Pelé’s death reminds us that, together with Maradona and Messi, they are the Holy Trinity of the most popular game in the world. The three of them have been considered by different observers as the best player in soccer’s history. A nuanced analysis shows that, despite some differences, it is practically impossible to choose one over the two others.
During his career, Pelé (born October 21, 1940) scored 1281 goals in 1363 games, including among them unofficial friendly and tour games. A man with a strong social conscience, Pelé was very vocal in his support of policies to improve the social conditions of the poor in Brazil. Because of his achievements as a player, in 1961 he was declared a national treasure by Brazil’s president Janio Quadros.
Perhaps he is the only player ever who held up a war: When he arrived in Nigeria with the Brazilian team Santos during the Biafra War, a two-day cease fire was declared so that the people could enjoy the presence of the “The King” of the beautiful game.
Nobody explains better than Eduardo Galeano, the Uruguayan writer, Pelé’s soccer style. In his book “Soccer in Sun and Shadow” Galeano writes, “When Pelé ran hard, he cut right through his opponents like a hot knife through butter. When he stopped, his opponents got lost in the labyrinths his legs embroidered. When he jumped, he climbed into the air as if it were a staircase.” And then he adds, “But those of us who were lucky enough to see him play received alms of extraordinary beauty: moments so worthy of immortality that they make us believe that immortality exists.”
While Pelé’s behavior is that of a gentleman, Maradona (born October 30, 1960) still behaves like the street urchin that he was as a child. Nobody, however, can deny how great (and controversial) Maradona was as a player. Maradona reached the peak of his professional career playing for the Italian club Napoli, elevating the team to the most successful era in its history.
Led by Maradona, Napoli won twice the Serie A Italian Championships in 1986-87 and 1989-90, the Coppa Italia in 1987, the UEFA (Union of European Football Associations) Cup in 1989 and the Italian Supercup in 1990. His achievements for Napoli made him revered like a religious figure in that city, where many streets in the center of town have a shrine or mural dedicated to Maradona.
But it was his extraordinary performance during the 1986 World Cup in Mexico when he attained lasting fame. The second goal he then scored against Great Britain was voted by FIFA as the greatest goal in the history of the World Cup. During that game, just four minutes after his infamous “Hand of God” goal, Maradona received the ball in his own half of the field, turned skillfully around, and with 11 touches ran more than half the length of the field. He dribbled past five English outfield players (Peter Beardsley, Steve Hodge, Peter Reid, Terry Butcher, and Terry Fenwick) and finally sent the ball past goalkeeper Peter Shilton into the net.
Talking on BBC Radio, Bryon Butler thus described Maradona’s moves: “Maradona turns like a little eel, he comes away from trouble, little squat man…comes inside Butcher and leaves him for dead, outside Fenwick and leaves him for dead, and puts the ball away…and that is why Maradona is the greatest player in the world.” Michel Platini, UEFA President, stated succinctly, “What Zidane [the famous French player] could do with a ball, Maradona could do with an orange.”
Unlike bombastic Maradona, the other member of the Holy Trinity, Lionel Messi, is a quiet, almost taciturn person. A short man born in Rosario, Santa Fe Province, in Argentina on June 24, 1987, he is considered by many as the best soccer player in the game’s history. He can be called “the record breaker” because he has broken so many.
He takes advantage of his short stature (5-feet-7- inches) to dexterously move among his rivals and send the ball into the opposing net, which turns into a magnet for him. With his eyes fixed on the net, nothing distracts him from his main objective. His drive was essential for Argentina’s winning the 2022 World Cup, a magnificent crowning for an amazing career.
In comparing them, one is tempted to choose the best among them. Alas, it is a futile exercise. They are different but equal in their superior quality. They have remained iconic figures through time and they represent, and probably will for the foreseeable future, the greatest among the best.
César Chelala, a New York writer, is a soccer fan.