Football Features

Pele’s legendary career told in numbers: Just how good was Brazil’s emblematic forward?

By Ben Green

Pele's legendary career told in numbers- Just how good was Brazil's totemic forward?

Published: 17:11, 30 December 2022

Brazil and football legend Pele has passed away at the age of 82.

The three-time World Cup winner leaves behind a legacy that transcends sporting achievement. He is the emblematic star of Brazilian football, a forward immortalised in the pantheon of sporting greats, an icon recognised worldwide.

Debate will rage on about who the greatest of all time is, but Pele is unequivocally in the conversation alongside Lionel Messi, Diego Maradona, Johan Cruyff and Alfredo Di Stefano.

It was the legendary Ferenc Puskas who once mused: “The greatest player in history was Di Stefano. I refuse to classify Pele as a player. He was above that.”

As the World Cup Trophy returned to South America for the first time in two decades earlier this month — a trophy unprecedentedly held aloft by Pele on three occasions — football waves goodbye to a man who embodied “The Beautiful Game”.

To many he is still the baby-faced Samba sensation lighting up Sweden in 1958, to others he is simply the greatest who has ever laced up their boots.

In honour of Edson Arantes do Nascimento, we’ve looked back at his glittering, trophy-laden career in numbers. There will never be another like him…

1. Three World Cups

To this day, Pele remains the only player in history to win the World Cup three times, securing glory with Brazil in 1958, 1962 and 1970.

Alongside his 1958 and 1962 team-mate Vava, the duo are the only two players to score in two finals for winning teams.

In total, 21 players have won multiple World Cups, but Pele is the only man to secure a hat-trick of gongs.

2. A goalscoring Guinness World Record

Pele was an instinctive scoring machine, combining speed, skill and final-third imagination to net 1,279 goals in 1,363 games across his career.

That total — which includes friendlies — is officially recognised as a Guinness World Record.

The calculated, penalty-box assassin scored 77 goals for Brazil — a record he currently shares with Neymar — while the majority of his club finishes came for Santos, whom he represented with distinction between 1956 and 1974.

He also enjoyed two years stateside playing for New York Cosmos to see out his playing career. In the Big Apple, Pele notched 66 goals in 107 games, where he also starred alongside Franz Beckenbauer and 1970 Brazil team-mate Carlos Alberto.

3. The hat-trick hero

A ferocious goal-getter, Pele is officially recognised by the Guinness World Records for scoring the most hat-tricks in football, claiming the match ball on 92 occasions during his career.

Seven of those came for Brazil, a record for the nation. Zico, Romario and Neymar all come in next with four apiece, while Ademir and Ronaldo claimed three Brazil hat-tricks in their respective international careers.

The big one, of course, remains his hat-trick against France in the 1958 World Cup. A then-teenage Pele bagged thrice in 23 minutes against Just Fontaine’s France in the semi-final to become the youngest ever player to score a World Cup hat-trick.

That he did it in a semi-final only adds to the wonder of his magic. He is still the only player to score a World Cup hat-trick before turning 18.

Incredibly, Pele scored his first career hat-trick at just 16 years and 197 days against Fabril de Lavras in a friendly on 9 June 1957. That record stood until a 14-year-old Ntinos Pontikas broke his feat while playing for Haravgi on 28 September 1996 in the fifth tier of the Greek championship.

4. A big ‘Peixe‘ in a small pond

Pele played 1106 first-team matches for Santos from 1956 to 1974, naturally making him the club’s record appearance-maker.

He is also Peixe‘s all-time leading scorer with 1091 goals.

During his time in Vila Belmiro, the Brazilian immortal won six Campeonato Brasileiro Serie A titles, two Copa Libertadores trophies, a couple of Intercontinental Cups, one Intercontinental Supercup, 10 Campeonato Paulistas and four Torneio Rio-Sao Paulos.

5. A year to remember

Now get this. In 1959, a year after crystallising his name in football’s global psyche, Pele notched 127 goals across 12 months.

That triple-digit tally is recognised by FIFA as a record for the most goals scored in a single calendar year.

There are no superlatives to capture the achievement.

6. A World Cup Bambino

To understand the utter ridiculousness of Pele, consider that Messi was 35 when he lifted the World Cup in Qatar earlier this month. Half that number, and you have Pele’s age when he inspired Brazil to 1958 glory.

His exploits at the tender age of 17 means he remains the youngest winner of a World Cup, officially lifting the trophy at 17 years and 249 days.

So, on top of being the youngest World Cup hat-trick achiever (mentioned earlier), he is also the youngest scorer in the competition’s history. In Sweden, he bagged his first tournament goal against Wales at 17 years and 239 days. That record remains intact.

The Brazilian is also the youngest player to score a brace in a World Cup semi-final — and the youngest scorer in a final.

On top of that (yep, there’s more), he is also the youngest player to appear in a World Cup final.

7. Great goalscorer, great… playmaker?

Pele has cultivated a reputation for his cut-throat precision in the final third, but he was also a wonderful footballer, combining slippery feet, unparalleled vision and instinctive control.

He was a heavyweight with a featherweight’s touch, a dancer on the pitch — and he certainly knew how to pick a pass.

The former striker remains the World Cup’s record assist-provider, creating eight chances for his team-mates in the tournament, a record he shares with Messi and Maradona.

He also shares a record with Robert Gadocha (Poland, 1974), Pierre Littbarski (Germany, 1982), Maradona (Argentina, 1986) and Thomas Hassler (Germany, 1994) for most assists provided in a single tournament (five). He achieved his feat in 1970.

He has also provided the most assists in a World Cup final, setting his team-mates up thrice in 1958 and 1970. And he, alongside Messi, has also provided the most assists in the World Cup knockout phase (six).

8. A teenager on a mission

In what was still a nascent career before Pele had even turned 20, the talented tyro achieved more in the game at 19 than many had — and will — in careers that have — and will — span over two decades at the highest level.

Indeed, Pele remains the only player to reach 25 international goals as a teenager; the youngest goalscorer for Brazil (aged 16 years and nine months, against Argentina no less); the youngest player to reach five World Cup knockout stage goals; and the youngest player to start a knockout match at a World Cup.

9. Esteemed company

Vava, Geoff Hurst and Zinedine Zidane… Pele is one of only four players to score the most open play goals in World Cup finals.

His three strikes were split between a brace in 1958 and the deadlock-breaker in Brazil’s 4-1 win over Italy in 1970.

10. One of five… and the ‘Player of the Century’

Earlier this month Cristiano Ronaldo became the first ever player to score in five separate World Cups.

A immaculate achievement, but scoring in four World Cups isn’t exactly a common occurrence.

Pele did so during his career, joining only Ronaldo, Messi, Uwe Seeler and Miroslav Klose as one of five to net in at least four separate World Cups.

To finish things off, it wouldn’t feel right without mentioning that Pele was the joint-winner of the FIFA Player of the Century award alongside Maradona in December 2000, forever etching his name in footballing memory.

A true inspiration, thank you Pele.