The Battle of the GOATs

Reading Time: 2 minutes

Issue 9, Volume 111

By Nakib Abedin 

Edson Arantes do Nascimento (Pelé), “The King of Football,” seemed to have an untouchable legacy. The Brazillian goal-scoring machine led his country to an unprecedented three FIFA World Cup titles and was unquestionably considered the greatest soccer player of all time. Over the years, the likes of Johan Cryuff and Diego Maradona came close to Pelé’s legend, but none close enough to legitimately challenge his throne. Pelé’s status as soccer’s clear GOAT (Greatest Of All Time) stood until the 2010s, with the emergence of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. Recently, Messi and Ronaldo eclipsed two of Pelé’s most impressive goal-scoring records. Pelé and his former club, Santos FC, have responded aggressively to Messi and Ronaldo’s new feats, reigniting the debate about the greatest soccer player to ever touch the ball.

The dispute began when Messi scored his 644th goal for Barcelona on December 22, 2020, breaking Pelé’s record for the most goals scored for a single club. Pelé, who had once famously criticized Messi, saying, “Messi doesn’t score headers,” lost his cherished record to a header by Messi. Adding salt to the wound, Ronaldo scored two goals against Udinese in a 4-1 win to overtake Pelé in the all-time top scorers ranking just 11 days later. Losing two records that seemed insurmountable in the span of two weeks, Pelé’s legacy faced strong challenges from Messi and Ronaldo. Knowing that his claim to the coveted Greatest of All Time title was at risk, Pelé fought back with the help of Santos FC. In a public statement, the President of Santos said, "Pelé scored 1,091 goals for Santos. In the accounts of the specialised press, the King of Football scored 643 in competitions, and the 448 goals scored in friendly matches and competitions were ostracised, as if they had less value than the others.” Santos argued that Pelé’s records are still intact because the goals Pelé scored in friendlies and other unofficial matches were not taken into account. Pelé supported this narrative by reposting this statement in his Instagram bio. This action was seen as extremely distasteful because Pelé and his club Santos resorted to cheap technicalities to defend Pelé’s title.

Pelé’s reaction to his records being broken has been met with ridicule by many soccer fans across the world. Historically, friendlies have never been taken seriously. They have often been used to test out new tactics, give young players a chance to play, and get players back in shape. Also, teams typically agree not to go for dangerous tackles to try to avoid injuries, which takes away from the intensity of the games. Therefore, soccer fans normally ignore the results of these games. When Pelé and Santos counted these unofficial goals, fans interpreted their actions as ridiculous; he even counted goals in military exhibition games on his goal tallies.

Pelé and Santos should not have tried to discredit Messi and Ronaldo in the manner that they did. Pelé’s legacy is not based solely on his records, but rather on his unique style and incredible success in the World Cup. Pelé has won the tournament three separate times, a feat that neither Ronaldo nor Messi has been able to accomplish even once. Pelé didn’t need those records to validate his legitimacy as “The King of Football.” He should’ve accepted that all records are meant to be broken and that someday, someone was bound to take his crown. Ironically, by attempting to protect his cherished records, Pelé has harmed his own legacy. His attempts to discredit Messi and Ronaldo have inflicted more damage to his reputation than Messi and Ronaldo could have if they broke his records.