Jackson Mayanja can have a laugh, but here is why Pelé is the greatest


What you need to know:

The demonstration of the uniqueness of the colossus who was born Edson Arantes do Nascimento on October 23, 1940, can be glimpsed and captured in a great many ways—not least his three World Cup titles. 

One of the most deliciously strange and all-consuming experiences I’ve had wearing the hat of a TV sports pundit was when I sat on the same panel with Jackson Mayanja.

The stimulating contribution we were expected to make to the national conversation as the stars winked faintly through a pewter sky that Monday night sounded simple enough, if a little divisive. 

The question harmlessly posed was indeed a perilous one: Who, the show's host—Andrew Kabuura—had asked us, is Uganda's football GOAT (greatest of all time)? Your columnist considers himself lucky to have watched Mayanja; albeit in the evening of his illustrious career. 

Now while the 'evening of a career’ phrase translates into many mortals being ominously out of his depth, for Mayanja it was equivalent to an Indian summer. He struck me as a staggeringly clever player when I first watched him toy with Deo Sserwadda en route to scoring a peach of a leveller during a 1997 league game between KCC and SC Villa.

I watched him once more showcase his timeless power that season as KCC built slowly and thrillingly to rescue a draw against AFC Leopards in a continental encounter behind his brace at Nakivubo. Being the flawed genius that he was, Jackie—as Mayanja was sometimes referred to—got himself sent off during the return leg in Nairobi. 

Listening to a live commentary on radio of the match KCC would go on to edge 1-0 in Nairobi, many fans were in equal parts amused, intrigued and depressed. But that’s what you got with Mayanja—a bit of both worlds. By the time he played his last international match against Tunisia in 1999, Jackie was rapidly running out of shelf life. The manner in which he begged to be subbed off after a listless display is still upsettingly awkward, two decades on.

Back to that Monday night on NTV Uganda’s premier sports show, Jackie was flabbergasted when your columnist revealed Jimmy Kirunda as his GOAT. He had found the veneer of decorum—and to a certain degree, civility—increasingly hard to maintain after Phillip Omondi came in at No.2 ahead of Ibra Sekagya. How, he asked with a moody resonance, can you name players you never saw live in action!

Africa's strong oral tradition, I opined, devotes closer attention to passed down accounts of events. Having sat in the same newsroom with veteran sports journalist Hassan Badru Zziwa at both Daily Monitor and The Observer, I feel like I know players from previous generations like the back of my hand. That’s how detailed the anecdotes that roll off Zziwa’s tongue can be.

The same can be said about how I came to have a lawyerly command of Brazil legend Pelé and his feats that—it must be admitted—were so sweeping in scope. Readers of this column know how I share the fallen Brazilian icon’s obsession.

The predecessor of this dispatch went to great lengths to underscore just why the Brazilian virtuoso who scored 1,281 goals in 1,363 games is universally recognised as one of the beautiful game’s greatest players. If the dispatch in question read like a eulogy, it was because—since learning in late November that he was receiving end-of-life care—Pelé’s death had a troubling inevitability.

The demonstration of the uniqueness of the colossus who was born Edson Arantes do Nascimento on October 23, 1940, can be glimpsed and captured in a great many ways—not least his three World Cup titles. 

If I were to figure on a panel with Jackie and asked to list my top four players of all time (Jackie and Magid Musisi would have placed joint fourth had Kabuura asked for a top four), Pelé would easily come top of the pile. Jackie would be more than welcome to laugh at yours truly… dismissively.

The truth, though, is that the portrait that has managed to be sketched from different accounts (oral, written and taped) eclipses what I saw Diego Maradona (in the evening of his career),  Leo Messi and Zinedine Zidane muster on the pitch.
Rest well, Pelé.