Ten Days that Shook the World is a book written by legendary journalist John Reed more than 100 years ago. It is a brilliant story of the Russian Revolution in 1917 and provides an intense and informative eyewitness account of one of the greatest events of the 20th century.

The book also describes how the reactionary forces across the world made every effort to scuttle the proletarian revolution and how bravely the Soviet Union survived the onslaught.

Well, the Soviet Union came out with their heads high on this occasion in the political arena. But many years later, in the sporting field (at the 1958 Fifa World Cup to be precise), Soviets found themselves at the receiving end of a blitzkrieg attack that floored them completely.

This attack on the Soviet defence on the football pitch lasted for only three minutes. In the opinion of many, so important were those three minutes in the history of world football that a book akin to Ten Days that Shook the World could have easily been written on it.

In those opening three minutes of the match, as Brazil tormented the Soviets, who were literally left crawling, the world was introduced to two youngsters – Pele and Garrincha – and like what the Bolsheviks did, the stunning duo changed the course of football. For ever. Pele soon established himself as the greatest man to have played the beautiful game.

Later, famous journalist Brian Glanville wrote in his book The Story of the World Cup: The Essential Companion to South Africa 2010: “Genius had overwhelmed mere effort.”

He went on to add, “From the opening minutes, Garrincha’s incomparable swerve and acceleration left his opponent Kuznetsov helpless. First he beat him to the wide, shot, and hit the left-hand post. Next Pele hit the right hand post. Finally, after three minutes, Didi emerged calmly and magisterially from a group of Russian opponents, and with an exquisite pass found Vava, who dashed through to score.”

The Pele era in world football began.

Complete footballer

Glanville further wrote: “Five feet eight inches tall, weighing some ten and half stone, superbly muscled, he was at this stage a goal-scorer par excellence, gymnastically agile and resilient, a tantalising juggler of the ball, a fine right-footed shot with the ability to climb and head like a Lawton. Above all, his temperament was extraordinary, his coolness in the thick of battle, the most tense and dramatic situations, uncanny.”

In these 66 words, the veteran British journalist made one thing clear – Pele possessed everything a footballer needs to have. He had astonishing all-round skills; he was far ahead of all others in every department – speed, heading, shooting, dribbling, juggling – name it and Pele was by far the best in the world.

But what exactly made Pele the greatest of all? Was it his legendary skills? Or his ability to dominate the world from the age of 17? Or because he remains the only footballer to win three World Cups? Perhaps none of them.

In 1977, Pele named his autobiography My Life and the Beautiful Game. The book’s dedication reads, “I dedicate this book to all the people who have made this great game the Beautiful Game.” The phrase has entered the language as a description for football. But to say Pele was rather humble in his writings won’t be an exaggeration.

Perhaps World Cup’s biggest hero

It can be said, even at the risk of being accused of trying to project a footballer bigger than the game, that it was Pele who largely helped to make football a beautiful game. His emergence in 1958 was instrumental in making football what it is today. In fact, without Pele, the World Cup wouldn’t have captured this pride of place in the sporting world.

The World Cup before 1958 was a tournament mainly followed by European and South American nations. It hardly stretched the imagination of the rest of the world, who still considered playing the Olympics the crowning glory. Even India, despite qualifying for the World Cup in 1950, let it go without bothering to turn up in Brazil. The All India Football Federation officials openly said they considered the Olympics far more important than the World Cup.

The outlook changed dramatically once Pele arrived on the scene. To the disadvantage of the Olympics, Pele, a professional footballer, never played there. Instead, he concentrated on the World Cup. It made a huge difference. The presence of the world’s biggest sporting icon enhanced the prestige of the World Cup and turned it into the undisputed number one tournament.

Pele became the symbol of the third world, their dream merchant, the person who pandered to develop their fantasies and deepest aspirations. He was the first footballer to earn a demigod status across the world; it helped football immensely to spread its wings faster and grab the number one spot while competing with other disciplines in the sporting arena most aggressively invaded by the corporate world.

Two epic goals

All these didn’t come easily – there was no vigorous publicity push involved in making Pele the darling of world football. All of it was all the result of sheer hard work – he had to win three World Cups to become what he became; scored some of the most astonishing goals ever seen and remained at the top of his ability and form for more than a dozen years at the highest stage. He worked hard, day in day out to reach a stage, where he could stay unmatched for many years to come.

Pele scored an amazing goal with his right foot in the 1958 World Cup final against hosts Sweden. Many described it as the best ever in the final. Twelve years apart, he struck another in the 1970 World Cup final against Italy, this time it was a header. It was yet another incredible strike that left the spectators in awe.

In the 1958 final, Pele scored the first of his two goals 10 minutes after the half time. Catching a high ball in the thick of the penalty box on his thigh, he hooked it over his head, whirled round and volleyed mightily past Sweden goalkeeper Kalle Svensson.

In the 1970 final, in the 18th minute of the match, Rivelino sent a rather unexceptional cross from the left, but Pele made it exceptional and rose above the Italian defence with a spectacular jump and headed in as powerfully as he had done in Stockholm.

In terms of consistency at the top tier, he is arguably the finest ever.

There will never be another like him

There were equally great players in world football even before Pele began playing football. And there was no dearth of quality footballers plying the trade when Pele was at the top of his career. If Stanley Matthews, Alfredo Di Stefano or Ferenc Puskas were the true legends before Pele burst onto the scene, then players like Eusebio, Bobby Charlton and a host of Pele’s own teammates were no less talented than anyone else at the world stage. Yet, none of them could attain the immortality of the Black Pearl; no one can boast of having so many myths generated surrounding their exploits on the playing field.

There is a tendency to mock the number of goals Pele scored in his career. The Fifa-recognised figure of 1,281 is often described as highly disputable. But then, even though the figure is being termed as inflated, some records say the Brazilian great had more than 700 goals against his name in official matches. How many footballers in the world have achieved that target?

The greatest thing about Pele was that he was always a big match footballer, who would rarely fail when his team needed him the most. Can anyone forget how his genius was laid bare against European Cup holders Benfica in the 1962 Intercontinental Cup in the return leg tie?

Having already scored twice in a 3-2 win at the Maracana, he lit up the Estadio da Luz in Santos’ 5-2 second-leg victory, scoring a hat-trick and overshadowing home hero Eusebio. Benfica goalkeeper Costa Pereira later said: “I arrived hoping to stop a great man. But I went away convinced I had been undone by someone who was not born on the same planet as the rest of us.”

All said and done, the gifted Brazilian will continue to be known as the greatest, the jewel in the crown of the beautiful game. There will never be another like him.

Also read:

Football: Brazilian legend Pele dies aged 82

Pele (1940-2022): A symbol for football played with passion, gusto and a smile

In photos: Pele’s life and times as a legendary footballer and icon off the field

‘King of football’: Tributes pour in for Brazilian icon Pele who died aged 82

Tributes for Pele from sporting fraternity: ‘A magician who mesmerized and inspired generations’