Pele’s greatness is not in question; but bring up his goal record and it opens all manner of debate, controversy, disagreements — and often sarcastic comments, like “How many goals will Pele score today?” It’s the typical joke that spread across social media after Santos disputed the suggestion Lionel Messi had become the highest scorer for a single club in men’s football history.
When Messi scored his 643rd goal for Barcelona in a 2-2 draw vs. Valencia on Dec. 12, Pele was among the first high-profile names to send his congratulations on the Argentina captain’s “beautiful career.” The goal meant he had equalled the incredible haul attributed to Pele at Santos.
When Messi hit number 644 (and many more since), more tributes from around the world poured in to hail Messi’s career at Camp Nou. Except Santos then questioned whether 644 really was the most scored at a single club, adding the claim regularly mocked by modern football fans that Pele had, in fact, scored over 1,000 goals for the Sao Paulo-based side, insisting that the exhibition matches in which many of his goals came deserve recognition.
Football’s elite scoffed, too: “are they also counting goals he scored in his back garden?”
But what if Santos actually have a point?
“South America was football’s dominant force in the 1960s and 1970s,” Santos historian Odir Cunha explained to ESPN. “As Europe was going through a rebirth following World War II, football lovers wanted to see the best players in the world in action — primary among those was Pele’s Santos.”
Before continental competitions were introduced, it was common for big teams to tour other countries. Were they treated as mere friendlies at the time?
“European clubs gave these encounters great importance and there is a lot of evidence for this,” Odir said. “In 1961, having been unbeaten in 16 consecutive matches in Europe, Santos lost the last match of their tour to Greek side Olympiakos 2-1. This victory was so important to the hosts that is written into the club’s official anthem.
“How can a mere “friendly” hold such resonance? It was far more important than some official matches.”
Pele is attributed 643 “official” goals for Santos; his career total is also debated, with FIFA’s own calculation standing at 767. However, for many in his homeland and for those who saw him play, his haul is far greater.
“Pele scored 1,091 goals for Santos and 1,282 in his entire career,” Odir says. “Of these, 448 were scored in what would be considered friendlies and international friendly tournaments.
“More than half of those were of more importance to Santos, their opponents and to world football than many of the goals he scored in “official games.'”
The so-called “friendlies” in which Pele scored nearly 500 goals left an indelible mark and shaped the history of some of the greatest sides in world football. It was an era before the Copa Libertadores in South America and still the infancy of the European Cup — both of which were tournaments reservedly for league winners.
“In 1959, during their first European tour, Santos played Real Madrid at the Santiago Bernabeu in front of 70,000 fans,” Odir recounts. “The hosts had won three consecutive European Cups but when they prepared to face Santos, they requested the services of striker Gainza on loan from Atletico Madrid. Local journalists declared this the ‘Match Of The Century.’
“Weary, having played eight matches in two weeks [against the likes of Feyenoord, Inter Milan and Hamburg], Santos lost 5-3. Real Madrid declared they never again wanted to face Santos again and even pulled out of the Buenos Aires Trophy tournament in 1965 to avoid a rematch. This was of great disappointment to Santos, who won that particular tournament. Santos goalkeeper Gylmar dos Santos Neves said at the time: ‘We wanted to hammer them, but inexplicably, they didn’t want to take part. They were afraid of losing badly.’
“In 1963, Santos played Barcelona in front of 90,000 fans at Camp Nou and were defeated 2-0.” Barca even ran a story on the club website on the 50th anniversary of the “friendly.”
Until 1959, Santos’ only official matches were the state championships in Brazil. The only way teams from different countries met was during summer exhibition matches and travelling abroad. At a time when every match wasn’t live on television, clubs were representing more than the shirts on their backs.
“We would always be desperate to win,” Pepe, a former teammate of Pele at Santos, explained to ESPN. “Every game we played at the time was massive because we were all representing our country as a whole.
“The tournaments [against big European clubs] were very important. We knew how difficult it would be to beat these big teams, especially away from home. We’d play French and Italian teams [that had] seven or eight players from their national teams [in the lineup]. So we knew we had a responsibility to people back home in Brazil.”
In an era long before the internet, when information about rivals teams from other countries was often scarce, friendlies represented the only way to learn and to adapt.
“Club friendlies, especially tours, provided an important way of learning about different football cultures and style of play,” Dr. Jackson added. “While international games were seen as the pinnacle of international contests, club games were often interpreted in the same way, and were used in discussions about the merits of football in the host country and that of their opponents.”
England benefited greatly from Santos’ tours in the 1960s and 1970s, and his presence was natural headline news. In 1962, when Pele and Santos beat Sheffield Wednesday 4-2 in front of 50,000 fans, one outlet wrote: “When one considers the number of superlatives that are squandered on some inside-forwards in this country, the futility of trying to find new ones to describe Pelé becomes all the more obvious.” Another claimed: “It is true what they say about Pele,” adding: “Pele toys with our ‘top 10’ team” as part of a two-page spread.
This level of interest was also found across Europe. “In 1961, Santos were the only foreign team invited to a tournament to celebrate the 100-year anniversary of Italy’s unification,” Odir explained.
“In front of 60,000 people, they beat Juventus 2-0 in Turin. Three days later, Roma were beaten 5-0 at the Stadio Olimpico, with 80,000 fans in attendance, and three days later, Inter Milan were put to the sword 4-1 with 110,000 people watching. Pele scored four goals across these matches. Inter would go on to become one of Europe’s best sides, winning back-to-back European Cups just three years later — Pele would score a total of 11 goals against them in their meetings, with one match finishing 7-1 in favour of the Brazilian side.”
“Just three days after their 7-1 win over Inter, Santos beat Barca 5-1 at Camp Nou,” Odir explained. “The following year, they went to Germany to celebrate 1860 Munich’s centenary and won 9-1 with Pele scoring three times.”
In an era for the sport where the value of friendlies was far bigger than today, the media’s interpretation of a friendly would even help inspire the creation of the European Cup in 1956.
“A 3-2 win for Wolves over Honved in 1954 is hailed by the English press, who called them the world club champions,” Dr. Jackson clarified. “Honved played a great many friendlies and contained a number of the Hungarian players who played in 1953. It lead to the creation of the European cup by Gabriel Honet, who was unimpressed by the claims of the English press.”
Throughout the debate over goal tallies and records, Santos’ greatness is not in question; nor is their superiority over their European counterparts at the time. Pele’s genius is also unchallenged; the question is whether the goals scored in these matches should count towards his total. It’s true that while these were officially terms as “exhibition matches,” the legacy and importance of these contests is far greater.
Santos and Pele’s goals played a huge part in catapulting the creation of what’s now the Champions League, as well as helping vault many of Europe’s top teams into the global powers they are now. Isn’t only fair these games are given a little more recognition?
Pele is the only player to win three World Cups and his place in football history is unquestionable, but his goal scoring legend deserves more respect.