Pele vs. Maradona vs. the World

Apologies in advance - this one really is about nothing but nothing.  This is really the sort of topic that people with nothing better to do waste their time with. It's not news that Maradona thinks he was better than Pele, except I actually heard this story on the news - well, sports talk radio.  I guess you can't talk about the Super Bowl literally every minute.  What was sort of interesting were the reactions of the hosts (Mike and Mike, if it matters).  They were flabbergasted that anyone would think they were as good, or better, than Pele.

Well, that's American provincialism for you.  I grew up thinking the same thing - Pele was the best, and there really wasn't any argument.  It would be interesting to see one of those Facebook maps of which country or region rates as the best player ever.  Pele might not even carry Brazil, but he would certainly win the United States.

Which, by the way, would not settle the argument.  Thanks to Maradona, Messi would not win his home nation, either.

But the whole Pele v. Maradona argument is itself pretty provincial.  There were more than two players in the history of the game, after all.  I'm routinely amazed that this discussion doesn't include Pele's teammate on the Cosmos, Ricky Da- no, just kidding, Franz Beckenbauer.  I'm also routinely amazed that Zinedine Zidane has not crashed this conversation.  Maybe Messi will, when it's over - unless he ends up in the George Best/George Weah section under non-World Cup winners.

There were great players before Pele, just like there were great men before Agamemnon.  I apologize, but the tree of soccer must be washed with the blood of cliches.

Probably television is to blame here, as it is for everything else.  Pele was the first international star to actually be seen by the audience, so he became the definition of the game.  Had Leonidas, Sindelar, Monti, Nasazzi or Andrade played for cameras more sophisticated than those used for Three Stooges shorts, Pele would have been one of many instead of one of two.  As it is, it's pretty darn tough to compare even when we do have footage.

Also, I forgot goalkeepers existed for a second.  Sorry, Lev.

So narrowing the field down to two is an injustice to so many other great players.

Anyway, it's easy to pick on Pele these days.  I just bought a sandwich from him this afternoon.

And yet...it is so hard to say anyone but Pele is supreme.  Even the criticisms reveal just how much he accomplished and what he meant to the game.

For example - saying he wasn't crucial to his three World Cups, that Didi was more important in 1958, Garrincha in 1962, and Portuguese fouls in 1966.  And yet after over a decade of this "mediocrity," he was the most famous player in the world and won the Golden Ball in 1970.  Pele's diminished World Cup accomplishments are equal to or better than Maradona or Zidane.

And while Pele's peers were incomparable - well, contemporary sources had, shall we say, at least as much to go on as we do when it came to comparisons.  It was Pele who was made the national treasure.  Maybe Brazilian fans in the 60's just don't know as much about football as we do...but I'm not really comfortable with that assumption.

Pele's critics are on a slightly safer ground to say that Maradona and Zidane (and, when the time comes, Messi) played in tougher leagues.  At the peak of Pele's career, Santos didn't even play in international tournaments.  Having seen a few clips of Estudiantes, as well as the 1966 World Cup, I understand Santos wanting to stay at home.  I wouldn't have been quick to expose my meal ticket to the cleats of every wannabe in shorts, either.

The complaint that Pele didn't play in Europe also strikes me as silly, because at the time a move to Europe would have been the end of his international career.  It also occurs to me that the World Cup could be seen as a reasonable way to compare players who played in South America with players who played in Europe.

Maradona's accomplishments in Europe are clearly better - if and only if you accept the assumption that from 1958 to 1990, European leagues were superior to South America, which I don't necessarily buy.  But to hear people talk, you'd think Pele in Europe would have worked about as well as Jozy Altidore.  And if we're truly talking about club success, then that brings Zidane back into the conversation with a vengeance.

And then takes all three right back out, since if we're counting European club success that greatly, we would then need to make this conversation between not Maradona and Pele, but di Stefano and Puskas.

But that's my opinion as a provincial American.  If I had any Romanian readers, they'd be livid that I left off Hagi.