Alan Hubbard

GOAT. Hardly the most attractive acronym to affix to a sublime sporting legend but there can be no argument that Pelé was the Greatest of All Time, the best player ever to kick a football.

His passing, in every sense of the word, will, be indelibly etched in the memory of not just the world of the "Beautiful Game" that is his personal legacy, But the world per se.

Of course, Muhammad Ali was the first to coin the phrase, hanging the label of "The Greatest" around his own neck, but it is hard to judge which of them was the/more influential in captivating a global audience and transcending their respective sports.

If pusher, I would give the nod to All, the "Colossus of Clout" who bestrode the ring for almost three decades and mesmerised us all with his mouthy magic and fists of fire. Plus, he had the intrinsic value of an Olympic gold medal.

Yet there are those who will argue that Edson Narantes do Nascimento, was never an Olympian he achieved Olympian heights; perfection in boots, the finest ambassador for his country and for sport per se. He was also Brazil’s Sports Minister for a while.

Ali, fought causes as well as opponents, having to overcome the red-necked bigotry of America’s Deep South. Pelé, as he became known in every corner of the world, was a much quieter revolutionary but never nonetheless instrumental in challenging racial inequalities in his homeland.

What I do, know is that both have brought me equal joy in watching them during my journalistic career, an eternal appreciation of great artistry and infinite skill in the sporting arena.

Pelé was kicked out of the 1966 FIFA World Cup in England after being targeted by Portugal ©Getty Images
Pelé was kicked out of the 1966 FIFA World Cup in England after being targeted by Portugal ©Getty Images

Yet they also provided two of my saddest moments. Back in 1966, covering my first FIFA World Cup, I was at Goodison Park when Brazil, the reigning champions, encountered Portugal in the group stage. Like many of the 62,00 who had come to savour the wizardry of Pelé I grew increasingly angry as, shamefully unprotected by an over-lenient British referee, he was kicked out of the World Cup, eventually won by England. It seemed as if Portugal’s men o’ war had been briefed that the only way to smother Pelé's brilliance was to cripple him.

We lost count of the times he was brutally hacked down by savage tackles from behind that would never be allowed today-and should not have been then. They may not have broken his legs, but they certainly broke his heart as he was helped off the field, limping painfully. His departure was tragic and Brazilian fans later could be seen crying in the streets of Liverpool.

Fast Forward 14 years, to 1980, and the vast car park of Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas where a temporary arena had been built to, house an 18,000 crowd for a world heavyweight title fight between an ageing, washed-up Ali and his erstwhile spar mate Larry Holmes.

Like that awful night at Goodison Park it was a spectacle I wished I could forget as Ali, his famous fleet-footed shuffle now more like the slow staggering of a drunken sailor, was reluctantly/dismantled by an opponent who was had always hailed him as his hero.

I was not alone in the media seats yelling at another unsympathetic referee, American Richard Greene to stop the slaughter but it was left to an agitated Angelo Dundee to do so at the end of 10 harrowing one-sided rounds.

Regrettably, another legend had been licked, and hurt.

Muhammad Ali was full of bravado before his fight against Larry Holmes at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas in 1980 but ended up being been badly beaten ©Getty Images
Muhammad Ali was full of bravado before his fight against Larry Holmes at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas in 1980 but ended up being been badly beaten ©Getty Images

Now both this prodigious pair are gone but the memories of how they transformed sport live on.

For Pelé, in particular, the role he played in enhancing Brazilian nationhood was reflected in the send-off he was accorded in his home city of Santos.

A farewell fit for a king, which of course he was, and always will, be.

Santos houses a museum dedicated to the life, and sadly now the death of Pelé. it is a sanctuary I would love to visit. 

I suspect it is even more absorbing than that in Buenos Aires devoted to another late legend, Maradona, which I have seen.

It was a few years back and I recall that as well as the assembled memorabilia there was, in a darkened corner, a projector showing a couple of film clips on a small screen. One featured a shot of Argentine soldiers, arms raised, surrendering to British troops in the Falklands. This was immediately followed by Maradona, his arm also in the air, fisting in the notorious "Hand of God" goal against England.

"There has to be some symbolism there," I muttered to myself after watching it.

A middle-aged Argentine chap standing next to me must have heard because he turned towards me with a smile and said in perfect English, "You are absolutely right sir. It is symbolic. You see, you may have fucked us in the Malvinas, but we fucked you in the World Cup. And that to us is more important."

Ah yes. The power of Football.

Maradona may have epitomised this, but no-one will ever do so more that Pelé.