Will South Africa 2010 produce a new Pele?
Last Thursday was the 40th anniversary of Pele's 1,000th goal when he rolled a penalty past the Vasco da Gama keeper in his favourite stadium - the Maracana.
Subsequent research has revealed that the milestone had probably been reached a few matches earlier and the achievement is open to question anyway, as the numbers were inflated with goals scored in army matches and so on.
The point is, though, that Pele's greatness as a footballer cannot be reduced to grim statistical accumulation. He is remembered not for scoring over 1,000 goals, but for shining so brightly for so long at the highest level of the game.
Pele and the World Cup are synonymous. And it is a testament to his extraordinary quality as a player that I don't believe the tournament ever really saw the best of him.
Pele picks the ball out of the net after scoring against Vasco da Gama in November 1969
Pele's international career reads like the classic play in three acts. He emerges as a teenager, captures the hearts of fans everywhere and is recognised as the king of football. But then he has to put up with problems, especially when he is kicked out of the 1966 World Cup, and becomes disillusioned for a while.
But when it looks as if his time as a player might turn into something of an anti-climax, he comes roaring back at the hub of one of the world's favourite teams of all time.
His time in the Brazil shirt is book ended with the World Cup wins of 1958 and 70. But I would argue that the best bit could have come in the middle.
In Sweden in '58 he was full of contagious exuberance, but he was raw, and still looked like a scrawny kid. By Mexico '70 he could write the encyclopaedia of football backwards. He could improvise brilliant moves, but was also a master at picking the moment for the simple pass. But, perhaps in a response to the events of '66, he had bulked up, and was less mobile than he had been in the early sixties.
By his own account and that of most observers, his best ever display came in Lisbon for Santos against Benfica for the World Club Championship in October 1962. Wearing the number 10 shirt he made his own, he kept charging through the defence like a force of nature as his team beat the European champions 5-2.
The pity is that he was unable to do this for more than a single game a few months earlier in the World Cup in Chile. Of all his World Cup goals, my favourite is one which is little remembered, precisely because it came in that tournament.
In the opening match against Mexico he took on the entire defence and beat them all. It is a goal with everything; audacity and vision, acceleration and sustained pace, incredible power, balance, tight dribbling and two footed ability, the shot fired home off his left foot after most of the work had been done with his right, but in the next match he picked up an injury and played no further part in the tournament.
Pele was kicked out of the 1966 World Cup in England
Chile '62 could have been to Pele what Mexico '86 was to Diego Maradona. In 1982, Maradona was too green to cope with the expectations and the intimidation. By 1990, his body was already suffering from the prolonged battering handed it out to it by opponents on the field and his increasingly wayward lifestyle off it.
But in '86 he had it all. At the peak of his powers he was a footballing machine, a player capable of the most brilliant individual virtuosity who also understood how his talent fitted in the collective context.
I mention all this not only to dwell on things which give me pleasure, but mainly to put forward the view that Maradona's World Cup, Mexico 86, was the last truly great version of the tournament.
All the subsequent World Cups have thrown up intriguing narrative lines. But in terms of the spectacle on the field some have been mediocre - 94, 98 and 2006, for example - and the others have been poor.
Italia '90 is remembered fondly by England fans, but the largely defensive and petulant football is not remembered at all fondly by almost everyone else - and from a technical point of view, 2002 was a disaster. Held early to avoid the rainy season in Japan and South Korea, there was insufficient time for players to recover from the rigours of the newly extended European season.
Fifa have since taken steps to try and protect its premier competition. An early cut-off point for domestic football seeks to ensure that players have enough gas in the tank to put on a show in South Africa and the qualification process seems to have done Fifa a favour this time as it seems that almost all of the greats, and those who can legitimately aspire to greatness, will be present.
Increasingly, of course, the Champions League is where players have to perform consistently well to gain a reputation. But the World Cup is special. Its power of representation is unmatched by any other sporting event, as shown last week by reactions from Algeria to Uruguay. Appearing in the World Cup remains the highpoint of many a career, and shining in it can make a name for life.
I'm hoping that today's collection of top players can rise to the occasion in South Africa next year, whichever shirt they are wearing - so that in some 30 years time their exploits can be recounted as this article briefly did with Pele and Maradona. Football needs a great World Cup. It's been too long since the last one.
Comments on the piece in the space provided. Other questions on South American football firstname.lastname@example.org, and I'll pick out a couple for next week.
From last week's postbag:
Q) I keep an avid eye on how Brazil are faring. I always enjoy your take on things, but you, and all other journalists, seem to often neglect to mention Diego of Juventus. Why is Diego not playing? Is there perhaps an argument, such as Maradona with Riquelme; or maybe Dunga just doesn't appreciate him.
Carlos Eduardo is a good player, but if he can get a chance, as he did on Saturday, why can Diego, surely one of the best play makers in the world, not even get on the bench. I can certainly see a place for him in that role that Elano or Ramires plays.
A player who's close to my heart, I saw Diego's debut in the 2002 Brazilian Championship and was raving about him inside the first four minutes, and soon telling anyone who would listen that there was a Brazilian mini-Zidane on the way.
He made his international debut back in 2003, and I'm sorry to have to say it, but he's won 28 caps without doing very much. It's been a bits and pieces career - a game here, a substitute appearance there. But Brazil produce so many players that when the opportunity comes it has to be seized.
Dunga carried him round for a couple of years, Diego didn't do too much and so I can understand why he lost patience with him. I wrote a piece on another website last year suggesting that the Olympic tournament might be make or break for his international career, short term at least - unhappily he didn't do well and hasn't been back in since.
I continue to admire his talent - but I don't think he could perform the same function as Elano or Ramires. That's a mixed midfield job they do down the right - one of the key ideas is that they cover for the forward breaks of Maicon, and that's not Diego's game.
I do think the team need a Plan B, but the way things are going it's more likely that Ronaldinho will provide it. Diego's only 24, though, so time is still on his side.
Q) What do you think about the chances of Ronaldo making the Brazilian squad again?
A) This could be one of the stories to watch out for next year, as Romario versus Luiz Felipe Scolari was in 2002. At the moment Dunga doesn't need him - the strikers he's picking are full of goals - and it's questionable whether he wants him. Dunga took over on a team-over-stars ticket, a response to the failure of the big names in Germany '06, where some saw Ronaldo as a bad influence.
That was Ronaldo's team - the current one is led by Lucio and Kaka, meaning that the religious fanatics, with their rigour and sobriety, have replaced the bohemians. But Ronaldo has an excellent platform to make his case. Playing for Corinthians in the Copa Libertadores in their centenary year - if he keeps scoring then the media bandwagon will start rolling - and maybe with an injury or two to players in the current group the pressure for a recall will mount.