MADRID (AP) — Pelé or Diego Maradona? Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo?
Endless arguments over the greatest player in the history of men’s soccer can often see cheap hits aimed at Pelé, who died Thursday at age 82, with the claim that he wasn’t tested on the European stage against some of the best clubs in the world — unlike other soccer greats.
But despite playing most of his career at Brazilian club Santos, and later with the New York Cosmos of the North American Soccer League, Pelé did actually face some of the finest European opposition.
And scored lots of goals.
Pelé played seven times against Benfica, which was led by Portugal great Eusébio and was considered one of the great European clubs. Santos won six of those matches, drawing the other. Pelé scored nine goals in total.
As Santos globe-trotted in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s to showcase its biggest star, Pelé got to measure up against teams like Real Madrid, Barcelona, Juventus, Inter Milan, AC Milan and Roma.
Dennis Tueart, a former England player who replaced Pelé at the Cosmos, said it didn’t matter that the soccer icon never played in a European league.
“You had European players in the World Cup and he won it three times. You cannot say anything against him,” Tueart told The Associated Press. “We used to play exhibition games and we would travel all around the world to Indonesia, Singapore, Hong Kong, Japan and Australia and the one everyone wanted to talk to was Pelé. It was humbling to see.”
Pelé and Santos often faced weak opponents during those tours, which were aimed mainly at making money. But beating Pelé’s Santos was a challenge taken seriously by host clubs, and they often fielded their top players in contrast to preseason tournaments now.
Everyone wanted to see Pelé play. Some 110,000 fans reportedly watched Santos beat Inter Milan 4-1 at the San Siro Stadium in Italy in 1961. In 1972, newspaper reports at the time said 50 people were injured before Santos’ match against Roma in Italy as 70,000 fans showed up to the 50,000-capacity stadium.
Some of Pelé’s matches in Europe came in the Intercontinental Cup, now the equivalent of FIFA’s Club World Cup. Pelé remains the highest scorer in Intercontinental Cup history with seven goals.
Pelé said he had offers to play for European clubs, including from Real Madrid and Inter Milan, but at the time “there wasn’t this need” for the great players to move to European soccer. He instead decided to go to the United States after ending his career with Santos in 1974.
“It wouldn’t have made any difference to go to Europe,” Pelé said.
Pelé scored 12 goals in 14 World Cup matches and is the only three-time world champion, winning titles in 1958, 1962 and 1970.
He never received any Ballon d’Or awards for best player because the prize didn’t take into consideration non-European players during Pelé’s time.
According to Santos, Pelé played 353 matches abroad, scoring 361 goals. In Europe alone, he played nearly 200 matches and scored more than 200 goals.
Pelé said one of the best performances of his career came in Santos’ 5-2 win over Benfica in the final of the 1962 Intercontinental Cup.
Pelé also faced another all-time great, Alfredo Di Stéfano, in a 5-3 loss against Real Madrid in a friendly at the Santiago Bernabéu Stadium in 1959, with the Brazilian scoring once. In Santos’ European tour that year, Santos routed Inter Milan 7-1 with four goals by Pelé, and beat Barcelona 5-1 with Pele scoring two goals.
“People in many countries only knew of Brazil because of what Pelé did,” former Brazil star Zico said. “He made us proud of being Brazilian because of all that he represented and because of all that he did.”
AP Global Soccer Writer James Robson contributed to this report.
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