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No doubting who is the greatest

The greatest footballer of all time? As far as I'm concerned, that's a no brainer.

While Lionel Messi stands head and shoulders above anyone else at the moment and is among the greatest footballing talents the world has ever seen, he doesn't make my number one spot.

Nor does Diego Maradona, a supremely gifted and exciting player - and the choice of many football experts as the greatest player who has ever graced the world stage.

It's Pele who has the distinction of greatest player of all time for me. Not just because of his sublime, magical talents as player, but for his role as a football ambassador. He has a god-like status that is unlikely to ever be matched.

I had the great pleasure to meet him, albeit briefly, when he attended the launch of the outstanding ASPIRE sports academy in Qatar.

I had always rated him as the greatest player of all time prior to that meeting. But it was his aura that elevated that status even further.

Cunning plan 

Approximately 100 journalists were gathered in a room at the ASPIRE academy for a Pele press conference. I was keen to grab a picture with the great man, but knew I needed a cunning plan to achieve my aim.

Anticipating a stampede of journalists at the end of the press conference, I picked out a spot in the room I'd need to get to - between the table he'd be sitting at and the exit door - to have the optimum opportunity to have my picture taken with him.

Karl Jeffs, a media photographer pal of mine, was sitting next to me in the press conference and I revealed my plan to him. He was kind enough to agree to take a snap of me with my idol if my mission proved successful.

Like some kind of elite military task force, as soon as the press conference reached its conclusion, Karl and I leapt into action. The predicted charge of journalists was so powerful that Pele was in danger of being crushed in the rush.

As usually sane-minded journalists waved their pictures of Pele in front of him in the hope they'd secure an autograph, I was already in stealth mode away from the crowd, waiting patiently for my opportunity.

Given the chance, it looked as though Pele would have satisfied every autograph hunter with his signature, but he was gently removed from the throng and made his way towards me.

Swamped by the media frenzy 

This was my big chance. My preparation had been perfect, as he walked straight towards me. I held my hand out and asked him if I could have a photo taken with him. He shook my hand and we turned towards Karl for the big photo opportunity. But Karl had been swamped by the media frenzy and all I could see was his camera poking out above some heads. I thanked Pele, and hoped for the best.

Paparazzi Karl had come up trumps and the picture you see is the result.

But that isn't the only reason why Pele is football's king for me. I was fortunate enough to meet Maradona at the same event, but it was Pele who commanded the greatest attention. Respect was the big factor - and as an ambassador for the game he is admired and loved like no other.

It wasn't all second best for Maradona at the ASPIRE launch though. I was lucky enough to put a question to both players during their respective press conferences and asked them both who they thought the greatest player of all time was.

Pele's response was suitably modest and diplomatic, but Maradona's made headlines. After a brief pause, he responded: "Well, my mother thinks it's me, and my mother is usually right." 

By Mark Roach 


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