Putting Pele first

Topics Diego Maradona | Pele | football

Maradona, who died last week, was without doubt a great footballer. But he was not a great human being. Had he been well-meaning, he would be a few notches less great as a player. How? Recall the Argentina-England quarter-final in the World Cup of 1986. No discussion on Maradona omits the second goal he scored in the match, which is held to be the cachet of his greatness. But his admirers gloss over his wrongdoing in having scored the first goal by hand. It was a peccadillo, they tend to say. What is overlooked is that there is a connection between the first goal and the second. The English players — distraught, disconcerted, and demoralised for having to concede a goal on account of gross unfairness — virtually did not put up any resista­n­ce to Maradona when he got past five or six of them to score his second goal. Even if one were to be not so unkind as to say he got it on a platter, one would be justified in saying the referee made the second goal easy for him.

If all this is pardonable to those who say he is the greatest of all time (“GOAT” is the initialisation or acronym, whichever way you read the word), if they condone such an act in sport, which is one of the most virtuous of activities, they might as well advocate returning the 100-metre gold medal to Ben Johnson.

Putting the Argentine above Pele is perhaps more distressing than Maradona’s “peccadillo”. Those who propound this theory start mostly with saying that the two cannot be compared because they played in different eras. And yet compare they do, and come to the conclusion that Maradona was a superior footballer. The criterion they employ is laughable, to say the least. It is that Pele was helped by the fact that he had outstanding players as his teammates, whereas Maradona had none. It is difficult to say whether it eludes them or whether they strike such postures under iconoclastic compulsions, the point is that it is this factor that puts Pele above anyone else. If you play with men such as Jairzinho, Rivellino, Tostao, or Carlos Alberto (as Pele did in the World Cup of 1970), you are likely to be put in the shade. Or if there are Garrincha, Vava, Didi, and Zagalo on your side (as Pele did in the World Cup of 1958), you might be out of the reckoning for any claim to lifelong fame. So it happened with Bellini, who was, incidentally, the captain of the 1958 team. But instead it was Pele who outshone, if not eclipsed, all these men, and over a 12-year period at that. Any parallel to this? Maradona’s performance in the 1990 World Cup was nothing to write home about. His side was lucky to reach the final.

Stories ramble around legends, mostly apocryphal. One such anecdote is that a dignitary had heard of Pele but did not know him by face or his jersey number. In a friendly involving either the Brazilian national side or Santos, the club for which Pele played, he (the dignitary) was at the ground with the idea of recognising him simply by his ball play (he had instructed all concerned not to tell him who Pele was). And this he did within 15 minutes and left the venue, saying, “I now know him and my purpose has been served.”

Iconoclasts, mostly in India, are active in cricket also. And here they are inspired by a patriotic zeal. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, their mission was to bring down Don Bradman from his exalted pedestal and put Sunil Gavaskar there. The screeching became fiercer when the Indian opener scored his 29th century in 1983, equalling Bradman’s record. But Gavaskar, a sensible man, ended all such mucky activities with one line: “Had Bradman played as many Tests, he might have scored 75 centuries.” (It was Gavaskar’s 95th Test and Sir Don had played in just 52 in all.)

There was a renewed attempt at something similarly sinister when Sachin Tendulkar began to blow great guns. Surprisingly, some Australians participated in it. Unlike Gavaskar, Tendulkar had no public position on this. Please note, no West Indian has ever tried to even insinuate that George Headley, Vivian Richards, or Brian Lara is the greatest batsman of all time. Nor has any Brit hinted that Ian Botham as an all-rounder is superior to Garfield Sobers.

Talking of Pele, an analogy comes to mind. Albert Einstein was Albert Einstein because his contemporaries were Max Planck, Werner Heisenberg, and Niels Bohr, and yet he towered above them. Physicists believing in theurgy say his work was the work of divinity. And Ferenc Puscas had said of all the footballers he had seen, Di Stefano was the best. He did not count Pele as a footballer because “he was above that”.

Does anything need to be said after this?

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