2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™

14 June - 15 July

2018 FIFA World Cup™ 

Pele: I’ve got so many World Cup stories to tell

© Getty Images
  • The three-time champion looks back on his FIFA World Cup™ appearances
  • Pele assesses A Seleçao’s chances in Russia
  • Germany, Argentina, and hosts Russia are his ones to watch

When he was still a child and people first started to call him 'Pele', Edson Arantes do Nascimento cried about the nickname for months. Not for one minute did he imagine that those two syllables would become internationally synonymous with football greatness.

“My father had named me Edson after Thomas Edison, the great inventor. And I was really proud of it! I didn’t want anything to do with Pele,” he chuckled. However, he found a way of channelling this rage to devastating effect on the football pitch and, before too long, he had become one of the most recognisable footballers on the planet.

Several decades down the line, and with three World Cup winner’s medals under his belt, O Rei would appear to have made peace with his nickname. “It’s short, it sticks in people’s minds easily,” he conceded, as he looked back over his personal achievements in football.

He may have lost a yard of pace since his heyday, but Pele’s company remains as warm and engaging as ever. He spoke to us about his early days and the challenges he faced in the national team, his most memorable goals, Brazil’s current superstar, Neymar, and what lies in store for A Seleção at the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™.

FIFA.com: At 77 years of age, your name is still synonymous with the FIFA World Cup. Can you sum up what this tournament has meant to you over the years?
Pele: You’re absolutely right, I’ve got so many World Cup stories to tell! We never had it all our own way in those tournaments, but we always came out on top. 1958 was a dream: I was still a kid, and nobody thought we could go all the way. They used to question Vicente Feola, asking him how he expected to win the World Cup in Sweden with a 17-year-old in the team. But we did it! Then in 1962, when Brazil were in good shape, I picked up an injury, but we still managed to win the tournament. In England, I broke my meniscus and we fell short. But I played every game in 1970. It completed a perfect cycle for me: I started and finished as a champion.

In that final against Sweden in 1958, you scored a legendary goal after flicking the ball over the defender’s head in the area. At what exact moment did that move come to you?
I’d be lying if I said that it was all pre-planned (laughs). It was spontaneous. Thankfully, that was one of my strengths as a player: improvisation, the ability to come up with things off the cuff. Right at that moment, I had to act quickly. I managed to control the ball on my chest but, given the defender was coming to pressure me with his leg raised, I had to flick it over him. It came from God. I didn’t have time to think it through!

In that final against Sweden in 1958, you scored a legendary goal after flicking the ball over the defender’s head in the area. At what exact moment did that move come to you?
I’d be lying if I said that it was all pre-planned (laughs). It was spontaneous. Thankfully, that was one of my strengths as a player: improvisation, the ability to come up with things off the cuff. Right at that moment, I had to act quickly. I managed to control the ball on my chest but, given the defender was coming to pressure me with his leg raised, I had to flick it over him. It came from God. I didn’t have time to think it through!

Conversely, your headed goal against Italy in the final of Mexico 1970 was a classic goalscorer’s finish.
We used to work on that one in training. Not the whole move, obviously, but definitely the positioning. We had a throw-in and we knew that, instead of drifting towards the ball like most players, we should pull off to the far side and wait. When the move went down the left flank, I waited a little further back on the right. Rivelino and I combined for that one. In the end, it happened by chance, but we’d worked on it a fair bit.

Can you remember the header itself?
Of course. It was something that ran in the family. My dad, who was also a footballer, scored lots of goals with his head. I always wanted to emulate him. I was never particularly tall, but I had good strength in my legs. My father always used to say to me: “Most players close their eyes when they head the ball. When the ball’s coming towards you, open your eyes wide and choose where you want to place it.” I worked on it a lot and, consequently, I scored many goals in that way. You have to open your eyes and head the ball down!

But it doesn’t always come off, right? People still take about that save by Gordon Banks!
Absolutely, it was a similar chance.

Brazil had a series of great teams between the 1950s and the 1970s. Was there a feeling that you were better than the rest?
It was a great time for Brazil, with young players like Garrincha, Didi, and Zito. For that era, the team was very well organised. I remember Vicente Feola saying to us: “I know what I’m talking about: I’m older than you, I’m the coach. Be sure of one thing, you’re the best team in the world. But you have to respect each of your opponents. Don’t think for a minute that you just need to show up to win. You have to go out there with the mentality of earning the respect of your opponent.” I still remember his words today; he was our great professor.

This year’s tournament will be held in Russia. Do Brazil have what it takes to be champions?
Brazil always have a team capable of winning the World Cup. However, we’ve come unstuck at recent tournaments because of our preparation time. The majority of Brazil’s players are based abroad. It was very different back in our day. We had a lot more time. It makes life very hard for the coaching staff, as it’s difficult to build a team. Things have changed, it’s not as easy as saying ‘this will be our team’. But individually speaking, I have no doubt that the best players in the world are Brazilian.

Are they the favourites for the title?
Always! If Brazil are given time to prepare, they will always be capable of winning the World Cup.

What other teams should we bear in mind?
You always have to respect Germany. Even Russia, who often have a strong team and will have the advantage of playing at home. In terms of Latin America, Argentina tend to be the team who have what it takes to go all the way.

Will Neymar be the one to carry Brazil to the summit?
Neymar has changed the way he plays with the national team. He has had to. At his club side, he was playing as a left-sided attacker, whereas for Brazil, he plays more centrally, as a more traditional No10. That’s hard, but he’s managed to adapt his game. If you look around the world, the ones who stand out are Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo and Neymar. There are no other superstars. The important thing is for the national team to be well organised as a group because they no longer have three or four top players for each position. The same is true of Germany, whose emphasis is more on the collective. Before, it was individuals who mattered most, but it’s changed a lot. It’s all very similar these days.

Does he look to you like he’s ready to be the leader of this team?
He’s ready, yes. He might find that the tactical switch from his club to the national team isn’t straightforward, but Neymar is Brazil’s key player. He has to prepare himself for that. And I would go further: for me, technically, he is already the best player in the world. I’m absolutely sure of that.

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