I have always suspected Pele of being slightly overhyped. The Maradona v Pele debates always seemed interesting enough, but I don’t know how many of the people involved had actually watched the latter playing, and if they had, how they were able to make those performances stand up against Maradona’s extraoardinary genius.
Maradona was a phenomenon. He devastated defences wherever he went, won games (literally) single handedly, and until Lionel Messi came along was very clearly (to me at least) the best player that ever there was. Pele? Sure, good player – he must have been a really good player – but part of it always seemed to be a brand issue (what a neat name Pele is? So obviously fit for purpose, and he’s gone around being a wholesome nice man and Maradona’s had some issues) and part of it a timing issue (that 1970 team is everyone’s favourite, which I couldn’t necessarily disagree with, although West Germany’s team of that era was pretty tasty, too, and Hungary’s team of the 1950s has the highest ever ELO rating recorded, which is instructive – but Maradona’s teams weren’t beloved at all; quite the opposite).
Anyway, we may return to Maradona, but in the meantime, let’s focus on Pele. Absent any real experience of watching the man I must content myself with cold, hard facts. Some of the coldest and hardest facts are these:
Brazil played in 161 matches in between Pele’s debut in 1957 and his retirement in 1971 (that longevity is, of course, a feather in his cap).
Pele played in 92 of these games.
When he played Brazil’s record was P92, W67, D14, L11. They scored 236 times, conceded 87, at averages of 2.6 per game and 0.9 per game respectively. They therefore won 73% of their matches.
When Pele was missing the team’s record was P67, W42, D12, L15, F152, A91, with averages for the latter two of 2.3 and 1.4. They won 63% of their games.
Based on that you’d have to say that Pele was pretty important. Another way of looking at it is that Brazil were a Premier League club, the Pele version would finish the season with 89 points, the non-Pele version 78 points (based on win-draw-lose ratios).
That’s quite conclusive.
But is it the full story? Let’s keep digging and find some more cold, hard facts.
Pele played in 49 of Brazil’s 79 friendlies in that time period, 6 of 16 South American Championships and 14 of 21 World Cup matches. I don’t think this really tells us anything.
Did he miss games against certain opponents? Not really, or at least not to the point where it might be skewing data. He played in 6 of the 7 games against Portugal and 3 of the 4 against West Germany, but only 3 of the 10 against Uruguay, 7 of the 17 against Chile and 10 of the 18 against Argentina. He didn’t play in either of Brazil’s games against Hungary.
But here is something: 48 of the 92 games he played in were in Brazil, but only 17 of the 69 were at home! Pele was dodging the away trips!*
(*not necessarily dodging, but not always present, either)
Did this matter?
In home games with Pele playing Brazil won 34 of 48 matches, drew 9 and lost 5.
In home games without Pele Brazil won 15 of 17 matches, drew 2 and didn’t lose.
In away games with Pele, Brazil won 33 of 44, drew 5 and lost 6.
In away games without Pele, Brazil won 27 of 52, drew 10 and lost 15. Ow.
The above if converted to a Premiership season:
87, 105, 90, 67.
By that token, Brazil were amazing with him in the side, could win at home without him, but dropped off considerably when they had to go away and he couldn’t/didn’t play.
So there you have it. Pele was really good! (NB – rigourous analysis would see if other key players were missing from some of these away trips. If they were shadow sides – and this can be checked – then the above doesn’t hold up).
I might try to do the same thing for Maradona one day.
Much of this data was mined from http://www.rsssfbrasil.com/sel/brazila.htm