Goal.com Special: Who Was Better – Pele Or Maradona?

As Pele celebrates his 70th birthday, and Diego Maradona approaches the big 50, Goal.com opens an old debate asking whom out of the two former players was the greatest?
There are some things in this world that simply cannot be agreed on - The Rolling Stones vs. The Beatles, Magic Johnson vs. Michael Jordan and, of course, Pele vs. Maradona.

This last question has split opinion almost more than any other and will continue to do so forever.

So how do you judge who was better? Well there are many ways.

Medals & Trophies

Pele won three World Cups, two Copa Libertadores’, two Intercontinental Cups and a host of other Brazilian and American titles, while he picked up the FIFA Player of the Century Award in 2000.

Maradona, on the other hand, won a single World Cup, league titles in Argentina and Italy, national Cups in Spain and Italy, and a horde of individual honours including best player at the 1986 World Cup, FIFA Goal of the Century, and FIFA Player of the Century (People’s Choice).

Some would argue that the fact that Pele won three World Cups to Maradona’s one, would make him the better player.

Of course team prizes, the greatest of them all being the World Cup, are very important, however it is incorrect to judge a player solely on silverware. Pele was a young 17-year-old (albeit a wonderkid) in 1958, barely made an impact in 1962 and 1966 due to injury, and in 1970, despite his fine performances, he was playing in the best football team of all time alongside the likes of Tostao, Rivelino, Gerson and Jairzinho.

Maradona, however, dragged a distinctly average Argentina team all the way to World Cup glory in 1986, scoring the greatest goal of all time against England in the quarter-final, and another almost equally as brilliant against Belgium in the semis.

Brazil would have won the 1970 World Cup with or without Pele. Sixteen years later Argentina may not have progressed past Enzo Francescoli’s Copa America holders Uruguay in the second round without Maradona in their side.

This doesn’t necessarily make Maradona a better player. Although one has to ask themselves the question. If Pele was playing for Argentina in 1986 would they have won the World Cup?

Goals Scored

Supporters of Pele boast how he scored 1281 goals in 1363 games. First of all it must be pointed out that there is a great deal of uncertainty over this total. It is often claimed that Pele counted friendly goals, while a common joke among Maradona-fans is that the Brazilian even added his strike from the Escape to Victory movie starring Sylvester Stallone and Michael Caine. Many of Pele’s goals were also scored for Santos in the state and local championships, where the opposition was not that strong.

Nevertheless with 77 goals in 92 appearances for Brazil, 12 of them in the World Cup, no one can question Pele’s astonishing scoring ability.

Pele's Five Best Qualities

1. Brain - The Brazilian had incredible tactical awareness and vision.
2. Finishing - When a chance presented itself, Pele rarely missed.
3. Completeness - Two footed, great in the air, strong, smart, fast.
4. Temperament - Pele rarely was fazed, despite some brutal tackles.
5. Team Player - Pele was the glue that stuck his Santos & Brazil teams together.

Maradona hit 34 in 91 appearances, eight in World Cups, and had a career total of 311 in 590 appearances.

Once again you should not read too much into goal statistics such as these. A great player or forward will score goals when they really matter, such as in big title deciders or cup knockout matches.

Some prolific goalscorers from the past have not always necessarily produced their best in these big games. Followers of Italian football will know that Alberto Gilardino has a fine record, however he has always struggled to score against the top teams or in the important matches. 

Pele and Maradona did this, both at club and international level, so in this respect they cannot be separated. What the Argentine can boast, though, is that he excelled in Europe – most notably at Napoli where he is a living God after leading the Partenopei to their first-ever Scudetto in 1987, and another in 1990. While Napoli contained many other top-class players such as Careca, Alemao, Ciro Ferrara and Bruno Giordano, it is questionable they could have had such a period of success, which also included a UEFA Cup, without Maradona.

Maradona's Five Best Qualities

1. Dribbling - The greatest dribbler of all time - just watch his '86 goal against England.
2. Left foot - Diego could do anything with it - shoot, pass or juggle an orange.
3. Influence - No-one could inspire team-mates like Diego - ask Napoli or Argentina '86.
4. Free Kicks - From close, medium or long range, curlers, blasters or chips.
5. Big Occasion - When it mattered Maradona always performed.

As for Pele, he never played in Europe, so in some ways he was always in his comfort zone. On the other hand, during the early 1960s Santos were the best club team in the world, and Pele always performed superbly against European teams during not only exhibition matches but in the two-legged Intercontinental Cup finals of 1962 and 1963 when Santos beat Benfica and Milan respectively and Pele scored a combined total of seven goals.

Some Pele & Maradona Stats

Remember, though, the immortal words of Ebbe Skovdahl. "Statistics are just like mini-skirts: they give you good ideas, but they hide the most important things."

1281 Number of career goals Pele is claimed to have scored in 1363 games.

311 Number of career goals Maradona is claimed to have scored in 590 games.

Number of clubs Pele played for: Santos from 1956-74 & NY Cosmos from 1975-77.

6 Number of clubs Maradona played for: Argentinos Juniors, Boca Juniors X 2, Barcelona, Napoli, Sevilla, Newell's Old Boys.

14/12 Number of World Cup games played/won by Pele in 1958, 62, 66 and 70.

21/14 Number of World Cup games played/won by Maradona in 1982, 86, 90 & 94.

Fair Play

This is the argument that Pele is the greatest because Maradona is a poor role model - Diego’s substance abuse and the fact that he ‘cheated’ with his ‘Hand of God’ goal against England in 1986 makes him a lesser player.

This hypothesis is ridiculous. Regardless of how poorly Maradona behaved off the pitch, and how much he bent the rules on it, this all makes no difference to how great a player he was.

Indeed in central and southern Europe and South America, being crafty and sneaky is seen as a major part of the game. If you can con the referee or an opponent and score a goal because of it, then you are tactically and mentally a better player.

While on moral grounds Maradona can be criticised for his cocaine addiction, it should not interfere with how he is regarded as a footballer. Do you say that Amy Winehouse is a bad singer because she takes drugs?

Pele is no angel either. Indeed some would argue that, as part of the “FIFA Family” along with the likes of Sepp Blatter, Joao Havelange, he is indeed worse than Maradona.

It should also be cleared up that Maradona never took performance-enhancing drugs, as is often mistakenly believed. Cocaine actually results in a drop in the level of play, and indeed Diego has said that he would have been three-times the player he was without his addiction.

Three Great Career Moments For Pele & Maradona
Pele Maradona
World Cup Star At 17

World Cup '86 Hero

1000th Goal

First Napoli Scudetto

1970 Glory

UEFA Cup heroics

Video Footage

Deciding who was better out of Pele and Maradona is difficult due to the lack of video footage that was around during the 1950s and 60s when Pele was in his prime.

Maradona burst on the scene during an age when football was exploding into a multi-million-pound business. The footage of Pele is mainly restricted to that from World Cups. Indeed the King said himself that the greatest goal he ever scored, when he supposedly took on an entire team, was deleted from the archives a couple of decades ago.

With this in mind it is perhaps wrong to use video footage to decide who was better out of Maradona and Pele. Best clip compilations on the Internet are dangerous. One could put together a highlights package of all the best moments and tricks from Emile Heskey’s career and claim that he was in fact the best player of all time. In order to decide how good a player is, you have to see them for the full 90 minutes, on a regular and consistent basis.

However, this writer has watched the full matches of every World Cup played by both men. From this it can be concluded that in eight World Cups played by the two men, only Maradona in 1986 - when he was far and away the strongest in the entire tournament - was his side's best-performing player.

In 1962 and 66 Pele played just two games respectively because of injury. In 1958, Garrincha and Didi were certainly stronger and possibly Djalma Santos also. While in 1970, Pele came behind Gerson, Rivelino and Jairzinho, and was on an equal footing with the likes of Tostao and Carlos Alberto. As for Maradona, in 1982 he only left his mark positively in two games and was kicked around by Belgium, Brazil and notoriously Italy's Claudio Gentile. In 1990, Claudio Caniggia was the sole Argentine to star consistently throughout the competition whereas four years later Gabriel Batistuta was perhaps Argentina's top dog.

Longevity, which both of these players had, is important too. It is no good being world-class for two years before disappearing from the game. These players are legends because they were at the top of world football for 15 years or more. This is what makes Paolo Maldini such a phenomenon.

Pele Came Before Maradona

One thing that is important to recognise is that Pele was 10 maybe 20 years ahead of his time, although the likes of Alfredo Di Stefano and Ferenc Puskas would probably disagree.

“I told myself before the game, 'he's made of skin and bones just like everyone else' - but I was wrong,” said Tarciso Burgnich of Italy after the 1970 World Cup final.

Some say that if there was no Pele, there would have been no Cruijff, Zico, Maradona, Baggio or Zidane.   

Deciding who was better out of Pele and Maradona is one that will always split the critics. I reach my own conclusion by asking myself whether Argentina would have won the World Cup in 1986 had they had Pele instead of Maradona.   

For me the answer is no, and for this reason I would say that Maradona had more of an ‘individual’ impact on a team. Pele is an absolute legend, and happy 70th birthday to 'The King', but Maradona is No.1.