The most heated wrangling over the title of soccer’s greatest player could be found between Diego Maradona and Pelé themselves.
So often, their squabbling would descend into acrimonious barbs and taunts launched between the finest to play the game.
It was a feud in which FIFA did not want to take sides when it came to naming the top player of the 20th century. Pelé was the pick of experts. Maradona was the people’s choice as the winner of an online vote. So they shared the award and continued to bicker in public.
“He thinks it’s him,” Pelé once said. “But we all really know who was the best.”
Being born 20 years apart meant the duo never settled their rivalry on the pitch.
Interviewed once by Pelé, Maradona playfully asked the Brazilian three-time World Cup winner how he accumulated an apparent goal total of 1,281.
“Who did you score them against?” Maradona asked. “Your nephews in the backyard?”
But behind the enmity, there was a mutual admiration that was evident through the grief as Pele paid tribute to Maradona, who died Wednesday at the age of 60.
“I have lost a dear friend, and the world has lost a legend,” the 80-year-old Pelé said. “One day, I hope, we will play football together in the sky.”
The sadness across Argentina was articulated by one of the few players who come close to matching Maradona’s artistry with the ball.
“He leaves us,” Argentine forward Lionel Messi said, “but he is not gone because Diego is eternal.”
The 33-year-old Messi still strives to emulate his hero by winning a World Cup with Argentina, a triumph that could settle the 21st century’s version of the Maradona-Pelé debate as he duels with Cristiano Ronaldo for soccer greatness.
Ronaldo, who has won five FIFA player of the year awards to Messi’s six, remembered Maradona as an “eternal genius.”
“One of the best ever,” the Portugal and Juventus forward said. “An unrivalled magician. He departs too soon but leaves a legacy with no limits and an emptiness that will never be filled.”