Long before the ‘CR7 versus Messi’, there was the ‘Pele versus Maradona’ debate. The latter argument still lingers, though it has been somewhat muted in recent times, given how media pundits are swayed by recent exploits. And yet, close to the turn of the new century, this was the one thing which divided footballing fans across the world.
Last month, incidentally the tenth of the year, had both men crossing major chronological milestones; Pele turned 80 and Maradona found himself 20 years adrift of his celebrated rival. Since both were famed for popularizing the number 10 jersey in sport, it is perhaps an opportune moment to rewind the clock, and revisit their tales. For these two men simply tower above the rest when it comes to the beautiful game.
Pele perhaps was the shining diamond amongst a glittering array of stunning talent. To use a cricketing analogy featuring the West Indies -- once considered the ‘Brazilians of cricket’ -- he was a bit like Vivian Richards in the all-conquering calypso sides from the seventies and the eighties. While winning was second nature and almost inevitable, to stand apart among such brilliance speaks volumes in itself. And Pele did just that. Even in that rampaging, wonderfully-skilled Brazilian side of 1970, Pele was the fulcrum of all attention, the orchestrator of the greatest choir ever assembled, and he created a footballing symphony the likes of which had never been seen. Particularly memorable at that tournament was his attempt to chip the keeper from the half line, his unforgettable dummy that sold the Uruguayan keeper completely the wrong way, and the manner in which he played the ball off the English captain Bobby Moore’s shins regularly, took it on the rebound, and went on his merry ways.
Maradona always had to carry the sides he was in. He was the brilliant engine of a young, inexperienced Argentine side that won the World Cup in 86, and over many years the driving force behind Napoli which rose magnificently in the Italian league to win two titles during his stint. His exploits in Mexico 86 are the stuff of footballing folklore. Right from his magical, mazy dribbling runs across the pitch, to the manner in which he set up his team mates, his ceaseless scrapping for the ball (something you see very few superstars do today). And of course ‘that’ goal against England, where he seemed to take it upon himself to offer a retort to the English about the Falklands War. To come back to the cricketing analogy, he was more like Brian Lara in the nineties and in the first decade of the 21st century; often waging a lone battle in the face of great odds.
So who was the greater player?
In a team sport like football it is very difficult to really put a finger on individual contributions in triumphs. This problem is compounded by the fact that these two gentlemen played in two different eras, across which the game had changed significantly and dramatically.
But why must one always pick a winner?
FIFA itself could not, awarding both men (rather controversially) the title of the ‘Player of the 20th century’. Maybe that was a fair decision in hindsight.
In fact, rather than celebrate their differences and edges over each other, I would like to highlight their similarities. Both were the quintessential ‘rags to riches’ stories, which inspired millions to follow in their path, of football offering the way to salvation. Both had the uncanny knack of producing moments on the pitch which defied the coaching manual and conventional logic.
Both showed how the passion and flair of Latin America was a priceless addition to the game. Both also knew that at the core, football was a true team sport, highlighted in Pele’s nonchalant layoff for Carlos Alberto’s howitzer of a Mundial final goal, and Maradona’s deliciously weighted through ball to Burruchaga for the winning goal in the 86 World Cup final; eventually, both passes rendered in the sunshine of Mexico 16 years apart.
Both deserve to be thanked for the countless moments of joy they gave all of us, and for those memories we shall forever cherish.