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Saturday Sports: What Pelé meant to soccer

ALINA SELYUKH, HOST:

And now it's time for sports.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SELYUKH: It's the biggest Saturday in college football. Skier Mikaela Shiffrin makes a remarkable comeback. And we remember soccer legend Pele. NPR's Tom Goldman joins us now to talk about all of this. Good morning, Tom.

TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: Hi, Alina. Happy New Year.

SELYUKH: Happy New Year. So let's start with Pele. The iconic Brazilian football player died on Thursday from cancer. He was 82, arguably the best player of all time. What made him so great?

GOLDMAN: Prodigious scoring ability, an artful passer of the ball. He was only 5'8, but he had this incredible strength and balance with defenders hanging all over him. His explosive speed, his creativity, dribbling skills, all the while maintaining this awareness of where everyone was on the pitch - sounds a lot like some of today's best players, except Pele was doing all this 60, 65 years ago as a 17 year old. That's when he first exploded on the world stage at the 1958 World Cup. Seventeen years old, and at that time, he was so far ahead of everyone else on the field. Now, Alina, his legend and mythology grew by word of mouth as well, because earlier in his career, it wasn't easy to see him play. There weren't a zillion sports channels to watch. It really wasn't until the 1970 World Cup - that was the first broadcast in color - that the world got this full view, and he and Brazil dazzled on their way to the title, and that really helped lock in his legacy.

SELYUKH: And many still call Pele the best ever, though this argument seems not as easy to settle now, given that Lionel Messi just won the World Cup this year, which was the only trophy he was missing, right?

GOLDMAN: Yeah, right. And thank you for reminding me, but I owe an apology to Mr. Messi for doubting his and Argentina's chances against France in the final. I took France two weeks ago. But, you know, the best-ever argument is really subjective, impossible to say definitively. I think we ultimately have to be OK with saying Pele was amazing. Maradona was amazing. Messi is amazing. And Kylian Mbappe, too, of France - still only 24, someone who could very well be relevant for another three World Cups.

SELYUKH: Very long list of legends. What a time to be alive. OK, let's switch over to American football now. The college football playoffs - TCU versus Michigan, Ohio State versus Georgia - both semifinal games will be played later today. What are you watching for, Tom?

GOLDMAN: You know, interesting matchups - TCU, Texas Christian, the non-blueblood in this quartet - it's finally getting a shot it believes it deserved nine years ago in the first college football playoff, when it was left out at the last minute - a tough matchup today for TCU against undefeated and favored Michigan. Georgia is the behemoth of the group. After winning last season's title, it lost a record 15 players to the NFL draft, but Georgia reloaded, now has a good shot to be the first back-to-back champion in that nine-year history of the College Football Playoff. Georgia has a great defense again, but it will be tested today by a top-notch Ohio State offense, which averaged nearly 45 points a game this season.

SELYUKH: OK, finally, what a year for skier Mikaela Shiffrin. She did not start off on the right track, but she closes it in style. What did you make of this comeback?

GOLDMAN: Yeah. You know, back in February at the Beijing Olympics, she had that memorable flameout.

SELYUKH: Yes.

GOLDMAN: She was supposed to win multiple medals. She ended up crashing out and not even finishing several races. But she dealt with that disappointment on a world stage with humor and grace. And perhaps she's being rewarded now at the end of 2022. She's won four straight races. This week, she won her 50th career slalom race. She's the first Alpine racer, man or woman, to win 50 in one discipline. And it was her 80th overall World Cup win, putting her just two behind the record for women skiers, held by fellow American Lindsey Vonn. So Mikaela Shiffrin ending 2022 on a high note - it's nice to see.

SELYUKH: A little shocking to remember that this year began with an Olympics, but here we are.

That's NPR's Tom Goldman. Thank you, Tom.

GOLDMAN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tom Goldman is NPR's sports correspondent. His reports can be heard throughout NPR's news programming, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered, and on NPR.org.