Touched by the hand of God

Pele or Maradona? A question that will never have a definitive answer. For every ten that say Pele another ten will say Maradona. Even the games governing body, FIFA, could not separate the two, awarding a joint ‘Player of the Century’ award. After two different votes.

The mystique of the debate is only enhanced as both celebrate landmark birthdays within days of one another. On Saturday the 23rd of October Pele celebrated his 70th birthday. Tomorrow, 30th of October, Maradona turns 50.

Only in football can the two greatest players be born in the same week, albeit 20 years apart.

Two footballing Gods

Edson Arantes do Nascimento – remember it for quizzes – or Pele to the world, shot onto the global scene in 1958 as a fresh faced 17-year-old at the World Cup held in Sweden. He scored four goals in two games, including a hat-trick against France in the semi-final, to lead Brazil into the final against the hosts. Another two goals followed as Brazil ran out 5-2 winners. One of his goals was going to stand the test of time as he lobbed a Swedish defender in the box before sending a volley past the goalkeeper.

Pele was born and the World Cup was his stage.

1970 saw Pele join Rivelino, Jairzinho, Gerson and Carlos Alberto in one of Brazil’s greatest World Cup teams. The team won every game of the tournament including the 4-1 demolition of Italy in the final. It was one of the most complete footballing performances with arguably the greatest World Cup goal. And Pele was at the heart of the play. Feeding Carlos Alberto after a sweeping move.

Pele scored four goals to take his World Cup tally to 12 and it was the culmination of his Brazil career. Overall he scored 77 goals in 92 games. A phenomenal record.

However criticism was reserved for his club career. Other than a two year spell at the New York Cosmos he spent all his time at Santos. Never playing for a European club. He won a cluster of team and individual honours in his spell. But one can only wonder what would have happened if he tried his hand at a major European club.

A criticism that can not be laid at Diego Armando Maradona’s door. The Argentine God – in Argentina there is a Church of Maradona –  played for Sevilla, Barcelona and most memorably Napoli.

After a successful six years in his homeland Barcelona spent, a then world record, £5m on Maradona. But it was a difficult two years in Spain as he suffered an infamous leg break. When he moved to Italian side Napoli for £6.9m he only had the Copa Del Rey (Spain’s FA Cup) to show for his endeavours. But it was in Italy where Maradona’s career, both on and off-field, exploded into the public life.

As the goals and trophies flowed controversy followed. Worshipped by the Neapolitan’s, Maradona led the team to their only Serie A wins in 86/87 and 89/90 as well as a Uefa Cup, Coppa Italia and Italian Supercup victories in his seven years at the club.

Any football fan would delight at the wonder of his left foot and the emotion he took onto the pitch. Off the pitch however there were run ins with authorities as a drug problem increased.

It was after Napoli and a spell with Spanish side, Sevilla, that he failed a drug test for the second time. He had already been suspended for 15 months while at Napoli but the one that will stand out is at the 1994 World Cup. Maradona, captaining favourites Argentina, tested positive for banned substance ephedrine. Who can forget the footage of his celebration after a goal against Greece? His eyes literally popping out their sockets. It was no way to end an international career that dominated international football eight years earlier.

He did not make the impression that Pele did in his first World Cup as he ended the 1982 World Cup being sent-off against Brazil as Argentina were knocked out. It was 1986 that Maradona firmly planted his seed as a legend of the game. He captained the Argentine side in Mexico to a 3-2 victory against West Germany in the final. But it was in the quarter-finals against England that he will be remembered for. Controversy and genius rolled into one match. No match sums the stocky Argentine up better.

The ‘Hand of God’. A defensive mix-up sent the ball into the air in the English box. Maradona jumped with Peter Shilton and knocked the ball in with his hand. Controversy. Minutes later Maradona picked the ball up at the half way line and this time drifted past player after player before rounding Shilton and slotting into the empty net. Genius.

In 1990 he led the team again but could not inspire Argentina to a consecutive World Cup triumph. West Germany overcoming them in the final.

Diego Armando Maradona combined controversy with genius all his career. A flawed genius. One which fans love to love. Someone out of the ordinary. But someone with flaws which fans can relate. Maradona has every quality for a superhero.

He managed Argentina to a quarter-final place in the World Cup this year but still showed in training sessions he had a wand of a left foot. A wand of a left foot that has been replicated in another Argentine footballer.

Lionel Messi. The closest thing to Diego Armando Maradona. Minus the controversy.