Pele has encouraged England fans to keep believing their 40-year wait for FIFA World Cup glory could soon be over as he revealed his concerns about Brazil's status as tournament favourites at Germany 2006. The Brazilian legend expects next year's finals to be a "box of surprises", with England and Italy being the likeliest contenders to snatch away Brazil's crown.
Sir Geoff Hurst discusses England's prospects
Pele believes England have improved over the past two years and he said: "I think two teams from England, Italy and Brazil will be in the final. But if I have to name a team to win, I name Brazil... not only because of their quality, but also because they have two top-class players in every position."
Pele was speaking in London, where Gary Lineker, the former England striker and 1986 Golden Shoe winner, said he was "awestruck" to be introducing him as the Lifetime Achievement Award winner at the BBC Sports Personality of the Year television ceremony.
TV presenter Lineker humbly asked the great man if he thought England had a "little chance" at next summer's finals and Pele, who had travelled to the UK after attending the Final Draw for Germany 2006 in Leipzig, assured him: "Of course, England will always have a chance."
Pele fears favourites tag
Pele admitted he was worried about Brazil's status as FIFA World Cup front-runners, going into the finals as holders. "I never want to be the favourites," he told Lineker. "I have had bad experiences with this. Always when teams go to the World Cup as favourites, they lose."
He recalled his memories as a ten-year-old watching the 1950 FIFA World Cup, which he still believes was "an important moment" in his life. "Brazil was the best team and we played Uruguay in the final. I remember it was a big party in Brazil. My father had prepared a party at our house for friends to come and celebrate after the game, but Brazil lost. It was terrible.
"The same happened to Holland twice when they were favourites and lost in Germany (1974) and Argentina (1978). In 1982 in Spain, Brazil were the best team, but they lost. So I don't want to be the favourites, but in all seriousness, today Brazil is the best team, no doubt."
After the show, Pele said: "There are seven months until the World Cup, but Italy, Brazil and England have been the best teams during the last two years. The World Cup is very tough... the quarters, semi-finals and final are one game each. Anything can happen in one game. That is the problem with the World Cup - it is a box of surprises."
Pele moved to tears
Warm video tributes had earlier been paid by Franz Beckenbauer, Johan Cruyff and Sir Bobby Charlton and Pele was "very emotional" as he took some time to compose himself before being able to speak in the studio. "I cry very easily you know," the 65-year-old explained as Chelsea coach Jose Mourinho presented him with the prestigious trophy.
Mourinho said of Pele: "He is football. You have a lot of great managers, you have a lot of great players, I think you have one great referee and he is here (Pierluigi Collina). But here you have the real 'special one': Mr Pele."
Lineker asked Chelsea's Portuguese manager who he would like to see win the FIFA World Cup: Portugal or England? The simple answer was vintage Mourinho, who was named Sports Coach of the Year. Quick as a flash, he replied: "Portugal-England in the final. Portugal to win." Such an encounter would evoke memories of their UEFA EURO 2004 quarter-final in Lisbon, where Portugal beat England on penalties after Wayne Rooney suffered a broken foot early in the game.
England learn lessons of 2002
Sven-Goran Eriksson was in the Sports Personality Awards audience and Lineker suggested to the head coach that England got a "good draw" for the finals in Germany. Eriksson said he believed injuries or the lack of them held the true key to success, with an additional week-long break for England's players for rest and preparation before the finals being an important factor.
He persuaded the English Football Association to finish this season slightly earlier after watching his tired and jaded England side fail to beat ten-man Brazil in the quarter-finals of the 2002 FIFA World Cup. "We suffered because of that in Japan," said the Swede.
"If I had to pick the World Cup squad tomorrow, I know who the players would be. Wayne Rooney can be everything. You remember how good he was in Portugal at EURO 2004 and that was one and a half years ago. He got injured and that was very bad for England and for him, but he can be a big star at the World Cup, for sure."