beaten again, 7-1 by Hungary. Two goals from Puskás, two for Kocsis, and single goals for Hidegkuti, Lantos and Tóth led to the English completely rethinking their status international football.
42 days later in the World Cup Final Puskás experienced the low of his international career. The Miracle of Bern. The heavily fancied Hungary team, who had beaten Brazil and Uruguay on their way to the final were beaten 3-2 by West Germany, despite a goal from Ferenc Puskás.
In the Miracle of Bern, I believe, lies key factor in the difference in perception of Puskás and Pele.
Puskás’ Hungary are remembered for losing in the World Cup Final. Something the international memory of Ferenc Puskás is somewhat caught up in.
The first memory people have of Pele in a World Cup Final is scoring two in Sweden. The number of World Cup’s Pele has won inevitably contributes to the perception of him as the best, however, if that were the most important aspect Maradona – who won a single world cup – wouldn’t be remembered on the same pedestal. If Hungary had won in 1954 in Bern, I believe Puskás would be considered in the same bracket as Pele. Their failure to has led people to pay less attention to the other footballing achievements of the man.
Interestingly Pele is remembered as much for the things he didn’t achieve on a pitch, than the things he did. His dummy of Uruguay goalkeeper Ladislao Mazurkiewicz actually resulted in him missing the chance. Similarly his attempted lob of Ivo Viktor of Czechoslovakia from the halfway line in the same World Cup missed. Undeniably they represented a genius that had rarely been seen in the game prior to Pele attempting them, but the fact is that he didn’t achieve them.
I strongly believe that the difference between the perception of the two players lies in the failure of Puskás’ Hungary to win the Jules Rimet trophy in 1954, allowing Pele to take the stage in 1958 and subsequently create a persona for himself as the king of football (see the ridiculous ‘Greatest Living Footballers’ list).
The fact that Puskás didn’t win the World Cup in 1954 should not change the fact that he should be – in my opinion – considered Pele’s equal, or at the very least considered as a challenger for the title of the best player ever.
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