(Reuters) – Before Lionel Messi came along the enduring debate in football about who was the greatest player involved two men: Diego Maradona and Pele.
It was an argument that was played out for years on terraces and in bars, via the internet and on television.
Maradona, who died of a heart attack in Buenos Aires on Wednesday, guided Argentina to the World Cup in 1986 with perhaps the most influential performance ever at a major tournament, and he lifted Napoli to unparalleled heights in Italy and Europe.
Pele won the World Cup an unprecedented three times and put the small town of Santos on the map before conquering the United States with the New York Cosmos.
The debate about whose legacy was greater so divided the football world that when Maradona was voted the player of the 20th century in FIFA’s internet poll, there was shock. FIFA created another poll by its own ‘football family’, won by Pele, to allow the pair to share the glory.
“Here Pele, the striker whose territory was the penalty box, a player who scored goals for fun and became Minister of Sport, more your quiet type of person,” FIFA wrote at the time.
“There Maradona, possibly the most complete player ever, playmaker and goalscorer, technically brilliant, unpredictable and impulsive, both on and off the field, a player plagued by a variety of problems for many years.”
The arguments on both sides came with a host of subtexts: the Argentine versus the Brazilian, the man of the people versus the establishment figure, the party animal versus the quiet man, the rebel versus the conformist.
Everyone took a side and the two protagonists were not shy about making their own feelings known.
Pele thought Maradona was gauche and undignified and Maradona thought Pele was a sell-out.
“As a player he was great… but he thinks politically,” Maradona said, in one of his kinder criticisms.
Pele called the Argentine, who struggled with addiction, “a bad example” and a whole lot more.
However, the two South Americans got on well when they met for the first time in 1979, when Maradona flew to Rio to meet Pele.
Pele was happy to counsel the up-and-coming star and Maradona excited to be fulfilling his dream of meeting the Brazilian.
But their relationship soured in 1982 after Pele criticised Maradona when he was sent off for stamping on a Brazilian in a World Cup tie in Spain.
From then on, they spent decades criticising each other and then making up, with the praise as sincere as the insults.
Pele, who celebrated his 80th birthday in October days before the Argentine turned 60, was magnanimous on hearing of Maradona’s death.
“I lost a great friend and the world lost a legend,” he said.
(Reporting by Andrew Downie; editing by Clare Fallon)