Pele and Maradona with opposing shirts

What do Pelé and Diego Maradona have in common, apart from the obvious fact that both are cited by many as the greatest footballers of all time? The answer is that both played exceptionally well at the World Cup, but in particular gave era-defining performances.

Pelé is hoisted up after Brazil’s victory in the 1970 final.

For Pelé, by then already a two-time winner, 1970 was his crowning glory as Brazil swept Italy aside 4-1 in the final at the Azteca in Mexico City. That Brazil side is generally regarded as the greatest side that ever graced the World Cup. With stars such as Jairzinho, Roberto Rivelino, Gérson and Tostão it is difficult to argue with that assessment. Despite this wealth of talent in the side, Pelé was still the king. As well as winning a third World Cup winners’ medal (a record that appears will never be matched), Pelé was named the best player of the tournament, and became the second all-time World Cup goalscorer behind Just Fontaine, with 12. One year later he would play his last game in that famous yellow jersey and although he would enjoy a high-profile spell with New York Cosmos in the burgeoning NASL, Pelé will forever be remembered for his performances for Brazil, particularly at the 1970 World Cup when he achieved immortality.

If 1970 was encapsulated by the brilliance of a team, 1986 was the embodiment of one man’s sheer will to succeed. At the 1986 World Cup, coincidentally also held in Mexico, Diego Maradona dragged an average Argentinian side to glory and during that month appeared to shatter the truism that teams win trophies, not individuals. By the end of the 1986 tournament, Maradona had become a god in his home country and a global icon of the game.

maradona 1986
After what at times seemed a one-man mission, Maradona finally got his hands on the World Cup.

Much has been written of his exploits in Mexico that one could be forgiven for thinking that his performances have been so lauded to the point hey have become myth. The statistics speak for themselves; of the 13 goals Argentina scored in Mexico, Maradona scored five and assisted five. He was responsible for 80 per cent of their shots on goals, and won the majority of their free-kicks. At times during the final West Germany had him double man-marked. Despite this, he played the through ball which found Jorge Burruchanga for the decisive goal. Maradona won the Golden Ball for best player and later that year was voted World Player of the Year by World Soccer Magazine.

The Maradona/Pelé duopoly on the mantle of the greatest of all time mirrors the present-day debate between Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. Maradona and Pelé were safely separated by two decades, meaning that the “different eras” argument could be used to neutralise the debate and settle it as a draw. In contrast the Messi/Ronaldo debate can be settled by the fact that both play in the same era, one defined by Barcelona’s tiki-taka football and Lionel Messi’s four consecutive Ballon d’Or awards, book-ended by Ronaldo’s two. Had Messi not been around for another generation might we have considered Ronaldo in the same light as Pelé and Maradona?

messi and ronaldo
Two modern greats shake hands before yet another El Clásico.

It’s a hypothetical question, one which can never be truly answered. While both have enjoyed sways of success with their clubs, they have only had one good World Cup each; Ronaldo made the semis in 2006 while Messi was a losing finalist this year. That said, in 2006 Ronaldo didn’t exactly steal the show and was far from Portugal’s best player, that was Luís Figo. While at this year’s World Cup it appeared that Messi would fulfill his destiny in a manner similar to Maradona but after the group stages his influence declined with each passing game. Despite this, decades from now Messi (Ronaldo’s presence in that argument is debatable at this time) will be up there with Pelé and Maradona as the all-time greats of the sport. So therefore my question is: is an era-defining World Cup performance even required any more to distinguish the great players from the greats?

Take Alfredo di Stéfano for example. The Argentine-born striker, who recently passed away, never even played at the World Cup and yet is still regarded, mostly by an older generation, as having been even better than Pelé or Maradona. It is for his performances in the white of Real Madrid that di Stéfano is heralded as an all-time great. A member of the Real Madrid side that won the first five European Cups in succession (1956-60), di Stéfano also formed a partnership up front with the exiled Hungarian legend Ferenc Puskás that is regarded as the finest ever assembled. While he didn’t have a defining World Cup he did have a defining moment in his career; the 1960 European Cup final against Eintracht Frankfurt. In a 7-3 rout in front of an ecstatic Hampden Park crowd, di Stéfano (3) and Puskás (4) combined to score all of Madrid’s goals in a game widely regarded as the greatest ever played.

george best
“Mr Best, where did it all go wrong?”

George Best is another lauded as the greatest ever. Best is more a niche choice, one for the lover of a maverick or a diehard Manchester United fan. That said the phrase “Maradona great, Pelé better, George Best” does have a charming ring to it. Like di Stéfano, Best’s career is remembered for what he did in a United shirt, not the green of Northern Ireland. So while di Stéfano and Best are rare exceptions in their absence from the World Cup, other regarded as among the best ever have had a brilliant tournament.

Ferenc Puskás was Hungary’s best player in 1954 as they just came up short in the final, Eusébio became a cultural icon in England after his nine-goal haul in 1966, Johan Cruyff gave the world his eponymous “turn” and wowed them with his dazzling skills in 1974, Zico and Platini were their countries’ star men in sides brimming with embarrassments of talent in 1982, while the first modern greats of the 21st century, Zidane (1998 & 2006) and Ronaldo (2002) gave defining World Cup performances that guided their nations to the final.

The fact remains that for many decades, since it began in 1930, the World Cup has been the barometer of excellence. During the 1960s and ’70s the concept of a channel such as Sky Sports broadcasting leagues games from everywhere from Argentina to Albania was simply an alien one and so for many people in Britain and Ireland, the only time football fans could catch a glimpse of Pelé or Brazil in action was at the World Cup. This continued through into the 1980s when Maradona was at his pomp. In theory while European viewers in 1970 might have believed they were witnessing Pelé at the peak of his career there could have been Brazilians watching in Rio de Janeiro or São Paulo that felt Pelé was having a poor tournament compared with his performances for Santos in the league earlier in the year. Now while this is highly unlikely it is a possibility. Today we live in a world where almost every single top-level club football is televised through numerous forms of media. Today the average football fan living in Middlesbrough or Abu Dhabi can scrutinise Lionel Messi’s performances with a certain degree of confidence (in their minds) thanks to their sports package subscription which includes all 38 games of Barcelona’s La Liga games. With the globalised nature of the game and the near 365-day coverage of ever major European domestic league, the World Cup’s lustre has been diminished somewhat in recent years.

uefa champions league
For many the UEFA Champions League is the greatest football competition in the world.

Don’t get me wrong, I love the World Cup. Every January of a World Cup year begins a giddy, exciting countdown for me and other football fans, and this year’s edition did not fail to disappoint. For others though it is not the most exciting football competition and it simply a something that takes place between two domestic seasons. The Champions League has, in the last 22 years since its restructuring, become not just the biggest club competition in the world but for many it is the biggest competition, period. As is the nature of the World Cup there will always be a number of noteworthy players absent, whether because their nation is not strong enough or missed out in play-offs, here’s looking at you, Zlatan. In the Champions League this is rarely the case as most of the world’s best players from all across the globe play for sides that are in Europe’s premier competition. This lack of world-class stars missing from the Champions League is usually because clubs with huge riches, often fueled by petrodollars, can tempt these players away from “weaker” club teams for fees worthy of a king’s ransom. The allure of Champions League football is almost as enticing as that €10 million signing-on fee.

For me though, the World Cup will always be the pinnacle of a player’s career. If a footballer has the fortune of being born in a nation with a rich footballing tradition, such as Italy, Brazil or Germany, there is always the chance of lifting the World Cup. For someone born in a nation like Denmark, Belgium or even Ireland, just being at the World Cup is in itself an honour, one which money cannot buy (leaving aside contentious bonuses). Financial wealth cannot help a country win the World Cup, if that was the case England might have more than one star over their three lions, only a wealth of talent can. The fact a World Cup takes place every four years lends it the potential for defining an era. Defeat in the Champions League can be avenged the following season, at the World Cup a player may not even get the opportunity to, depending on their age, fitness or activity in four years’ time.

Messi and Aguero WC final
Had Messi, and not Philipp Lahm, lifted the World Cup last Sunday it would have seen him unchallenged as the greatest ever.

Messi’s legacy as one of the greats alongside Pelé and Maradona is already assured thanks to his performances over the last six years in a Barcelona shirt. Three Champions League titles, six league titles, and four Ballon d’Or awards are Messi’s legacy so far, and he’s only 27 years old. Does he need a truly great performance at a World Cup tournament to cement his status, no, but had he played a prominent role in an Argentina win in last Sunday’s final rather than referring to him as one of the greats, we may well have been referring to him as the greatest.


By Eoghan Wallace