The Big Idea: God?s left foot soldier
When Diego Armando Maradona was gasping for breath in a Buenos Aires hospital, Pele was relaxing in Switzerland. The latter had developed a small problem in his left eye. While a cocaine-addicted Maradona battled for life in the ICU, Pele returned to Sao Paulo, got himself operated and was soon declared fit by a team of doctors at the Albert Einstein Hospital.
Such a turn of events does not come as a surprise. Pele and Maradona have very little in common — except that the two are the greatest ever to grace the Beautiful Game. While the magical Brazilian is widely known as football’s best ambassador for his finesse and near-impeccable lifestyle, Maradona is the misdirected genius, the hero stashed with flaws. As a player, the Argentinian often took the game to gigantic heights — only to bring it crashing down by shameful acts off the park.
Yet, Maradona is perhaps the greatest footballer in the post-War era, even a shade better than Pele himself. While most of the Brazilian’s exploits were mainly confined to the national team, Maradona excelled for both Argentina and in club football. In the modern day game, the biggest test is to play in the ruthless, professional circuit that is European club football. Maradona passed that test with flying colours especially when he played for Napoli in the Italian league of the Eighties. And he mustered enough energy to guide Argentina to a World Cup title and a runners-up slot between 1986 and 1990.
Pele’s biggest advantage was that he restricted himself to the less competitive world of Latin American club football throughout his career and exposed himself to the brutality of European defenders only once in four years. Pele had to face only once what Maradona encountered almost on a daily basis throughout his career. In the 1966 World Cup in England, Pele was literally kicked off the field by ‘butchers’ from Portugal. Brazil lost 1-3 and a frustrated Pele vowed never to return to the world stage again — a decision he changed four years later.
To Maradona, such treatment was routine. Having become a star at 16, Maradona had to endure some of the most vicious fouls till the last days of his career. Some like Andoni Goikoetxea of Atletico Bilbao rose to stardom as a ‘Maradona hacker’. When Maradona played for Barcelona, Goikoetxea, later nicknamed the ‘Butcher of Bilbao’, broke Maradona’s ankle. In another match, he delivered a kick, which miraculously failed to cripple the Argentine again. Maradona, unlike Pele, never talked about running away. Instead, he showed what it takes to dribble past four English defenders, round off the goalkeeper and score what was later voted the Goal of the Century.
No doubt Maradona would mainly be remembered for the 1986 World Cup. But what he achieved for Napoli can never be matched by anyone else. An obscure side, Napoli had hardly had a role in the Italian league, which was dominated by the two Milans, Juventus and Roma. Maradona gave the club two league titles and one Uefa Cup. The Argentine’s status as the king of football was instantly confirmed. Not for nothing did they build a statue for him in Naples.
None of Pele’s great statistics — 1,281 career goals, 11 Sao Paulo state championships titles for Santos, top scorer in the Sao Paulo league 11 times, six times Brazilian Cup winners and twice Copa Libertadores titles — can match this incredible feat by the pint-sized magician from Buenos Aires.
Unlike Pele, who was fortunate to be surrounded by great talents when he played for Santos or Brazil, Maradona remained a loner. Pele had footballers like Garrincha, Didi, Vava, Tostao, Jairzinho, Santos or Rivelino with him in the three World Cups Brazil won between 1958 and 1970. All of them were capable of winning the cup on their own steam. Maradona had to carry ten less imaginative footballers with him to the 1986 victory podium.
Asked once to name his Playing XI in 1986, Argentine manager Carlos Bilardo’s famous reply was “Maradona and ten others.” Critics frowned upon this, saying too much importance was being attached to an individual in what is essentially a team game. But Bilardo was not far from the truth. By scoring his second goal against England, Maradona proved that on his day, he did not need anyone to decide the fate of a match.
That he got the better of Peter Reid, Gary Stevens, Terry Butcher, Terry Fenwick and finally Peter Shilton is now part of soccer folklore. But it is the observation by Jorge Valdano, then a teammate and now a Real Madrid honcho, which summed up Maradona’s genius best. During that goal, Valdano thought it could be a team effort and tried to run alongside Maradona. “At first, I went along with him out of a sense of responsibility, but then I realised I was just one more spectator. I didn’t feel there was anything I could do. It was his goal and had nothing to do with the team. It was Diego’s personal adventure, one that was totally spectacular.”
“I was born for soccer, just as Beethoven was born for music,” Pele once said not too humbly. He wasn’t wrong. An average-sized man, he was blessed with speed, great balance, tremendous vision, the ability to control the ball superbly, head accurately and shoot powerfully and accurately with either foot. He was the bridge between the king and the pauper. The Shah of Iran waited three hours at the airport to shake hands with him; Chinese soldiers once left their post and ‘invaded’ Hong Kong to get a glimpse of him; songs were composed in 90 languages on the Tres Coracoes-born footballer.
Pele carried himself like a true role model even after he stopped playing. He looks dashing when he campaigns for the world’s most famous credit card company or soft drinks manufacturers in his superbly tailored three-piece suits. Maradona, on the other hand, had a weak right foot, mediocre heading ability and is a confirmed drug addict. Yet, it is his breathtaking left foot that has overshadowed all. “Pele had nearly everything. Maradona has everything,” said Sir Alf Ramsey in 1986. “He works harder, does more and is more skillful. Trouble is that he’ll be remembered for another reason. He bends the rule to suit himself.”
To Maradona’s misfortune, he was not born during Pele’s era when football was a relatively quiet affair, confined within the limits of the technical area. The Argentine played his football better than anyone ever did without realising how complex the game had become. The better he played, the more he became open to exploitations — be it commercial, financial or political. Unlike Pele, Maradona’s skills were restricted within the 90-minute period. Outside the pitch, he, like George Best, was a complete mess.