Pele vs Diego Maradona: Who was better? The stats head-to-head showdown

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Diego Maradona Pele
Getty/Goal composite
They weren't direct rivals, but the perception of being the absolute best was something that meant a lot to the two South Americans

Long before it was 'Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo?' the debate over which player is the greatest of all time was dominated by Pele and Diego Maradona.

Pele's exploits for Brazil and Santos earned him the nickname O Rei, or 'The King', as he helped the Selecao light up the football world from the late 1950s into the early 1970s.

The South American pair did not play in the same era, like Ronaldo and Messi, with Maradona taking up the mantle in the 1980s into the 1990s, but that didn't stop the comparisons.

The stats, of course, don't always tell the full story, but they are useful metrics nonetheless.

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So who really was better between Pele and Maradona? Goal takes a look at the numbers and more in the eternal debate.

Pele vs Maradona: Club goals

Due to the conflicting reports of Pele's goal tally, with some including goals from non-competitive games, it's impossible to get an exact comparison, but all of the Brazilian's tallies still far surpass Maradona's.

Maradona scored over 300 club goals, while Pele struck over 700 club goals. However, any comparative analysis must take into consideration the variables, including position and clubs represented.

While Pele was an advanced forward, Maradona was an attacking midfielder who dropped deep into his own half in order to initiate attacks.

The Argentine also plied his trade in a greater variety of leagues, playing for Argentinos Juniors, Boca Juniors, Napoli and Barcelona among others. Pele, on the other hand, spent the majority of his career in Brazil with Santos before a swansong in North America with New York Cosmos.

That Maradona had to navigate his way in Italy's Serie A, which was packed with clubs that were renowned for their defensive nous, and Spain's Primera Division, which at the time featured a number of notoriously tough defenders, must be acknowledged.

Pele vs Diego Maradona: International stats

Pele Stat Diego Maradona
92 International caps 91
77 International goals 34
0.84 Goals per game 0.37

Pele's goalscoring record for Brazil is vastly superior to Diego Maradona's for Argentina.

The Brazilian scored 77 goals for his country during the course of his international career, while Maradona hit the back of the net 34 times.

Both players played roughly the same number of games, which emphasises Pele's goalscoring superiority, the Brazilian having a goals-per-game record of 0.84 to Maradona's 0.37.

Of course, it should be noted again that Pele and Maradona played in different positions, with Pele often deployed in a more advanced position, whereas Maradona was much more of a traditional playmaker.

Pele vs Diego Maradona: World Cup stats

Pele World Cup stat Diego Maradona
4 Tournaments 4
14 Appearances 21
12 Goals 8
0.86 Goals per game 0.38

Pele was part of three World Cup-winning teams (1958, 1962, 1970), while Maradona won the title just once (1986), though he lost in the final in 1990.

Both players appeared at four World Cup tournaments, with Maradona making more appearances overall. Injury curtailed Pele's involvement in the 1966 World Cup, which affects his tally.

Nevertheless, despite playing fewer games, Pele scored more goals than Maradona in the World Cup, with 12 strikes in 14 games (including goals in the 1958 and 1970 finals).

Maradona scored eight goals in 21 World Cup games, including four in Argentina's successful 1986 campaign, though never in the final.

His most memorable World Cup goals came in the same game - a quarter-final showdown with England. The infamous 'Hand of God' was followed by an outrageous solo goal which was hailed as the 'Goal of the Century'.

Pele vs Diego Maradona: Who won the most titles?

Pele Competition Diego Maradona
3 World Cup 1
2 Intercontinental Cup 0
2 Copa Libertadores 0
1 Intercontinental Supercup 0
0 UEFA Cup 1
7 National league 3
0 National cup 5
0 FIFA World Youth Championship 1
15 Total 11

Pele won more titles than Maradona during his playing career.

As well as three World Cups, the Brazilian won the Copa Libertadores twice with Santos, along with two Intercontinental Cups and one Intercontinental Supercup.

He won six Brasileiro titles with Santos and the NASL Bowl with New York Cosmos. Pele also has 10 Campeonato Paulista titles and four Torneio Rio-Sao Paulo titles (which are not included in the above table).

Maradona enjoyed a degree of success in Argentina, Spain and Italy, with his most successful period coming at Napoli, where he won two Serie A titles, a Coppa Italia, Supercoppa Italiana and the UEFA Cup.

At Barcelona, the Argentine won the Copa del Rey, Copa de la Liga and the Supercopa de Espana, while at Boca he won the Argentine Primera Division Metropolitano.

Furthermore, Maradona won the youth equivalent of the World Cup - the FIFA World Youth Championship.

Pele vs Diego Maradona: Who won most individual awards?

Pele Award Diego Maradona
1 World Cup Golden Ball 1
1* FIFA Player of the Century 1*
1 Ballon d'Or (honorary) 1
0 South American Footballer of the Year 2
3 National league top scorer awards 6
1 South American Championship (Copa America) Best Player 0

*Pele and Maradona shared the prize in 2000.

There is very little between Pele and Maradona when it comes to individual awards. Both players have won the World Cup Golden Ball, while they shared FIFA's Player of the Century award.

France Football conferred each player with an honorary Ballon d'Or, but Pele was retrospectively deemed the 'alternative winner' of seven Ballons d'Or in 2016, whereas Maradona was the 'alternative winner' twice.

Maradona was twice named the South American Footballer of the Year and Pele never had the honour because the award only began in the 1970s.

As well as winning the Golden Ball in 1970, Pele was named the best player in the old South American Championship (now Copa America) in 1959.

Both players have been awarded a host of unofficial individual awards and magazine accolades over the years.

Pele vs Diego Maradona: Who do football's legends think was better?

The debate about who was better between Pele and Maradona has been ongoing for decades and the pair have even traded barbs on the subject.

Naturally, Maradona is of the view that he was superior, while Pele told Goal in 2017: "I always say to him: ‘Maradona, you can be level with Pele when you have scored more than 1,000 goals.’

"And he says: ‘I can’t now, but it doesn’t matter!’"

But what do others within the game think?

Gary Lineker now views Lionel Messi as the best of all time, but prior to that it was Maradona who was "the greatest player of all time, by a long way". 

That view has also been expressed by former Manchester United star Ryan Giggs, who believes that Maradona is "the best of all time".

He said: "Today there are so many strong players such as Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, but the things I have seen Maradona do I have never seen anyone else achieve in football history".

Argentina's World Cup-winning coach Cesar Luis Menotti could be forgiven for giving his compatriot the vote, but he suggested that Pele was better than Maradona.

"The best of all was Pele, who is a mixture of Di Stefano, [Diego] Maradona, Cruyff and Leo Messi", he said.

There is no such dissent among the Brazilians though, with Zico telling the world that Pele is the best ever "by some distance", while Romario once said: "Messi has all the conditions to be the best, but first he has to beat Maradona, Romario and then eventually Pele".

The modern equivalent of Pele and Maradona also have divergent views, with Lionel Messi calling Maradona the "greatest ever", while Cristiano Ronaldo said that Pele was "the greatest player in football history".

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