Pele – a very dry inspection

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

18 thoughts on “Pele – a very dry inspection

  1. I’d be interested in the Maradona analysis, because it has always been my impression that he took average teams and made them world beaters (particularly Argentina and Napoli). This is always what has made him stand out from the rest, and why it will be difficult for me to ever accept Messi as up there with Maradona.

  2. I appreciate your analysis. A great post.

    I saw Pele play for Santos and (sadly past his prime) for the Cosmos. With Santos, he was a level much higher than anyone else. This despite being marked and constantly chopped down whenever the referee was not looking. The site of Pele’s shins being chopped was as common as the ball being headed (the referee let the game flow back then).

    Pele seemed two generations ahead of his peers in regards to technique, speed, tactics, improvization, and explosiveness. You see film from that era and the game was slower because of the ball, the pitch, shoes, tactics, conditioning, etc. Except Pele seemed like a 2011 player in this setting (you look at the old newspaper write-ups and you will see him described as running and jumping like a gazelle-it is true).

    The only other athlete I ever saw who was equally better than his peers was Gretzsky in Hockey.

    I realize this sounds like a romance novel compared to your outstanding analysis. Greatness can only be measured against the people you play with at the time. Pele played aganst Charlton, not against Maradona.

    The question is not how much better was Pele relative to Maradona, but Pele to his peers, and Maradona to his peers. Your post is a good start. Your next analysis on Maradona could be the start of a Sabrematric book on the topic, as I am sure you can analyze this one forever.

  3. Dry? Good grief. You’d probably reduce Mozart to a bunch of squiggly pictures on a bunch of straight lines, and Picasso to a load of colour splattered on a canvas. What a load of tosh.

    1. Well of course it doesn’t. But as I mentioned, I haven’t actually seen Pele play for 90 minutes, so thought I’d have a different look. It’s not meant to be the be all and end all, it’s not meant to be anything, but given that we’re in an international break and I was curious I just thought I’d see.

      You would, would you not, concede that if a team is equally good with as without a player then perhaps greatness isn’t all that it might seem? Or not, I don’t know, just asking the question and seeing what I find. No harm in that, eh?

  4. Maradona and not Pele is the myth actually. I’ve got some facts below.

    I#ve analysed 10 years 59-69 of Pele for Santos at Brazils national, Intercontinental and Continetal Level with Maradona League 82-93 in Europe.

    These are for the National, International, Intercontinental Tournaments PELE DOMINATED 59-69

    Rio-Sao Paulo (4 Titles) 59,63,64,66

    National Brazil Title (6 Titles) 61,62,63,64,65,68

    Copa Lpertadores (2 Titles ) 62,63

    Intercontinental (2 Titles) 62,63

    Recopa Intercontinental (1 Title) 68

    15 Titles in 10 Years

    With Pele 139 Games 86 Wins 24 Draws 29 Defeats. Average 1.41 Points Per Game.

    Games in these tournaments without Pele. Rio-SP 6/5/59 Palmeiras 1-2 9/5/59 America 3-4 27/3/60 Palmeiras 0-0 31/3/60 Cornthians 1-2 2/4/60 Flamengo 0-1 7/4/60 America 5-4 14/4/60 Fluminese 2-4 16/4/60 Botafogo 0-3 19/3/61 Portuguesa 3-0 23/3/61 Palmeiras 1-1 29/3/61 Cornthians 0-2 19/4/61 Flamengo 1-5 23/4/61 Botafogo 1-2 29/3/64 Vasco 2-0 5/4/64 Bangu 2-1 11/4/64 Palmeiras 2-1 15/4/64 Portugueasa 2-5 19/4/64 Sao Paulo 4-1 13/3/65 Flamengo 1-1 27/3/65 Sao Paulo 1-3 31/3/65 Palmeiras 1-7 26/2/66 Sao Paulo 2-3 3/3/66 Prtuguesa 2-1 6/3/66 Flamengo 1-1 10/3/66 Fluminese 0-1 13/3/66 Botafogo 1-1 17/3/66 Bangu 4-0 20/3/66 Vasco 5-2 23/3/66 Palmeiras 3-2 27/3/66 Corinthians 0-0

    TACA and TACA DE PRATA National Games (6 Titles with Pele)
    3/3/60 Bahia 1-3 8/9/68 Athletico Paranase 2-3 5/10/69 Cruzeiro 2-3 8/10/69 Internacional 0-3
    29/10/69 America 1-1 26/11/69 Botafogo 0-0

    Copa Libertadores (2 Titles with Pele)

    25/2/62 Cerfo Portero 1-1 8/7/62 Universidad Cataoica 1-1 12/7/62 Universand Catolica 1-0 28/8/62 Penarol 2-1 2/9/62 Penarol 2-3 15/7/64 Idependeiente 2-3 22/7/64 Independiente 1-2

    Intercontinental (2 Titles with Pele)

    14/11/63 Milan 4-2 16/11/63 Milan 1-0

    Recopa (1 Title with Pele)

    16/4/68 Racing 3-2 19/4/68 Penarol 0-3 69 Penarol 2-0

    Total record without Pele in these games 48 Games 16 Wins 10 Draws 22 Defeats 0.87 Points Per Game.

    So in these 10 Years 15 Titles

    With Pele 139 Games 1.41 Points Per Game.

    Wthout 48 Games 0.87 Points Per Game.

    62% Improvement 15 Titles
    Maradonas Record in League in Europe (FOOTBALLDATABASE.EU)

    82/83 Barcelona 10W 6D 4L Without 7W 4D 3L

    83/84 Barcelona 10W 3D 3L Without 10W 5D 3L

    84/85 Napoli 10W 13D 7L

    85/86 Napoli 13W 11D 5L Without 1W

    86/87 Napoli 14W 12D 3L Without 1W

    87/88 Napoli 18W 6D 4L Without 2L

    88/89 Napoli 17W 7D 2L Without 1W 4D 3L

    89/90 Napoli 17W 8D 3L Without 4W 1D 1L

    90/91 Napoli 7W 4D 7L Without 4W 11D 1L

    92/93 Seville 10W 8D 8L Without 7W 1D 4L

    Record With 250G 126w 78D 46L 1.32 PPG
    Record Without 78G 35W 26D 17L 1.23 PPG

    Total Record in Europe with Maradona 1.32PPG without 1.23PPG, just 8% improvement.

    Pele makes 62% difference in his peak 10 years (59-69) to Maradona 8%

  5. Theres also plenty of record analysis out there of in particular Cruyff, Gerd Muller, Beckenbauer and Puskas who change their clubs fortunes when in the side far more than Maradona.
    Surely this analysis and the other analysis, completely undermines many false claims that Maradona is the key player to lift sides, at both club and international level.

  6. @paulrobertson, the stats you put up reflect maradona’s league matches did you come to a conclusion without having the data of other cup matches?also in 90-91 and 92-93 season he was past his make any remotely fair judgement we need to know his overall win/loss stat of the period 78-89/90(his best years).

  7. Stats can be filtered many ways and at times they can mislead.santos was hardly a 0.87 ppg side without fact in many of the 48 matches pele missed, they were missing quite a few main players, such as one rio-sao paolo tourney (the year i’m not sure) where they fielded a second eleven.considering they beat milan without o rey, they were pretty good.

  8. Both brazil and argentina actually played second string or ‘shadow’ sides in a number of matches pele and maradona is very informative about brazil details.

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