It seems odd looking back now, but Pelé’s 50th birthday was marked with a star-studded Pelé exhibition match televised live around the world.

Before kick-off a giant Pelé cake was wheeled out at San Siro, on top of which Pelé himself appeared, waving and punching the air in priestly white Pelé-robes, while a massed Pelé-choir sang Happy Birthday Dear Pelé. The Pelé Supremacy filled the skies. And that moment the Pelé-shaped universe was a complete and coherent entity.

Have you noticed I’m saying Pelé a lot? There is a concept in psychology called semantic satiation, which describes hearing a word so many times it loses any meaning.

In the 1960s intense brown-suited social scientists would run experiments where people said the word “window” hundreds of times, recording how long it took before they started to doubt “window” was a word at all, or that windows actually existed.

On some basic level, this is what has happened to Pelé. How many times have you heard that combination of sounds? What does it conjure now? A gold shirt. A haircut. Sun-bleached Mexican grass. A way of running. A man in a white suit waving at people inside a baseball stadium.

Over time that Pelé persona has become fixed, an exhibit in the increasingly distant museum of 20th-century pop iconography – Ronald McDonald, Darth Vader, the Empire State Building, Pelé.

Pelé was even voted the most famous person in the world in 1970. In a great twist he ended up hanging out with Andy Warhol, the laureate of fame-based inanity, who must have loved Pelé’s opaque, irony-free sense of his own status. The arch piss-taker, Warhol predicted Pelé would have “15 centuries” of fame (“I’m breaking my usual rule”).

True to form Pelé was duly in the news again this week, albeit in a way that inspires some protective feelings. In Christmas week Lionel Messi scored his 644th goal for Barcelona – a total that, it is claimed, surpasses Pelé’s previous record tally for Santos.

Pelé, pictured against Bulgaria at the 1966 World Cup, moved as if running through a different kind of air.

Pelé, pictured against Bulgaria at the 1966 World Cup, moved as if running through a different kind of air. Photograph: Art Rickerby/The Life Picture Collection/Getty Images

But wait! Five days later Santos hit back. Cancel the giant cake – in the opinion of Santos, Pelé’s total stands at 1,091, adjusted to include goals scored in one-off games during the tours of the 1960s.

It is of course unsurprising this has become an object of dispute. The Pelé industrial complex has a multimillion-dollar turnover. Big Pelé will always protect its interests.

On the other hand, for those young enough to have no stake in this cobwebbed old JFK, football’s own Best of the Beatles, there is a natural urge to swish these grandees out of the way, to take your own stake in history. Being cheeked by Messi fans on the internet is probably a fitting end for all our heroes. Kings, pharaohs, Fifa icons. In the end we’re all just a meme.

There is something else here, though. The fear is that Pelé will be unduly downgraded, that a “culture war” dynamic must intrude, and something valuable gets lost in the process.

There was a tremor of this when Diego Maradona died in November. Because two things can’t both be good, because we loved Maradona for his rebel heart, there was some reflex snark at Pelé – an unconnected figure, but the most convenient point of comparison in the zero-sum morality game; and an easy target for his corporate persona, his buddying up to Fifa.

Maradona played up to this in his lifetime, mocking Pelé as a boss’s man and accusing him of not glorifying football. For all his brilliance it is also important to remember Maradona talked a lot of shit. Pelé didn’t dope, cheat, shoot people or hang out with murderers. So there is always that when it comes to the glorifying side.

Mocking Pelé’s goal record, suggesting his success was some kind of boomer conspiracy is a funnier version of this. But there are a couple of things that deserve to survive the process.

First, for all the corporate schmaltz, the actual Pelé is a true wildflower, and a genuinely revolutionary figure. Comparisons are usually pointless, but they can also be interesting. Next to Pelé, Messi and his generation are hothouse blooms, processed through a world where every surface, every moment in time is managed and regulated.

Lionel Messi is a supernatural talent fully realised. He’s a true sporting genius. But the fact remains, there has never been a better time to be a genius at football. The conditions are perfect, the temperature just right. Messi was, in many ways, inevitable.

Whereas Pelé did not have to exist. He was born as Brazilian sport was still struggling to overcome the colour bar. He played barefoot. He worked as a shoe-shiner and a vendor of stolen peanuts.

With nothing but talent to guide him, the boy from Minas Gerais became the first black global sporting superstar, and a source of genuine uplift and inspiration. Pelé won the World Cup aged 17, moving like someone from the future, seeing different things, running through a different kind of air.

The idea he did this while somehow having it easy compared to the captive princelings of modern elite-tier football is just silly. But it is also self-defeating. The fact remains those Santos friendlies were what much of the Champions League is now, a treadmill, a way of monetising talent by showing it to the world.

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Is it harder to score a hat-trick against Atlético Madrid in a tour game in 1966, or against Viktoria Plzen in a hometown semi-dead rubber in 2011? Who knows. But they both definitely involve scoring a hat-trick.

What is certain is that Pelé invented this game, the idea of individual global sporting superstardom, and in a way that is unrepeatable now. Forget the giant cakes, the solid silver sombreros, the urge to sweep these icons aside. That part of him, core Pelé, is a gift to all of us. It will remain untouchable.