Diego Maradona made stinging comments about fellow soccer greats Pele and Michel Platini on Wednesday after the pair criticized Maradona’s performance as Argentina coach.
Maradona said he was not surprised by their comments and that “Pele has to go back to the museum.”
Earlier, Maradona had criticized Pele, who led Brazil to three World Cup titles, for doubting Africa’s ability to organize a World Cup.
Some context. First, Maradona is Argentinian and Pele is Brazilian. For the uninitiated, think Red Sox vs. Yankees, Army vs. Navy, Auburn vs. Alabama, the People of the State of Ohio vs. the Cincinnati Bengals, etc. Big rivalry. So a little smack talk is de rigeur.
Second, it should be noted that Argentina, which has some of the most phenomenal talent in the world, almost did miss qualifying for the Cup, and many of Maradona’s countrymen had far worse things to say about him than Pele did. As we say back home, a bit dog always barks.
Past all that, though, my gut reaction in any throwdown between these two is that Pele not only revolutionized football on the pitch. He not only established himself as the greatest player in the history of the game. He not only used his flair and immense technical skills to thrill fans the world over, making him something like the Muhammad Ali of soccer. He also became perhaps the game’s greatest ambassador, and his efforts to grow the game since he hung up his boots should have earned him the respect of every player, coach, administrator and fan in the world.
Maradona, by contrast, didn’t transform anything, but he certainly got good use out of the road that people like Pele paved for him. Off the field? Well, let’s see. Long battles with cocaine. Hepatitis and booze. A supporter of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez (although we’ll call this a push, given his vocal opposition to George Bush). Serious tax issues.
And then there’s a need to acknowledge that his single greatest on-field moment, the triumph that defined his career, the one snapshot that stands above all others: the Hand of God. “Un poco con la cabeza de Maradona y otro poco con la mano de Dios.” If you don’t know the lore, the short version is this. The goal he will always be most remembered for is one where he gleefully cheated by punching the ball into the net. (Of course the ref missed it – sometimes you can’t help thinking FIFA ought to bring in a few WWE officials to shore things up.)
Some nations are known for playing soccer in a way that makes Americans (and the English and the Germans and, really, everybody with an ounce of respect for the glory of competition) hate the game. Argentina is always at or near the top of the list, and punks like Maradona are the reason why. (For my money, they’re nowhere near as bad as the Portuguese, although they’re considerably worse than the Italians, who probably aren’t as bad as they’re often accused of being.)
Put another way, Pele embodied everything that is graceful, elegant, exceptional and exhilarating about the beautiful game. Maradona, on the other hand, is a cynical little troll who is the archetype of what is so wrong with the game: the diving, the flopping, the melodrama.
Two or three years ago Argentine star Carlos Tevez, who had moved to the English Premiership from his club in Argentina and encountered a lot of flak for his own tendency toward “simulation,” addressed the subject and explained that in Argentina, trying to fool the referee was part of the culture of the game. If you can cheat and get away with it, if you dive in the box and the official falls for it and awards a penalty, that cleverness is celebrated. He was learning that such actions were not respected (or tolerated) in the European game, and he was working to amend his behavior.
It was nice to see a player of Tevez’s stature talk frankly about this particular clash in cultural assumptions, and even more heartening to hear him promising to clean up his act. And I don’t think I’ve seen him dive since, which is wonderful, since he is truly one of the world’s greatest players.
It’s a shame that we’re discussing any of this, really. Whatever Argentina’s football culture may be, it boasts a phenomenal pool of players, including Barcelona’s Lionel Messi, regarded as the best player in the world by many, and seemingly about half of Inter Milan’s 2010 Champion’s League winning side. (And 22 year-old phenom Sergio Aguero, who we hope to see in Chelsea blue this Fall.)
In sum, this brief bout of sniping features what is best about soccer, Pele, vs. what is perhaps worst about it in Maradona. So, on behalf of fans everywhere who adore the power and grace of sport and who believe fundamentally that athletic competition can forge character and teamwork in ways that few other activities can, let me just say this: Diego, shut the fuck up.
You should be honored to hear your name in Pele’s mouth, no matter what he’s saying.