I have never understood the debate regarding which of Pele, Maradona – and in later days Messi – was the greatest of all time.
For starters, what is the point? How do you compare footballers who played in different eras, in different positions, and never played against each other? The only point is our own need to make comparisons and express superlatives, but both Pele and Maradona entered into the contest themselves – both claiming the mantle, and both quite disparaging of the other.
All three of these players were outrageously skilful, but greatest ever? It’s just a matter of opinion, isn’t it? There’s no fair way of judging them…
Or is there?
To my mind, there is one level playing field on which all three can be compared, and that is to look beyond just their individual skill to consider their capacity to influence the outcome of matches, leagues and tournaments.
Once you bring that lens to the debate, there is no question. Diego Maradona was head and shoulders above anyone else because of the way he dragged his team mates with him to achieve massive victories at the very top of the game. (From this perspective, Johan Cruyff also enters the argument.)
The Argentinian team that won the 1986 World Cup was no great shakes without Maradona. They were a solid team with the likes of Batista, Burruchaga and Valdano, but would never have made the semis without the outrageous ability and sheer desperation of Maradona.
Certainly they wouldn’t have got past England in the quarter final without his two goals, one infamous, the other voted the best goal in the history of the game.
That game, of course, saw the emergence of the hubris which so polarised Maradona. Claiming his first goal to be attributable to “the Hand of God” was seen as charming chutzpah by Argentinians still smarting from the Falklands War, and deliberately antagonistic by furious poms frustrated by the injustice of their elimination.
But it was after the World Cup that his true greatness came to the fore. Napoli had never won the Serie A when Maradona shocked the world by moving there in 1984.
If he had dragged Argentina to the top of world football through dazzling brilliance and sheer force of will, he performed an even more miraculous feat with Napoli, winning the league twice (and runners up twice) and thoroughly dominating every game he ever played in.
Pele was not capable of transforming a mediocre team all by himself. He only played in exceptional teams. In contrast, Messi is as famous for his disappointments as Pele is famous for his wins. Neither of them turned entire leagues or tournaments on their own as Maradona did.
He went very close to repeating his 86 performance, getting Argentina to the final at Italia 90, and then came out of international retirement (mysteriously supercharged) to deny Australia in 1993.
He absolutely made the equalising goal in Sydney, then starred in Buenos Aires – before being sent home in disgrace from the World Cup in America.
I seriously think we were a great chance of getting past that team if they’d not had Maradona.
But they did. Teams that had Maradona – deplorable though some aspects of his character may have been – were successful. Far more successful than they would have been otherwise.
And that’s why Diego Maradona is absolutely the greatest of all time.
Adrian's books can be purchased at any good bookstore or through ebook alchemy. His new novel, Welcome to Ord City, is now available.