Man cherished by presidents, pope, paupers…

Buenos Aires, November 26

The most heated wrangling over the title of football’s greatest player could be found between Diego Maradona and Pele themselves. So often, their squabbling would descend into acrimonious barbs and taunts launched between the finest to play the game.

It was a feud in which FIFA did not want to takes sides when it came to naming the top player of the 20th century. Pele was the pick of experts. Maradona was the people’s choice as the winner of an online vote. So they shared the award and continued to bicker in public.

“He thinks it’s him,” Pele once said. “But we all really know who was the best.”

Being born 20 years apart meant the duo never settled their rivalry on the pitch. Interviewed once by Pele, Maradona playfully asked the Brazilian three-time World Cup winner how he accumulated an apparent goal total of 1,281. “Who did you score them against?” Maradona asked. “Your nephews in the backyard?”

Maradona, then Argentina’s coach, with Lionel Messi during the 2010 World Cup. AP/PTI, Reuters


But behind the enmity, there was a mutual admiration that was evident through the grief as Pele paid tribute to Maradona, who died Wednesday at the age of 60. “I have lost a dear friend, and the world has lost a legend,” the 80-year-old Pele said. “One day, I hope, we will play football together in the sky.”

The sadness across Argentina was articulated by one of the few players who comes close to matching Maradona’s artistry with the ball. “He leaves us,” Argentine forward Lionel Messi said, “but he is not gone because Diego is eternal.”

The 33-year-old Messi still strives to emulate his hero by winning a World Cup with Argentina, a triumph that could settle the 21st century’s version of the Maradona-Pele debate as he duels with Cristiano Ronaldo for football greatness.

Ronaldo, who has won five FIFA player of the year awards to Messi’s six, remembered Maradona as an “eternal genius.”

“One of the best ever,” the Portugal and Juventus forward said. “An unrivalled magician. He departs too soon but leaves a legacy with no limits and an emptiness that will never be filled.”

Flawed genius

Maradona was undoubtedly a flawed genius, who revelled in the darker side of his character. Beyond the bans for drugs — including being sent home from the 1994 World Cup — there was a sense of pride at outwitting the referee by punching the ball into the net as Argentina beat England before going on to win the 1986 FIFA tournament.

He also memorised with his feet minutes later in the quarterfinal, picking up the ball around the halfway line before using dribbles and feints to breeze past Englishmen to score one the greatest-ever individuals goals. But it was the moment of infamy, four years after Britain reclaimed the Falkland Islands following a 1982 invasion by Argentina, that was recalled by former England striker Gary Lineker. “By some distance the best player of my generation and arguably the greatest of all time,” said Lineker. “After a blessed but troubled life, hopefully he’ll finally find some comfort in the hands of God.” — PTI

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