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Pele - The Greatest World Cup Player Ever?
With Qatar 2022 right around the corner, this tournament could see the final push for players to finally secure their World Cup legacies, while youngsters will look to start their World Cup journey as they mean to go on.
The tournament this December could be the last time the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Luka Modric. These four will be especially eager to win the biggest competition in world football, never having won it before, despite Messi and Modric both reaching the final in 2014 and 2018 respectively.
The 2021 Euros winners Italy missed out on World Cup Qualification, but the other finalists will be looking to truly make their mark on the World Cup. The particularly young England team is stacked full of talent and could be a big threat at the competition, looking to bring silverware home for the first time since 1966 after coming so close on home soil in the Euros.
Kylian Mbappe and a star-studded French team could win back-to-back World Cups, something that would solidify both Mbappe and the team as World Cup legends. Along with this, both the US and Canada are making an appearance in Qatar, with their young squads hoping to highlight North America’s football talent.
However, will any of these players ever be able to outdo Pele’s World Cup legacy?
Pele has competed at four different World Cups and returned to Brazil with a winner’s medal three times.
Pele’s first appearance at the World Cup came in 1958, where he made his debut as an injured 17-year-old. The Brazilian announced himself to the world in style, scoring six goals at the competition.
His first came in the Quarter-finals, where Pele scored the only goal in the tie against Wales. The next three all came in one match, a 23-minute hat-trick in the Semi-final against France, which Brazil won 5 - 2. The final two goals came in the Final, where Brazil met the host nation, Sweden. Pele scored twice in a 5 - 2 win to secure Brazil’s first-ever World Cup.
Pele only made two appearances at the 1962 World Cup, and these came only in the group stage, where Brazil were grouped with Czechoslovakia, Mexico and Spain. The forward did manage to score at this tournament, a singular goal against a Spain side that finished bottom of the group. Despite being left on the bench for all of the remaining games for Brazil, Pele received a winners medal when Brazil beat Czechoslovakia 3 - 1 in the Final.
Pele returned for the 1970 World Cup after the disappointment in 1966 and scored in Brazil’s first game at the tournament, a 4 - 1 thrashing of Czechoslovakia. He then went on to score a brace in the third and final group stage match against Romania, where Brazil edged a 3 - 2 win. Pele didn’t score again until the Final, where he scored first in a 4 - 1 win over Italy.
Pele’s influence in an era in Brazilian football often described as the best ever to hit the field cannot be undermined. With three World Cups and a direct hand in many of these successes, Pele can definitely be described as the greatest ever World Cup player.
However, there are some players from his generation who can compete with the Brazilian legend.
Diego Maradona is the most obvious candidate for greatest-ever World Cup player besides Pele. The Argentine competed in four consecutive World Cups, 1982, 1986, 1990 and 1994, but the win in 1986 in Mexico is the obvious standout.
Maradona scored five goals and registered five assists in seven games at the 1986 tournament, which has yet to be replicated by any player at a World Cup. Maradona scored once in a group stage draw with Italy and the two goals in the Semi-final against Belgium. However, the most famous were the two goals against England in the Quarter-finals, one being the “Hand of God”.
Overall, Maradona retired from World Cup football with 21 appearances, eight goals and one winner's medal.
Franz Beckenbauer played in three World Cups for West Germany, winning the 1974 World Cup on home soil.
In his 18 appearances, Beckenbauer scored five goals, but most importantly redefined his role in the West Germany team in a way that hasn’t been seen so well-executed since. Beckenbauer’s move from midfield to the defence created the sweeper, where he was able to evade man-marking and being able to directly affect the attack.
Beckenbauer also solidified his place in World Cup history as only the second man to ever win a World Cup as both player and manager. He won as a player in 1974 but also led West Germany to victory in the competition in 1990.
Ronaldo made appearances in four consecutive World Cups for Brazil, 1994, 1998, 2002 and 2006. Ronaldo and Brazil won the World Cup in 2002, their first in 32 years since Pele had won it in 1970.
Ronaldo was a standout player at the 2002 World Cup where he won the Golden Boot after scoring eight goals at the tournament. He scored against Turkey, China, Costa Rica, Belgium and twice against Germany in the Final.
In his World Cup career, Ronaldo made 19 appearances and scored 15 goals, an impressive feat, which was rewarded with a winner’s medal and a Golden Ball.
Bobby Moore played in three World Cups, most iconically the 1966 World Cup where England won the trophy in front of a home crowd.
Though he never scored in his 14 appearances in the World Cup, many described him as ‘the best defender ever’ - including West German icon Franz Beckenbauer. This was also shown in the ‘perfect tackle’ that Moore committed on Jairzinho, a star in Brazil’s tournament-winning 1970 team.
The greatest ever captain to ever come out of England, his win at the 1966 tournament established him as one of the standout defenders and captains in World Cup history.
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