In the year 2000, the two legends squared off in the FIFA Player of the Century, a one-time award created by football's global body to decide the greatest footballer humankind has ever seen. Pele and Maradona were adjudged joint winners of the poll
Pele, Lionel Messi and Diego Maradona. Pics/AFP
Who is the greatest footballer of all? Football fans have always been divided on this issue with a large number favouring the original G.O.A.T. while there is an equal number who bestow the honour on Diego Maradona, the Argentine legend that won the World Cup in 1986, scoring mesmerising goals in the process.
The debate is never-ending just like the one that rages about the "ghost goal" that sealed England's victory over West Germany in the 1966 World Cup final at Wembley.
Though there have been players such as Johan Cryuff, Eusebio, Fraz Beckenbauer, George Best and Alfredo de Stefano, who can raise a claim to the honour and are much-respected and idolised, the debate has always been reduced to Pele vs. Maradona.
In the year 2000, the two legends squared off in the FIFA Player of the Century, a one-time award created by football's global body to decide the greatest footballer humankind has ever seen. Pele and Maradona were adjudged joint winners of the poll.
Initially, the award was to be conducted on the internet, but the rules were later changed to include expert voting through readers of FIFA Magazine and Grand Jury votes, as it was felt that Pele, who was the star of the pre-Internet era, could lose out to Maradona as the Internet generation had not seen Pele play.
As expected, Maradona topped the online poll with 63.60 per cent votes, while Pele was a distant second with just 18.53 per cent. It was a totally different scenario when it came to the votes polled by FIFA Magazine and the Grand Jury.
In that vote, Pele topped with 72.75 per cent with Alfredo Di Stefano second with 9.72 and Maradona a distant third with 6.0 per cent votes. FIFA therefore decided to declare them both joint winners.
Though the poll generated much controversy, the debate raged on with FIFA being criticised by Maradona fans for changing the rules and introducing the magazine and grand jury votes later.
Though players like Cristiano Rolando and Lionel Messi have surpassed Pele's records in the 21st century, scoring more goals for clubs and bagging more Ballon d'Or awards, Pele still has notched up some numbers that the others have failed to match.
The Brazil legend played in four World Cups from 1958 to 1970, winning the title three times -- Maradona and Messi have only one title; Ronaldo has none. Maradona too had played in four World Cups -- 1982, 1986, 1990 and 1994 (from which he was thrown out for testing positive for cocaine).
Messi has played in four World Cups, winning one -- in Qatar a few weeks back. Ronaldo has played three World Cups but has struggled for much support at Portugal, only managing to guide them to the European title in 2020.
Pele also holds the record for being the youngest player to play in the World Cup, the youngest to score in the World Cup and in the final, and the youngest to score a World Cup hat trick.
Both Maradona and Messi started at a young age, but Maradona was ignored for the 1978 World Cup that Argentian hosted and won. He made his debut in 1982 and led Argentina to the title in 1986 and took them to the final in 1990 in Italy, where they lost to Germany 1-0.
There is one thing, however, that both Maradona and Messi have done that Pele could not -- establish their mark and legend in Europe.
Pele spent his entire professional life in the Americas -- mostly for Santos in Brazil and then three years from 1975 to 1977 for the New York Cosmos. Maradona made his name at Barcelona and Napoli, while Messi joined the Barca academy at a very young age and played for the Spanish giant for more than a decade before moving to PSG a couple of seasons back.
Pele also scored over Maradona on another count -- he was a role model to millions with a clean-cut image, scandal-free and non-controversial.
Maradona, on the other hand, was a rebel and a flawed genius who lived his entire life on the edge. Messi is comparatively lightweight in this regard, though he has been a role model for many in his own quiet way.
Ronaldo has inspired a generation of football players in his native Portugal, but his life as a footballer has been more transient and controversial than Messi's.
Though both Pele and Maradona respected each other's football prowess, Pele always disliked the Argentine legend for "not being an example", a role model, for youngsters because of his drug abuse and controversial nature.
Pele and Maradona have both left this world, Messi and Ronaldo still grace the football fields, but the debate on who is the greatest of them all shows no signs of winding down.
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