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Op-Ed \ John Haydon

Player of the Century? Why, Pele, of course.

(Sunday, January 2, 2000) -- Sports Illustrated recently named Muhammad Ali the "Sportsman of the Century," as did Great Britain's television network, the BBC. While I will not attempt to argue their choice, I have to side with France's respected daily sports newspaper L'Equipe, which chose Brazilian soccer star Pele, as its "Sportsman of the Century."

L'Equipe named Ali number two with track star Carl Lewis next. That seems about right to me, although I would put Jesse Owens ahead of Lewis.

Like Ali, Pele is one of the most recognizable sports figures of the century. At 59, he is still traveling the world as soccer's chief ambassador. I had the opportunity to sit down and chat with Pele in a Virginia hotel room in 1993 and found him charming, polite and engaging.

"Call me Edson," he said "Pele is a God to some people; an idol, but as Edson I am a person."

Born Edson Arantes do Nascimento, into a very poor family in Tres Coracoes, in the state of Minas Gerais, he was later nicknamed Pele, the meaning of which has never been explained. His father was a promising soccer player but had to retire early due to injury, and ended up sweeping floors for a living.

Pele began his professional career at age 16 with Santos and went on to play in four World Cups with Brazil's national team. At the 1958 World Cup in Sweden -- one he nearly missed because of a knee injury -- Pele stunned the world scoring six goals, including two in the championship game to help Brazil win its first World Cup 5-2 over Sweden. He was only 17years-old, but a legend was born.

Four years later he played on Brazil's World Cup team at the finals in Chile, but an injury suffered in the first game of the tournament prevented him from helping Brazil win its second title.

Wealthy European clubs offered massive fees to sign the young player, but the government of Brazil declared Pele an official national treasure to prevent him from being transferred out of the country.

At the 1966 World Cup in England, Pele was the victim of some brutal tackles from Bulgarian and Portuguese defenders and left the finals injured and in tears. But the best of Pele was still to come.

At the 1970 finals in Mexico, the 29-year-old Pele, led one of the greatest teams ever assembled to win Brazil's third World Cup. In the 4-1 title triumph over Italy, Pele, scored a glorious goal. It was Brazil's 100th World Cup goal, and the one he remembers the most.

"I have a special feeling for that goal because I scored it with my head," he said. "My father was a soccer player and once scored five goals in a game, all with his head. That was one record I was never able to break."

Pele's statistics are staggering. During his career he scored 1,280 goals in 1,360 games, second only to another Brazilian, Arthur Friedenreich, who recorded 1,329 goals.

At the club level he shattered records in Brazil. He scored 127 goals for Santos F.C. in 1959, 110 in 1961 and 101 goals in 1965, and led the club to two World Club championships.

Pele also holds the world record for hat tricks (92) and the number of goals scored on the international level (97). His statistics are all the more amazing when compared to today's top players who can barely score more that 30 goals in a season.

He retired from the game in 1974 but came out of retirement the following year to play in the North America Soccer League for the New York Cosmos for just over two seasons. His appearance in the NASL gave the American league instant credibility and made millions of Americans aware of the sport, he dubbed the "beautiful game."

In many ways, Pele was the complete athlete. With his skill and agility, he could have played in any position on the field, but he chose on wearing the number-10 shirt as an inside-left forward. He had great balance, which enabled him to dribble effortlessly around defenders, and his heading ability was remarkable.

British writer Brian Glanville, who has covered every World Cup since 1950 wrote of Pele: "(He was) gymnastically agile and resilient, a tantalizing juggler of the ball. . . . above all, his temperament was extraordinary, his coolness in the thick of battle . . .uncanny."

Last month, Pele was asked who he would choose as his "Sportsman of the Century." Even the humble Pele took on Ali's posturing. "I have to stay with Pele, no doubt," he replied. "When someone has played for his country at 16, won a World Cup at 17 and scores more than 1000 goals, they deserve it. Until you find someone else who has done that then it must be me."

John Haydon is soccer columnist for the Washington Times and can be e-mailed at haydon@twtmail.com.

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