Los Angeles: Pele is widely recognised as the greatest football player of all time. And he developed his unparalleled skills playing against other shoeless kids on the dirt streets of Brazil with a ball made from old socks and newspapers.
But now Pele says the best grass-roots football programmes in the world are not in Brazil, but in the US, where he is on tour publicising his new book “Why Soccer Matters”.
“People should be careful,” Pele warned in a short phone interview. “Because I think here in the United States today, they play more soccer than they play in Brazil. It’s important the American kids know that. We don’t have the same support [that] they have in college, university.
“Soccer is becoming very, very big in the United States. The base, with the kids, is more organised than Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay. No doubt.”
US Youth Soccer say that more than 3 million kids are registered with US Youth Soccer-affiliated teams — and that doesn’t included the millions more who are playing in high school, college and AYSO programmes. And nearly half the players on US Youth football teams are girls.
“In the base, in the college, in the women, you already passed Brazil,” Pele said. “The women in the United States play better than Brazil.”
As for the World Cup, which will be played in Brazil this summer, Pele said it’s time to focus on the sport and not the construction delays and political corruption that has left organisers unsure all 12 tournament venues will be completed in time for the first game June 12.
“The World Cup will be fantastic,” he said. “The reality is there was a big problem to construct some stadiums. But the issue was not only with Brazil. In every country who had a World Cup — Korea was the same, [South] Africa was the same, Europe was the same. The only World Cup that was fantastic with every single game, was the best organized, was in the United States.
“The problem with the stadiums was not with the players, was not with the teams. That was political corruption. We must pay attention with the money, the public money. They stole, they made a lot of bad things. But we have to protect the football. The players don’t have nothing to do with this.”
As for who has assumed his role as the world’s best player, Pele said there are a number of candidates.
“At the moment we have Cristiano Ronaldo, [who] is the best scorer. Zlatan Ibrahimovic is another good player. [Lionel] Messi, of course. In Brazil we have Neymar.”
Asked if any were as good as he was, Pele answered more matter-of-factly then boastfully.
“Better than me?” he repeated. “No.”