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'There won't be another player like Pele' - Brazil legend retired in 1977

Pele
Pele is carried off the pitch in his final game.

When Edson Arantes do Nascimento (otherwise known as Pele) finally retired on Oct. 1, 1977, he stood in the centre of the pitch in New Jersey, held his right hand aloft in a victory salute at the end of a short speech and said simply: "Love, love, love."

Having scored and played for both sides in a friendly between the only two teams he ever represented, New York Cosmos and Santos, the man considered by many to be the greatest player of all-time would not be seen in competitive action again.

In front of 75,000, the tearful Brazilian genius who had set the benchmark for all-round brilliance with three World Cups and an incredible 1281 goals in 1363 games, said goodbye to his fans as the heavens opened. The next day a Brazilian newspaper ran the headline: "Even the Sky Was Crying."

Today, 40 years on, his standards are still those against which the brightest stars are measured. Even 2017's man of the moment, PSG and Brazil winger Neymar, at €222 million the world's most expensive player, can only hope to become second best to Pele according to those who worked with the legend in his playing days.

"Neymar's got the qualities to reach the top: he has incredible skills and technique, he's strong, he's fast, he shoots well with both feet," Tostao, a teammate of Pele at the 1966 and 1970 World Cup finals, told ESPN FC. "He's also a complete player. Not as complete as Pele, but I believe he's got what he needs to be the No. 2 in the history of Brazilian football."

Carlos Alberto Parreira, who was Brazil technical director from 2012-2014, insisted the 25-year-old will improve from his already impressive but there is one player he won't outshine.

"PSG paid so much for Neymar but people will recognise very soon it was a cheap price," he told ESPN FC. "He is very competitive and very strong -- mentally and physically. When he did the tests for the World Cup in 2014, in power, acceleration, speed, Neymar was the best physically in the whole team.

"He's not a new Pele but he is a star for the Brazilian team. He is 25 and for sure he will play two more World Cups, and he could be at his best in 2018 and 2022."

The array of great players who have come out of Brazil since Pele has been dazzling. Even a conservative list of those from the South American country who have been heralded as "the new Pele" reaches double figures.

Neymar is one of many who has been dubbed the new Pele.

Think Zico, Muller, Dener, Romario, Rivaldo, Ronaldo, Ronaldinho, Robinho, Neymar and Gabriel Jesus as a minimum -- that group alone includes winners of the World Cup, Champions League, Ballon d'Or, many league titles and hundreds of Brazil caps. Flamengo's 17-year-old striker Vinicius Junior, just signed by Real Madrid for €45m, could be the next to join them.

If other nationalities are included, the list becomes endless. Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo are obvious examples but the pressure of comparison has also come to bear on players such as Arsenal's Jack Wilshere, or most recently, PSG's Kylian Mbappe.

"People look for the new Pele because it's a dream, a kind of ambition for any club or national team to have people like him," said Parreira, who worked as a fitness trainer with Pele's brilliant Brazilian World Cup-winning team in 1970 and managed the country to World Cup success in 1994.

"People in Argentina look for a new [Diego] Maradona, people in Germany look for a new Franz Beckenbauer, and in Brazil they look for a new Pele. You put your hopes so high, you are always looking to have someone like him. But I don't think you will again have a new Pele. It is so difficult to replace such huge talent."

Parreira is well qualified to judge; in several spells with the Brazil team, he worked with Romario, Ronaldo, Ronaldino, Robinho and Kaka.

"I worked so closely with Pele and I don't think there will be another player like him," he said. "You think about his intelligence, skills, technique, willingness to win, his personality, power, acceleration -- he was unbelievable and that's why he was the No. 1 in the world, the best player.

"The players who came afterwards have respected Pele. I don't remember Romario, Ronaldo or Ronaldinho trying to say they were as good or better than him. They didn't feel the pressure to compare themselves with Pele because they agreed he was a step above."

Brazil's
Pele's impact may never be repeated in the game.

Gordon Banks, the England goalkeeper whose famous 1970 World Cup save from a Pele header was dubbed the "save of the century" by some, told ESPN FC: "He was strong in everything he did: heading, shooting, passing, dribbling. He could do it all and was so fit, so quick to get past people and create a chance. No-one has stood out like him."

Judging and comparing players is subjective, of course, but in his 2006 autobiography Pele himself said all-round ability was key: "Who shoots best with their right foot, who shoots best with their left foot, who heads the ball best, who runs most and so on," he wrote.

The statistical capabilities that have emerged since he retired may be able to compare such things objectively in future; for the time being we are left with human judgement.

"He [Pele] was the most complete player in history," said Tostao. "If you think of the great qualities of other players, he had them all. He was fast, intelligent, very creative; he had immense physical strength, he could shoot well with his right and his left foot, he headed well, he was always on top of the game, very focused.

"If you think nowadays, Neymar has this [quality]; Ronaldo has that; Messi has something else. But Pele had all their qualities rolled into one player.

"Whenever there are discussions about who's the best, Romario, Cristiano Ronaldo, Messi, [Zinedine] Zidane ... it's always Pele who comes out on top."

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