In the summer of 2000, FIFA, which does not understand computers, decided to celebrate the arrival of the millennium by hosting an online poll. Its object: to determine the best soccer player of the past 100 years, with the victor to be fêted at a gaudy banquet in Rome. The organizers of the vote assumed it would be won by Pelé, soccer’s silky ambassador, who’d been cheerfully ensconced in his Greatest of All Time sinecure for 40 years.
But a public campaign in Argentina swung the vote to Diego Maradona, Pelé’s equally legendary but angrier and messier rival, and FIFA flew into a panic. Maradona couldn’t be allowed to win; he was too controversial, too infamous for his arrests and drug suspensions, and, besides, it would distress the Brazilian contingent. So FIFA President Sepp Blatter threw out the rules. He convened a special “Football Family Committee,” which routed the prize back to Pelé. Maradona went into a rage; FIFA, nonsensically, tried to buy him off by naming him “Internet Player of the Century.” He showed up at the banquet, but stormed out before Pelé was handed his plaque. Pelé, always the classier of the two, restricted himself to taunting Maradona from the stage while comparing himself to Beethoven.
This tawdry scrap tells you most of what you need to know about the enmity between these sublimely gifted players. Apart from a brief, weird rapprochement on the set of Maradona’s talk show in 2005, during which they traded shirts and sang some songs together, they’ve been feuding for years.
They were never rivals on the pitch: Maradona, 20 years the younger, was in his rookie season at Argentinos Juniors in 1976-77, when Pelé jogged his last lap with the New York Cosmos. But off the field, their adverse temperaments and gigantic stature have made them ideal foils. Pelé is the company man, the executives’ protégé, who smiles and smiles and tilts his lapel toward the bluest ribbon at the fair. Maradona is the unstable outsider, his life a carousel of mobsters, doctors, dictators, and cops. When Pelé publishes a book, it appears in an $11,000 limited edition and prompts the New York Times to opine that “his admirers likened him to Saturn.” When Maradona publishes a book, it provokes a meditation on sodomy from Martin Amis. Soccer is barely big enough for both of them.
Unlike other famously twinned rivals—Magic-Bird, Lennon-McCartney, Lincoln-Douglas—Pelé and Maradona have never coaxed the best out of each other or driven each other to new heights. Instead, as the only obstacles standing in the way of each other’s respective coronations, they tend to bring out the worst in each other at precisely the moments when the world wants to remember them at their best. During this past World Cup, Maradona was in South Africa managing the Argentina team while Pelé was in attendance to launch a clothing company. Since they were within 500 miles of each other, they spent much of their time sniping back and forth in the press. Pelé alleged that Maradona was in coaching for the money. Maradona sneered that Pelé should “go back to the museum.” Pelé, summoning the full gravity of his 69 years, observed that since Maradona talked about him so much, “He must be in love with me.” For his part, Maradona periodically elevates the discourse between the two stars by scoffing that the Brazilian has sex with men.
In one sense, this is too bad. It’s no secret that the drift of an athlete’s life after retirement can alter our perception of his legacy. After his trillionth televised cigar-chomp and that weirdly embittered Hall of Fame speech, Michael Jordan looks a lot less lovable than when he was a kid palming the head of Mars Blackmon. In the same way, the drink-dazed, Beatles-addled post-career of George Best inevitably obscures the player who floated on the ball as if he moved in a different gravity. Maradona and Pelé, whenever they’re placed in proximity, show each other in such a bad light that they make it hard to remember what a joy it was to see them play. Pelé, who was so buoyant and exhilarating on the pitch, dissolves into the João Havelange crony and eager self-franchiser whose company once robbed UNICEF. (He sued his business partner over the crime.) And Maradona, whose career was such a relentless display of applied virtuosity, swells into the obese Fidel Castro confidant and Chavez apologist who mows down photographers as a way of marking time between cocaine-induced heart attacks. (He’s had two.)
But there’s more to this rivalry than just pettiness. Scrape away the grime of scandals and sound bites, and the contrast between these two great players says something about the imaginative possibilities presented by this game or by any game. Think of how you approach sports at different stages of your life. Pelé, the best player on the best team who scored the most goals and won the most trophies and was the happiest and the most famous and most beloved, offers the child’s narrative of sports heroism, an exuberant conquest of a just and welcoming world. Maradona, who railed against authority and sabotaged himself and, in 1986, dragged an inferior Argentina team to the World Cup title by sheer force of will, represents the adolescent narrative: an unjust world forced to yield to a superior ego.
It’s these two ways of looking at the world that guide the endless, unresolvable debate about which man was the better player. Pelé partisans tend to rely on a curious mixture of fact and imagination: Pelé’s numbers (three World Cups, a staggering 1,280 goals in 1,363 games) dwarf Maradona’s, and most of the games he played in his prime weren’t filmed. The spectacular things we’ve seen him do in highlight reels, they argue, must be only the tip of the iceberg. Maradona partisans, on the other hand, tend to rely on cutting skepticism and a pose of sophistication: Pelé’s goal-scoring tally can’t be real (it includes exhibition games, and it’s strangely hard to pin down an exact total), and numbers aren’t everything, anyway. Maradona played against better defenses in Europe, while Pelé spent his whole career in Brazil and the United States. And Maradona won the World Cup not with superstar teammates like Garrincha and Jairzinho but with journeymen like Ricardo Giusti.
This past week, the two men were, as ever, in the news at the same time. Pelé gave a speech at the Meadowlands announcing the return of the New York Cosmos, the NASL club he played for from 1975-77. He’ll serve as honorary president, essentially acting as the face of a corporate group headed by marketing tycoon Carl Johnson. Maradona, in turn, was fired, then maybe not quite fired, then left in a state of probationary fired-ness, by the Argentine Football Association, the latest and apparently last twist in his bizarre run as national team manager. It was the same old story. Pelé is a sellout, the man Roger Bennett recently called “the sport’s first human billboard.” Maradona is just nuts.
The contrasts we see today threaten to obscure the real difference between these two stars. To see that, you have to look back to Pelé as a beaming 17-year-old in the 1958 World Cup final, when he scored after a delirious lob over Bengt Gustavsson, then scored again, then fainted when Brazil won the game. You have to look back to Maradona’s brilliant, furious World Cup quarterfinal against England in 1986, when he punished his opponents with the Hand of God goal, then humiliated them with a minesweeper run that left half their team in tatters. Pelé, whether he’s being paraded on the shoulders of his teammates or accepting the next bright prize from Sepp Blatter, embodies the basic, necessary fantasy of sports as a place of accord. Maradona exposes the falseness of that fantasy and, at his best, makes something beautiful out of the exposure. That, more than any squabbling or jealousy, is why they’re rivals, and why they remain locked together in the answer to the unanswerable question: “Who’s the best player of all time?” They are the inextricable either/or at the heart of soccer’s sense of itself.
Click here to launch a slide show about Pelé and Diego Maradona.