Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, Brazilian soccer legend Pele, center, and Argentinian soccer legend Diego Armando Maradona | Photo: AP
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 takes 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 comes 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 unrivaled magician. He departs too soon but leaves a legacy with no limits and an emptiness that will never be filled.”
Maradona was undoubtedly a flawed genius, who reveled in the darker side of his character. Beyond the bans for drugs — including being sent home from the 1994 World Cup — there was a sense of pride at outwitting the referee by punching the ball into the net as Argentina beat England before going on to win the 1986 FIFA tournament.
He also mesmorized with his feet minutes later in the quarterfinal, picking up the ball around the halfway line before using dribbles and feints to breeze past Englishmen to score one the greatest-ever individuals goals.
But it was the moment of infamy, four years after Britain reclaimed the Falkland Islands following a 1982 invasion by Argentina, that was recalled by former England striker Gary Lineker.
“By some distance the best player of my generation and arguably the greatest of all time,” said Lineker, the top scorer at the 1986 World Cup who followed Maradona in joining Barcelona. “After a blessed but troubled life, hopefully he’ll finally find some comfort in the hands of God.”
As Argentines gathered in the streets, weeping and singing, three days of national mourning were declared by the nation’s president.
“There’s not a single Argentinian that doesn’t have a tear dropping for what this kid has done for this country,” said Oscar Ruggeri, who played at three World Cups with Maradona.
Maradona was last seen attending a match on Oct. 30 — his 60th birthday — at Gimnasia La Plata, the Buenos Aires team he coached until last year. The following week he required emergency surgery for bleeding on the brain.
Vatican spokesman Matteo Bruni said that the pope had been praying for Maradona in recent days and now “thinks back fondly to the times they met in these years.”
In the southern Italian city of Naples, thousands poured into the streets to honor the player who inspired Napoli to its only Serie A titles in 1987 and 1990, even though gatherings are banned due to the coronavirus pandemic. Candles were lit near huge murals of the superstar that cover the sides of buildings.
The mayor proposed that the city’s San Paolo Stadium be renamed for Maradona — and ordered the stadium’s lights be turned on all night.
Across Europe, the eight Champions League games were preceded by a minute’s silence.
“He made world football better,” Pep Guardiola, a former Barcelona player and coach, said after leading Manchester City to victory at Olympiakos. “I was little boy with my dad and sometimes coming to Barcelona to see Maradona play and that was incredible.”
FIFA President Gianni Infantino, 50, said Maradona helped him fall in love with the game.
“Diego may be eternal now, but for forever, Diego will also have a most prominent place in the incredible story of all football fairytales,” Infantino said.
Maradona’s death resonated beyond soccer.
“It was one of the thrills of my life when I got to meet him,” Los Angeles Lakers great Magic Johnson wrote on Instagram, alongside a photo of him hugging Maradona.
Mike Tyson recalled becoming heavyweight boxing champion in 1986 months after Maradona also became a world champion.
“They use to compare the two of us,” Tyson tweeted. “He was one of my heroes and a friend.”
It was Maradona’s humble upbringing remembered by George Weah, the 1995 world player of the year who is now president of Liberia.
“His extraordinary story as a kid who unshackled himself from the yoke of poverty and used his mastery of football to bring joy, inspired millions,” said Weah, a title winner with AC Milan and Paris Saint-Germain.