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Pelé vs. Maradona: Who's better?

April 26, 2010
By David Hirshey and Roger Bennett
Special to ESPN.com

Editor's note: The following is excerpted from "The ESPN World Cup Companion: Everything You Need to Know About the Planet's Biggest Sporting Event," copyright 2010 by David Hirshey and Roger Bennett. Reprinted by permission of ESPN Books and Ballantine Books. Available in bookstores May 4.

DAVID HIRSHEY: This contest should be called before it begins. It's not a fair fight. Pelé has three championships to Maradona's one. And, like it or not, that's how we measure greatness.

ROGER BENNETT: Please--

HIRSHEY: Wait. I grant you that Maradona's close control was unsurpassed in the open field. His explosive acceleration and the unpredictability of his body swerves made him almost impossible to contain. Soccer, however, is about so much more than just skinning defenders at full throttle. It is about passing, heading, reading, recognizing, orchestrating, and extracting the best from the team assembled around you. When Maradona had the ball, the thought of giving it up rarely entered his mind. It was as if the goals and glory were designed for him and him alone. By contrast, there was an imagination and selflessness to Pelé's game that Maradona never possessed.

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BENNETT: Look, Pelé and Maradona were kings of extremely different eras. The debate traditionally breaks down by age. Older fans still marvel at Pelé. Younger ones idolize Maradona. But your opening fusillade is way wide of the mark: No single player has ever motivated a mediocre squad to win the tournament more than Maradona when he captained Argentina to glory in 1986. The singular beauty of the goals he scored must have blinded you though, because Maradona dished the ball aplenty. He always knew the opposing team planned to shut him down with a double or triple team, so he specialized in making decoy runs to create space for his teammates to exploit. Witness the Argentinians' winning goal in the final. Maradona sucked four Germans into the midfield before slipping a perfect one-touch pass to spring Jorge Burruchaga for a solo run on goal. Maradona ended up with the trophy, five goals, and five assists.

HIRSHEY: It figures you'd go straight to the one moment in Maradona's career when he was sober. He was playing in Mexico against teams that were sapped by the searing heat, his most famous moment involved cheating, and in two other World Cups that he entered, he left in utter disgrace. Maradona was red-carded in his final match in Spain '82 and sent home as a drug cheat in 1994. Pelé, I will remind you, won the Jules Rimet trophy in three of his four World Cups, which included a remarkable strike in the final against Sweden in 1958 when he was only 17 years old. Trapping the ball with his thigh in the Swedish penalty area, he let it fall to the crook of his ankle and in one seamless motion looped it over his own head and that of a slack-jawed defender before cracking a volley into the net. The ball never touched the ground.

BENNETT: Going spectacular goal-for-goal against Maradona is a no-win proposition--

HIRSHEY: You have finally written truth. Pelé never punched the ball into the back of his opponent's net. Instead he scored 77 times in 92 matches for his country, while Maradona managed a mere 34 in 91. Don't forget the blind layoff to Jairzinho in 1970 that froze an entire English backline with a single swivel of his right hip.

BENNETT: Are you seriously putting that up against the 1986 Cup, when Maradona eviscerated the entire English team, evading all pursuers with a poetic run hailed instantly as the greatest goal ever scored? He then repeated the feat in the very next game, lacerating the Belgians. But your mention of the brilliant Jairzinho leads us to a critical point. Maradona's play transformed an average team, turning them into world beaters. Pelé was always privileged to be the jewel in the crown on a team stuffed with talent.

HIRSHEY: I already conceded that Diego was spectacular in that Cup, although I am forced to remind you that the so-called magical goal against England might well be one of the most overrated in soccer history. And saying that Pelé should be dismissed because he was surrounded by greatness is like saying that Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, and Wayne Gretzky were overrated because they had a strong supporting cast.

BENNETT: David! In 1958, he won the World Cup with legends Nilton Santos, Garrincha, Didi, and Vava. In 1970, Brazil's victorious dream team included the dazzling skills of Carlos Alberto, Jairzinho, Tostão, Gérson, and Rivelino. In fact, the true strength and depth of Brazilian soccer in this era was proven beyond doubt in 1962 when the team lost Pelé to injury in the second game of the tournament but still managed to cruise to victory without him. I defy you to name three teammates of Maradona's 1986 team without the aid of Wikipedia.

HIRSHEY: You mean besides Doc Gooden and Mookie Wilson. Let's get real. If you want to take the measure of the men, look at how they spent their twilight and post-playing years. Pelé's love for soccer was so great that he came to the nascent NASL to spread the gospel for the game that he loved. What did your guy do with his later years?

BENNETT: Rose-tinted naïveté. What Pelé says and what he does are two very different things. His decision to abandon his retirement and join the NASL was less because of a humble urge to "spread the gospel" and more about a desperate need to pay off creditors after his business interests had gone belly-up.

HIRSHEY: Pelé's trademark mantra "to remember the children" was a bit cloying, I'll admit, but, he was no scattershot genius like Maradona. He prided himself on his fitness, consistency, and durability. Pelé was blessed with the perfect body for a soccer player, 5'8" inches of tensile strength with thighs so massive that only a landmine could knock him off the ball.

BENNETT: I'll give that to you, Pelé was the more physical player. But if you want to debate endurance, Maradona wins hands down. It did not take a landmine to knock Pelé out of the World Cup in 1962, and it must have slipped your mind that in 1966 Pelé cried, "Nâo mais!" once Brazil was eliminated, threatening to retire unless referees shielded him from the rough stuff. Maradona never complained, and he dominated an era when defenses were tactically tighter and against stronger, fitter, faster opponents who spent the entire game hell-bent on breaking his legs.

HIRSHEY: In Pelé's era, the entire strategy of the opposing team was to field two or three goons and encourage them to perform open knee surgery on Pelé.

BENNETT: Anyway, David, debating the players' personalities is almost impossible because we never really knew the real Pelé. His genius was to become the sport's first human billboard, shilling for global brands from Pepsi to Viagra. Maradona was always human, flaws and all. He remains revered among his fellow players for the way he used his fame throughout his career to fight for their rights. On the other hand, Pelé is less beloved, renowned for being predominantly motivated by monetary gain. Remembering the poor children may have been his mantra, but as Brazil's minister for sport, he managed to campaign against "corruption" while lining his own pockets and was forced to resign after $700,000 of UNICEF's money disappeared in connection to an unplayed benefit match he had promised to organize for free. The money was never seen again.

HIRSHEY: Since when has using one's fame to generate post-career earnings been anything other than capitalism at its finest? In any case, Pelé's supreme athleticism and uncanny grasp of the flow of the game would make him the most marked man on the field 100 years from now. Pelé was the complete soccer player -- not just a fat bastard who could dribble.

BENNETT: A fat bastard who could dribble?? That's beneath even you! When FIFA launched an Internet-based vote to determine the greatest player of the 20th century, Maradona pummeled Pelé, receiving three times the votes from soccer fans around the world. To keep Pelé's myth intact, FIFA quickly changed the rules, awarding him a second award as voted by their officials, but by now even some of Brazil's greatest modern-day players have tired of the man. The great striker Ronaldo captured his essence with a quote that could easily be applied to your efforts to advocate on his behalf: "Pelé is well known for the s--- he talks. Nobody should take him seriously. I don't want to end up a bitter old man like him who talks only bollocks."

HIRSHEY: Roger, I have only one thing to say to that: bollocks.