“Pele is obviously infantile. He lacks the necessary fighting spirit. He is too young to feel aggression and respond with appropriate force. In addition to that, he does not possess the sense of responsibility necessary for a team game.”
So read a now-infamous report compiled by Brazil’s team psychologist, Dr Joao Carvalhaes, ahead of the 1958 FIFA World Cup™. His verdict was decisive and unambiguous: the 17-year-old should not feature. Nor, indeed, should Garrincha.
Football is, of course, forever grateful for what happened next, as Pele recounted in his autobiography. “Fortunately for me and Garrincha, [Brazil coach Vicente] Feola was always guided by his instincts rather than experts. He just nodded gravely at the psychologist, and said, ‘You may be right. The thing is, you don’t know anything about football. If Pele’s knee is ready, he plays.”
That knee, and the injury he had sustained in a pre-tournament practice match, proved an even more immediate danger to the youngster's participation in Sweden than Carvalhaes' dire warnings. But Feola took the gamble and was repaid handsomely. In the process, World Cup history was made.
Still widely held to be the greatest footballer of all time, Pele in truth needs no introduction. No less an authority than Johan Cruyff, himself among the all-time greats, described the legendary Brazilian as “the only player who surpassed the boundaries of logic”. Even at 17, the scale of Pele's talent was apparent to those around him. As Paolo Amaral, Brazil's fitness trainer in 1958, recalled: "He could shoot with his left, with his right, and he had such vision that as soon as he got the ball, he already knew what he was going to do with it. He was extraordinary." This teenage sensation went on to claim a variety of World Cup records, and 12 of his record 77 Brazil goals – and 1,000-plus strikes overall – came at the beautiful game’s most celebrated tournament. It is, though, his first that comes under the spotlight here.
While the name of Pele is known the world over, mention Manuel Rosas and you can expect a few blank stares in response. Yet, it was this little-known Mexican who, prior to 1958, held the record as the World Cup’s youngest goalscorer. Rosas was 18 years and 93 days old when he bagged a brace, which included the first penalty converted at a World Cup, in a 6-3 defeat to Argentina at the tournament’s inaugural edition in 1930.
That benchmark remained in place for 28 years until Brazil faced Wales in the 1958 quarter-finals. The Welsh had only qualified for the World Cup through a play-off against Israel, but remained unbeaten in the first round and – even without their injured talisman, Juventus star John Charles – provided Brazil with arguably their toughest match of the tournament. Indeed, it was only after 66 tense and goalless minutes that Pele, two days on from his World Cup debut against USSR and still 126 days away from his 18th birthday, undid them with a moment of brilliance.
Receiving the ball on his chest, with his back to goal, the youngster pulled off an audacious turn to leave Mel Charles, John’s brother, trailing in his wake. Stuart Williams raced in to cover, but Pele had seen his chance and flicked out his left boot to send the ball flashing into the bottom corner. Overcome with joy, he raced into the net, picked up and kissed the ball before being mobbed by team-mates. It was a goal that opened the floodgates for this most special of footballers. The 17-year-old went on to hit a brilliant hat-trick against France in the semi-finals before adding a memorable brace in the 5-2 win over Sweden that secured Brazil’s first world title.
“[Against USSR] I had missed two attempts at goal that I would surely have buried had I been more relaxed... After our celebration dinner, I went back to my room and replayed in my mind every move, every kick. I wasn’t too pleased with my performance – I could have played better. I’d tried to chip Yashin at one point and realised that was pure cheek on my part. That was something I’d have to work on.
“The Wales game took place just two days after my first. Jack Kelsey, the Welsh goalie, was in great form and his team were forceful in defence. The USSR game had been tough and it was important for Brazil because we qualified top of the group. But on a personal level, I consider the game against Wales my most important of the tournament. And the goal was, perhaps, the most unforgettable of my career. Wales marked very tightly at the back and I remember getting the ball, turning and squeezing it into the corner of the net. I consider it the most important goal I’ve ever scored. It boosted my confidence completely. The world now knew about Pele. I was on a roll.
“The 1958 World Cup was my launching pad. I was on the front pages of newspapers and magazines all over the world. Paris Match ran a cover story immediately after the victory, saying there was a new king on the block. The name stuck, and very soon I started to be called King Pele. Or, more simply, the King."
"We didn't know anything at all about Pele. The ones we were focused on were Garrincha and Didi. This young kid, 17 years of age, playing for Brazil... who was he? We didn't know. But we found out. You didn't have to be an expert to know, half-hour into the game, that this kid was very special.
"He broke the team's heart getting that goal, knowing we were so close. We took Brazil all the way, and I still think to this day it could have been a different result, if big John [Charles] had played. John was our main man - like Gareth Bale is in the present Welsh side. He would have caused Brazil problems they'd never faced before.
"But to come up against Pele was fantastic. He was the greatest player I have ever seen. He had it all: skill, speed, athleticism and great aerial ability. Before Brazil competed in the 1962 World Cup, they invited Wales over for two warm-up games: one at the Maracana and the other in Sao Paulo. Brazil beat us 3-1 in both games and Pele scored twice in each. He had got stronger since 1958. He really was a cut above."
Cliff Jones, Wales winger