Nobody disputes Pelé’s greatness but goal count fuels debate

Dec 28, 2022, 11:16 PM | Updated: Dec 29, 2022, 1:17 pm
FILE - Brazil's Pele scores past Venezuela's goal keeper Fabrizio Fasano in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil,...

FILE - Brazil's Pele scores past Venezuela's goal keeper Fabrizio Fasano in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Aug. 24, 1969. Pelé, the Brazilian king of soccer who won a record three World Cups and became one of the most commanding sports figures of the last century, died in Sao Paulo on Thursday, Dec. 29, 2022. He was 82. (AP Photo, File)

(AP Photo, File)

Nobody disputes Pelé’s greatness and his penchant for scoring. The exact number of goals in his career will forever be a topic for debate.

Pelé often said one of the reasons he should be considered the greatest player of all time was because of his feat of scoring more than 1,000 goals. But many dispute his count because Pelé included goals scored in friendlies or matches against semi-professional or even amateur teams.

Many of his goals came at a time when it wasn’t as easy to register match statistics, and not all of them were caught on tape. There is also a discrepancy in the total number of matches he played.

According to Pelé, he was the all-time leading scorer in the history of the sport with 1,283 goals in 1,366 matches. That would be an extraordinary 0.93 goals per game.


If only goals in official matches are tallied, Pelé ‘s mark was considerably lower no matter the source, standing at fewer than 800 goals. That would leave him behind Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi, Romário and Josef Bican, who played before Pelé’s time.

Pelé scored a total of 95 goals with Brazil’s national team, but 18 of those goals came against clubs or combined squads in games which usually are not included in official statistics.

Another 34 goals were scored in friendlies against other national teams.


Pelé played in nearly 550 unofficial matches, in part because his Brazilian club Santos made a fortune by playing exhibition matches and touring with the soccer great around the world.

Some of the lists of Pelé’s goals include friendlies and exhibition games against low-level opponents. He scored against under-23 national teams, combined squads, regional teams and even in some military events while he served in the Brazilian army.

Among his opponents were Saudi Arabia’s under-23 national team, Uruguay’s armed forces club and Rio de Janeiro’s athletes’ union. In total, it’s believed that more than 500 of Pelé’s goals came in unofficial matches.

Argentina great Diego Maradona was among those taking shots at Pelé for his controversial goal count.

“Who did you score them against?” Maradona asked in an interview with Pelé in a television program years ago. “Your nephews in the backyard?”


Guinness World Records credits Pelé with 1,279 goals in 1,363 matches. It says he added more goals in “special appearances” after ending his career, but doesn’t specify them.

Pelé played a few celebratory matches after officially retiring in 1977. In his farewell match that year, he played one half with Santos and another with Cosmos, his last club.


The governing body of soccer gives Pelé 1,281 goals in 1,363 matches, two goals more than Guinness in the same number of matches. The reason for the discrepancy is not clear, as neither entity provides a full list of Pelé’s goals and matches.

FIFA adds that Pelé scored more than 100 goals in a season twice, in 1959 (127 goals) and in 1961 (110 goals).


Santos also says Pelé scored 1,281 goals, but in 1,365 matches. It says 1,091 of those goals were scored while he played for the Brazilian club. Santos says he also broke the 100-goal mark in 1965, with 106 goals.


Even the statistics site RSSSF, arguably the most accurate source for soccer stats, credits Pelé with different goal totals.

RSSSF lists Pelé with 1,284 goals from 1,375 matches, limiting his total in official matches to 769 goals.

The site says Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo tops the list of goal-scorers in official matches, followed by Argentina star Lionel Messi.


When considering goals in unofficial matches, Pelé is not the only player to have scored more than 1,000 times.

Bican, who played for both Austria and the Czech Republic, tops some of the lists with more than 1,400 goals, followed by Brazilian striker Arthur Friedenreich.

Guinness mentions Friedenreich, who played in the early 1900s, saying he “scored an undocumented 1,329 goals” in his 26-year career.


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Nobody disputes Pelé’s greatness but goal count fuels debate