Pele vs Maradona: A rivalry that found peace in bitterness

Comparisons with Pele was probably the most unsurprising by-product of Maradona's rise.
Pele and Maradona
Pele and Maradona
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By Rohit Mundayur

On October 1, 1977, Brazilian football superstar Pele was handed the microphone to address the crowd ahead of a friendly between New York Cosmos, the team he had played with for over two years, and his beloved Santos, where his career started and reached dizzying peaks. Among the sold out crowd at the Giants Stadium in New Jersey was boxing legend Muhammad Ali and England's World Cup winning former captain Bobby Moore, apart from Pele's father and wife.

"Love is more important than what we can take in life," he told the crowd before commencing the game, in which he played for the Cosmos in the first half and Santos in the second. The match ended in rainy conditions and with it, marked the end of the career of football's first true global superstar. Almost exactly a year before that, a diminutive 15-year-old made his senior debut for Argentinos Juniors, becoming the youngest to play in Argentina's top flight. Young Diego Armando Maradona set stadiums alight around the country and took his performances to international football in the light blue and white of Argentina.

He was a goalscorer, just as Pele was, although he played a deeper role than the Brazilian and was often involved in the defensive side of the game. The skills and the cleverness with which he manoeuvred on and off the ball on the pitch convinced coaches before long that they needed to make their teams block passing routes to Maradona as much as possible.

Football has always been an escape from social ills for the Argentinean people and amid the poverty and destruction that came with the Dirty War in the late 1970's and early 1980's, Maradona -- the boy who rose from the slums of the national capital -- was increasingly deified. Comparisons with Pele was probably the most unsurprising by-product of Maradona's rise.

While Cristiano Ronaldo vs Lionel Messi may be the argument that has dominated the game since the turn of the century, the focus was mostly on Pele vs Maradona before that. As is the case with Ronaldo and Messi, the two players weren't exactly carrying similar responsibilities in the team.

Before age and addictions started affecting his fitness, Maradona was known for his work rate apart from his skills. His ability to manipulate the opposition with his movement off the ball and penchant to find a defence-piercing pass made him the quintessential number 10, playing behind the likes of Jorge Valdano and Gustav Dezotti for Argentina.

Pele may not have been too involved defensively but he was a prolific goalscorer. Since his retirement, Brazil has produced the likes of Zico, Romario, Rivaldo, Ronaldo, and Ronaldinho and yet his 77 goals in 92 appearances keeps him at the top of the all-time goal scoring records for the five-time world champions.

The Pele and Maradona met for the first time in 1979 and while they were initially friendly to each other, the constant comparisons coupled with the deeper rivalry between Argentina and Brazil, and Maradona's own fiery personality, meant that frictions were bound to happen. Over the years, allegations have flown from both sides of trying to undermine the other.

Maradona, in an autobiography released in 2000, said that Pele could have done more to save his troubled Brazil team mate Garrincha, who succumbed to alcohol addiction shortly after the end of his illustrious career. In Pele's biography, written by sports writer Harry Harris that released in the same year, the Brazilian's close friend Celso Grellet alleged that Maradona was the source of speculation surrounding Pele's sexuality.

Perhaps the most prominent flashpoint between the two was FIFA's 'Player of the Century' award in 2000. Football's global governing body had thrown the vote that would decide the award open to the public, who could have their say on its official website. It was one of the earliest cases of a mass online poll being held and Maradona won it by a handsome margin.

Observers complained that the fact that the poll was carried out online meant that users may have been biased as most may have not actually seen Pele play while Maradona had only recently finished his playing career. The fact also remained that while Pele had recently been appointed sports minister of Brazil, Maradona's downward spiral since the end of his playing career had continued and his alarming weight gain and a heart attack dominated the news.

FIFA then added a second poll in which a "Football Family" committee composed of football journalists, officials and coaches was the one who voted. Pele was the overwhelming winner this time, the Footballer of the Century award was shared between him and Maradona and the latter was not too happy about it. He attended the ceremony, picked up his award, dedicated it to his wife and Cuban leader Fidel Castro, and stormed off the stage, leaving Pele to pick up his award by himself.

Quotes kept flying from one camp to the other over the course of the next few years, even after the two made peace with each other. In 2017, Pele said that the two of them should not be compared to each other while saying that they had finally found friendship. "Now, we can't say that Maradona was a great header. He didn't score goals with headers," Pele was quoted as saying by "And we cannot say Maradona shot very well with both feet, because he didn't shoot with his right, only mainly with his left… So, from time to time, when people make comparisons, I make jokes about that. For me he was a great player, just that you can't compare Maradona with Pele."

Pele concluded by saying that the pair are now "friends". "We are always joking. I always say to him: 'Maradona, you can be level with Pele when you have scored more than 1,000 goals.' And he says: 'I can't now, but it doesn't matter!'"

Pele turned 80 on October 23 and Maradona 60 on October 30. Unlike Ronaldo and Messi, the pair's competition was more with words off the pitch than with the ball on it, something that fans would have liked to see regardless of which side of the debate they leaned towards. On November 25, as news spread around the world of Maradona's death, Pele indicated that it is something he desires as well.

"I lost a great friend and the world lost a legend. There is still much to be said, but for now, may God give strength to the family members. One day, I hope we can play ball together in the sky," Pele said in his tweet.

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