Tonight, Diego Maradona makes his bow as Argentina manager as his new charges take on Scotland at Hampden Park. This momentous occasion gives us a wonderful chance to tackle one of football’s greatest debates, to wit: Who is the greatest footballer of all time – Maradona or Pelé? Since I’ve already definitively dealt with the club versus country question, I’ve decided to have a go at this one too.
So here goes: the answer is “Pelé”. Duh.
However, I realise that, even though the answer is obvious to all but those so slack-jawed that were the rivulets of saliva which trickle from their mouths to converge, the resulting torrent would wipe out a small-to-medium port town on the Chinese coast, it is the custom to back up such an assertion with some evidence. Frankly, one could write volumes on this matter, but I shall pare down my argument (if you could call such an evidently open-and-shut case as this an “argument”) to a few paragraphs.
The litany of Maradona’s egregiousness is startling: the diving, the failed dope test at the 1994 World Cup, the cocaine addiction, the sheer greed which saw him eat his way through the entire 1990s, etc., et-bloody-cetera. But top of the list is what the man himself outrageously referred to as the “Hand of God”, when he punched the ball past England ‘keeper Peter Shilton and into the net in the 1986 World Cup quarter-final. Plenty has been said about this in the two-and-a-bit decades since. Suffice to add, when you consider that the English gave the great game of footie to the nation of the ungrateful little arseboil, and that England is, was and ever shall be synonymous with Fair Play, is it any wonder England fans bear a grudge?
The “H*nd of God” could be entered not just as Exhibit A in the case against Maradona, but as Exhibit every-other-letter-of-the-alphabet, so heinous was it. But let’s apply some rigour to this. Let’s look at the things for which he is most famous. On the one hand, there is his second goal against England, which – to be fair – was very good. On the other, there is the “H*nd of G*d”, the Crazy-Eyes-Killa routine at USA ’94, the cocaine, the morbid obesity and the massive heart attack. In summary, that’s one positive and five negatives, which makes a Class Rating of -4. That’s not my opinion – that’s Statistics.
Some may complain that it is unfair to hold someone up to an impossible moral standard just because they are gifted. To which I reply: no-one made Maradona play football. If he didn’t want the scrutiny, he should have become a shoeshine boy or a drug dealer like his squalid friends doubtless did.
Pelé had no problem dealing with the burden of talent. In fact, he thrived. Here was a footballer who was a genuine joy to behold. He gladdened the heart of everyone who saw him, whether scoring a goal, fooling a defender with a shimmy or just standing there being Pelé. He never cheated and was probably never sent off. It’s no co-incidence that the words “Pelé” and “perfection” both begin with the same two letters.
His style of play was infused with beauty. It was akin to an angelic orgy, with God having sex with Himself in the corner.
Even in the 1962 World Cup, when Pelé was injured in the group phase, his mere presence in Chile was enough to inspire Brazil to ultimate triumph. Put it this way: whoever remembers the name of any other player in that Brazil squad? Exactly.
And even when telling us that there are ways for all of us to make our winkies hard in a message sponsored by a corporation which manufactures pills to make your winkie hard, he did it with grace and elegance.
Pelé and Maradona are emblems for their respective football cultures, which dominate the South American game. Brazilian football is played to a samba beat, their players having learned to play on the beaches of Copacabana and Ipanema. The national league is home to free-flowing attacking football, where even the defenders are better footballers than the most skillful players in most countries. There is a flair and a sway to games in Brazil which is irresistible to the hundreds of thousands of ecstatic fans in the Maracaná. As a bonus, the goalkeepers are universally awful, which ensures non-stop goal action in almost every match.
Argentine football is Brazil’s stunted twin brother. The national team’s greatest successes have come through nefarious means. In 1978, Peru’s goalkeeper – an Argentine! – practically stood back and waved in six goals as Argentina scandalously reached the final. In 1986, of course, poor England suffered at the hands – or should that be hand – of Maradona. When things go against them, they do little but whinge. When Antonio RattÃn was sent off against England in 1966, he petulantly refused to leave. Not accepting the decision of a referee is a sure sign of an inherent lack of morality. In what other country would it be done with such intensity?
Maradona’s warped ideas have even been passed on to the next generation of Argentinian players like a defective gene. Lionel Messi irredeemably marked himself out as a footballing lowlife when he re-enacted the “H**d of **d” for Barcelona. (Don’t you think players who do this should have to wear a bell around their neck or have their forehead tattooed with a “H” or something?)
The most pithy way I can think of to describe the difference between Maradona and Pelé, and their respective countries, is to present their contributions to the footballing lexicon. Maradona gave us “H*** ** **d”, which is a byword for corruption, egotism and greed. Pelé gave us “The Beautiful Game”, glorious shorthand for our wonderful sport – the sport which Maradona took and dragged through the filth.
In closing, let us bring up the great Terry Butcher. Butcher is now Scotland’s assistant manager, but was a key part of the England team which was deprived of the 1986 World Cup by…you know what. Here is what he said this week:
I was selected for the drugs test with Gary Stevens and Kenny Sansom and ended up in the room with Maradona and two of his pals. Our World Cup was over and they were celebrating.
It could have been a war-zone in there but it wasn’t. I wasn’t next to him, if I was I might have done something.
Butcher would have been quite entitled to physically display his displeasure, but instead showed the admirable restraint which made him a true hero. One thing’s for sure: if God is up there picking His all-time World XI, Butcher and Pelé would be the first names on the team-sheet. Maradona wouldn’t even be trusted with the water bottles.
Fredorrarci is Chief Guard of the Ark of the Covenant, a/k/a Sport Is A TV Show.
Also See: Maradona v Pele – Who Was Better?