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Pele still defending his territory

Who is the greatest player of all time? Diego Maradona certainly has a claim. He hit extraordinary heights in the 1986 World Cup. Fellow Argentine Alfredo Di Stefano is another strong candidate -- one of the last products of his country's golden age in the 1940s. Di Stefano helped get professional soccer in Colombia off the ground before moving to Spain, where he spearheaded a Real Madrid team so exceptional that it ensured the success of the newly launched European Cup.

But the name most commonly cited is Brazil's Pele, who turns 70 on Saturday.

Watching Pele at his finest, it is hard to believe there could be a more complete soccer machine. By his own account, his best performance came at Benfica of Portugal in October 1962. These were the days when the champions of Europe and South America met home and away to decide the world club championship. In Brazil, Pele's Santos team won 3-2. The Portuguese were confident of overturning the margin in Lisbon -- until Pele ran roughshod and Santos won 5-2. In this most magnificent display of his art, Pele showed all of the attributes -- all-around technical excellence, pace, power, athleticism, vision, intelligence, coolness under pressure -- that he displayed in a career that ran from 1956-77.

Some, the present writer among them, would argue that the debate about the greatest of all time is a sterile one, inclined to end up in infantile nationalism, and that, essentially, it is a case of two bald men fighting over a comb. Comparisons across time are difficult, if not impossible, and anyway, the point is to enjoy the greatness of these players rather than argue about it.

Pele himself is unlikely to see it that way. He is still fighting his corner more than three decades after retiring, jabbing away at Maradona and casting an acerbic gaze over anyone who seems to threaten his place at the top.

Leading up to the 2006 World Cup, the Brazilian media was full of forecasts that in the course of the tournament Ronaldinho would prove himself at least as great as Pele. History now laughs at such predictions. After the disappointing opening game against Croatia, Pele could hardly wait to tell the press that he thought Ronaldinho had been one of the worst players on the pitch. Pele will go to his grave an ardent defender of his own prestige -- as well he might. His journey from provincial poverty to election as king of the global game was the result of much more than luck and talent.

To this day, so long after his retirement, Pele is one of the most recognizable faces on the planet. This is the result not only of his wonderful career but also of his skills as an advertising symbol. Pele earns a fortune -- and provides value for the money -- creating an image of the always happy, always smiling representative of the world's most popular sport. But -- and it could hardly be otherwise -- the human being behind the smile is surely a more complex, more driven, more interesting character.

Pele was born in 1940 in a country that had abolished slavery only some 52 years earlier. More significant for his chances in life, soccer turned professional in Brazil in the '30s, creating opportunity for a lucky few to dribble around their destiny with their sporting prowess. Pele's father was one such aspirant. Known as Dondinho, he was by all accounts highly talented -- but he suffered a knee injury that stopped his career from getting off the ground.

"During the periods when my dad was sidelined from football through injury," Pele wrote in his autobiography, "the family really struggled. [My siblings] and I were always barefoot and wore only castoff clothes. The house was small and overcrowded with a leaky roof.

"With no regular source of income, I remember that on several occasions the only meal my mum had for us was bread with a slice of banana. We never went without food -- like many people worse off than us in Brazil -- but for my mother it was a life governed by fear, a fear of not being able to provide. And one of the things I have learned is that fear of life is fear of the worst kind."

These are words straight from the soul -- the key to his life. After his father's experience, his mother was determined that her son would not seek his future in the game. It was too insecure, as one bad tackle could leave a player on the scrap heap.

Only after overcoming fierce maternal resistance was Pele permitted to attempt to make the game his career. But it seems fair to conclude that her fears never left him. Indeed, they became an integral part of his success. He transformed fear into a massive motivational force. He would make sure the gamble paid off by extracting every last drop of talent, working at his game and ensuring that he was in top physical condition.

Such singleness of purpose can be difficult to live with, especially in a collective sport. All of Pele's former teammates acknowledge his greatness as a player. Not all of them are so keen on the man. Just over a decade ago during his time as Brazil's sports minister, Pele confessed that at the peak of his playing powers he had not done all he might have to help other players. He was, one assumes, too wrapped up in his own objectives, and his own fears.

Giving up the game does not mean giving up the motivational forces that made him such an extraordinary player. His choice of business partners has not always been sound, leaving an impression that even today he does not find it easy to feel financially secure. Meanwhile, the fight to be regarded as the best still goes on as Pele always seems afraid that someone might steal his crown. I worry sometimes that he might take this debate too seriously, that too much of his self-worth might be wrapped up in people thinking of him as No. 1 -- a tricky terrain to fight on, because the number of people who saw him first hand is inevitably falling.

More than anything, someone who gave so much pleasure to so many for so long deserves to have peace of mind. I hope that, at 70, Pele has it in abundance.

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