x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Pele the ambassador

Pace, power and panache, even at 5ft 8in, Pele had it all, honed as a child by training with a grapefruit or a sock stuffed with newspaper and tied with a string.

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Who do you think is sport's all-time best? Each week, we will profile a candidate, inviting you to decide who should top our list of 50. All participants will be entered into a draw for the weekly adidas prize and an end-of-contest Etihad Holidays four-day trip for two, including business class flights and accommodation, to a mystery location. We will reveal the full 50 at the end, but this week Alam Khan looks at football's Pele.

Sir Alex Ferguson pondered the question for a moment before he delivered his answer. Which past player would he have loved to have seen don the colours of Manchester United? The most successful manager in the club's history plumped for Edson Arantes do Nascimento, known simply as Pele. "For me, Pele and Diego Maradona are the best, but I would have loved to have seen Pele in a Manchester United shirt," said Ferguson.

"His goalscoring record and ability was phenomenal and it would have been fantastic to see him play for the club." In a time of George Best, Bobby Charlton and Denis Law, to have the Brazilian "Black Pearl" in United's ranks would have been something truly special. The Brazilian president, Janio Quadros, ensured that dream never became a reality by making Pele an official national treasure in 1961, denying him the chance to play in Europe and what would probably have been a greater test of his abilities than his home league.

But should that fact belittle his achievements, especially when he shone on the greatest stage of all? Three times he was part of a World Cup-winning side, illuminating his country's triumphs in 1958 and 1970 - where he scored six goals each time - with injury ruling him out early in their 1962 success. With him in the side, Brazil only lost 11 of 92 internationals. Pace, power and panache, even at 5ft 8in, Pele had it all, honed as a child by training with a grapefruit or a sock stuffed with newspaper and tied with a string.

His was a real rags-to-riches tale. Born in poverty in the Brazilian town of Tres Coracoes, it was certainly not easy and, despite all the plaudits and prizes, he never forgot his roots and is revered for his support for the poor and uneducated. It is that humbleness and sincerity that gains him adoration and acclaim throughout the world. While many legends have been fighting their demons after the end of their careers, Pele has been fighting for good. His presence and smile warms even the coldest of hearts.

On his retirement from the game in 1977, JB Pinheiro, Brazil's ambassador to the United Nations, said Pele had "done more for goodwill and friendship than all of the ambassadors ever appointed" during his 21 years in the game. He knows he owes it all to his footballing career - and what a career. It started in 1956 when he made his debut at 15 for Santos - scoring in a 7-1 friendly win over Corinthians - and ended when he dazzled the American crowd one last time for the New York Cosmos against his former Brazilian club in an exhibition game.

Those who watched him play and those who played with him rarely saw him fall below the high standards he had set himself for club and country. Records tumbled from the moment he was unleashed on Brazilian football. He made the national team and scored in a 2-1 defeat against Argentina, three months before his 17th birthday. An amazing 1,280 goals in 1,363 games - 77 for his country - were registered, and many magical moments captured. One of mine would actually be fiction though, with Pele taking centre stage in the war movie, Escape to Victory.

Battered by a physical German side, he returned to the pitch with cracked ribs to score with one of his trademark bicycle kicks for the team of Allied prisoners led by Michael Caine and featuring Bobby Moore and Osvaldo Ardiles. As a youngster it just seemed this man was superhuman and many would argue that, on the pitch, he actually was. He was 40 at the time of filming and it took him just one take to do the scene. You never lose class, or respect.

Ever the diplomat, it's not often Pele, now 68, says something controversial. But even when he does, he still gets away with it, such is his standing as a footballer and a man. When he questioned Robinho's move to Manchester City, even the British record transfer signing could not bring himself to return fire against the hero who had helped him at Santos. "I accept Pele's criticism as he is O Rei do Futebol [the king of football]," said Robinho.

What better endorsement is there? akhan@thenational.ae Cast your vote and enter a draw for a weekly Dh500 adidas voucher and a dream trip with Etihad Holidays. If you think Pele is the all-time best, text G30 to 2337 Texts cost Dh5 and voting will end at midnight on Thursday November 13.