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Pele at 80: Where does he rank among the GOATs?

In 1961, the government of Brazil declared Pele an “official national treasure” to prevent him being transferred out of the country

No matter how old you are, or who you grew up watching, one man has long dominated the debate about just who was the greatest footballer of all time.

From World Cup glory at 17 to Escape to Victory theatrics via 1,000 goals, Gordon Banks’ save, and outrageous dummies, Pele has been a walking, talking showreel for more than half a century.

Was he the finest player to ever grace the game – or are the modern-day superstars a cut above?

As Pele turns 80, BBC Sport asks you to rate his achievements among some of the other GOATs (from this list)external-link – and you can put them in order at the bottom…

Note: The Ballon d’Or could only be won by a European player until 1995

Pele (Santos, NY Cosmos & Brazil)

World Cup wins: 1958, 1962, 1970 European Cup/Champions League wins: 0

Ballons d’Or: 0 League titles: 7

International caps/goals: 92/77

A teenage dream who was the highest-paid and highest-profile sports star in the world in his pomp, Pele was a phenomenon.

Breaking on to the global scene aged 17 with a hat-trick in the World Cup semi-final and two more in the final, Brazil’s leading goalscorer is one of just four players to have scored in four different World Cup tournaments (1958, 1962, 1966 and 1970).

Giant Pele street mural unveiled in Santos to mark football icon’s 80th

He won three of those and was kicked out of the ’66 tournament in England through some brutal defending – the only way to stop him.

Not just a goalscorer, Pele had a hand in 53% of Brazil’s 19 goals as they won the 1970 World Cup (four goals, six assists) and was as adept at playing behind the main striker as he was leading the line.

The greatest? Or does the fact he never played club football in Europe hold him back in your eyes?

“Had he been playing now, Pele would surely have made the move to Europe,” says BBC Radio 5 Live football correspondent John Murray.

“It’s the difficulty with comparing generations. We can only judge him on the record he has and it is truly phenomenal.

“The achievements of Maradona, Messi, and Cristiano Ronaldo make it a close call but, even now, Pele still has a strong claim to be considered the greatest game’s greatest player.”

Franz Beckenbauer (Bayern Munich, NY Cosmos, Hamburg & West Germany)

World Cup wins: 1974 European Cup/Champions League wins: 3

Ballons d’Or: 2 League titles: 8

International caps/goals: 103/14

‘Der Kaiser’ won the World Cup as player and manager and is living proof you don’t have to be an attacker to rank among the very best.

A playmaker even from centre-back, Beckenbauer was equally at home in midfield or defence and made his debut on the left wing. What you call a total player.

He won three European Cups in a row for the dominant Bayern side of the mid-1970s.

Johan Cruyff (Ajax, Barcelona, LA Aztecs, Washington Diplomats, Levante, Feyenoord & the Netherlands)

World Cup wins: 0 European Cup/Champions League wins: 3

Ballons d’Or: 3 League titles: 10

International caps/goals: 48/33

Johan Cruyff

A supremely gifted individual who was also all about the team – not winning a World Cup with his band of ludicrously good Dutch brothers in the 1970s may be the only blot on his copybook.

Produced one of the World Cup’s most famous moments, had a turn named after him, and went on to inspire Pep Guardiola and countless others when coaching Barca’s so-called ‘dream team’ of the early 1990s.

Lost a lot of money with an unwise investment in pig farming – which is not a line you’re likely to ever read about Messi or Ronaldo…

Alfredo di Stefano (River Plate, Millionarios, Real Madrid, Espanyol & Argentina, Colombia & Spain)

World Cup wins: 0 European Cup/Champions League wins: 5

Ballons d’Or: 2 League titles: 13

International caps/goals: 41/29

Di Stefano won his fifth and final European Cup in 1960 – still only one player has more wins.

He scored in five finals in a row, and won them all.

And, yes, he played for three countries on the international scene. Beat that.

Diego Maradona (Argentinos Juniors, Boca Juniors, Barcelona, Napoli, Sevilla, Newell’s Old Boys & Argentina)

World Cup wins: 1986 European Cup/Champions League wins: 0

Ballons d’Or: 0 League titles: 3

International caps/goals: 91/34

What a player. If you haven’t seen it, please go and watch the recent documentary about his time in Naples. It’s superb.

Single-handedly (pretty much) dragged his Argentina team to World Cup glory, and carried Napoli to two Serie A titles. Does that separate him from Lionel Messi? Up to you.

Lionel Messi (Barcelona & Argentina)

World Cup wins: 0 European Cup/Champions League wins: 4

Ballons d’Or: 6 League titles: 10

International caps/goals: 140/71

Lionel Messi

“No-one else does the things he does, the way he does them – and no-one ever has done. He is simply the greatest to have ever played the game.”

The words of Gary Lineker no less.

Can you even mount an argument against Messi being number one on this list? We all know just how good he is. Perhaps a lack of international success with Argentina and ‘only’ winning things with Barcelona? But we’re splitting hairs there.

An absolute genius.

Ferenc Puskas (Budapest Honved, Real Madrid & Hungary & Spain)

World Cup wins: 0 European Cup/Champions League wins: 3

Ballons d’Or: 0 League titles: 10

International caps/goals: 89/87

There is a legitimate case for stating the ‘Magic Magyars’ Hungary team of the 1950s was the best in the world. They lost just one match in six years – which, unfortunately, happened to be the World Cup final.

That’s how good Ferenc Puskas was. He was 31 when he joined Real Madrid and still won five league titles, three European Cups and scored 242 goals.

He scored 514 goals in 529 matches in the Hungarian and Spanish leagues. Ridiculous really, isn’t it?

Cristiano Ronaldo (Sporting Lisbon, Manchester United, Real Madrid, Juventus & Portugal)

World Cup wins: 0 European Cup/Champions League wins: 5

Ballons d’Or: 5 League titles: 7

International caps/goals: 167/101

Cristiano Ronaldo

The Champions League’s all-time top goalscorer and scorer of 100 goals for Portugal – Cristiano Ronaldo is a remarkable player. Especially when you consider how he has reinvented himself from spindly winger to powerful number nine.

Whether you rank him ahead of Messi or not is the debate of our footballing time – unlike Messi, though, he has won titles in three countries. And won a major tournament with his national side.

Ronaldo (Cruzeiro, PSV, Barcelona, Inter, Real Madrid, Milan, Corinthians & Brazil)

World Cup wins: 1994, 2002 European Cup/Champions League wins: 0

Ballons d’Or: 2 League titles: 1

International caps/goals: 98/62


Wherever you end up ranking Ronaldo, we can all agree he would be higher if it wasn’t for horrific injuries. At his peak, perhaps in his season at Barcelona or his first year at Inter before yet another setback, he was as close to unplayable as it gets. It’s no wonder he broke the world transfer record twice by the age of 21.

Take a look at his highlights reel and observe – the jaw-dropping close control, the trademark step-overs at speed that humiliated a decade of goalkeepers, the powerful finish with either foot – he really was something else.

It’s bordering on criminal that he only won one league title in his career. One!

Zinedine Zidane (Cannes, Bordeaux, Juventus, Real Madrid & France)

World Cup wins: 1998 European Cup/Champions League wins: 1

Ballons d’Or: 1 League titles: 3

International caps/goals: 108/31

Another player who didn’t win nearly enough honours, and much like Ronaldo, Zinedine Zidane re-imagined a position.

Before ‘Zizou’ the stereotypical number 10 was your playmaker but could be kicked out of the game, was there to be shot at. Not a chance with Zidane, who combined the speed of thought and foot of a ballerina with the frame and menace of a cruiserweight.

At his best Zidane was so good I couldn’t even really tell you where he played. A number 10, sure, but he’d often end up on the left, drop deep to take the ball from the defence or goalkeeper, and yet somehow still pop up in the area as well.

Not an out-and-out goalscorer or a striker, but still won the World Cup for France with two headers and scored the best goal ever seen in a Champions League final.

A complete player, who even knew how to sign off in disgrace with a red card for a headbutt after scoring in his second World Cup final.

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