The glorious, ludicrous feud between Pelé and Diego Maradona.

The stadium scene.
Aug. 9 2010 5:00 PM

Pelé and Maradona

The glorious, ludicrous feud between soccer's two biggest stars.

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It's these two ways of looking at the world that guide the endless, unresolvable debate about which man was the better player. Pelé partisans tend to rely on a curious mixture of fact and imagination: Pelé's numbers (three World Cups, a staggering 1,280 goals in 1,363 games) dwarf Maradona's, and most of the games he played in his prime weren't filmed. The spectacular things we've seen him do in highlight reels, they argue, must be only the tip of the iceberg. Maradona partisans, on the other hand, tend to rely on cutting skepticism and a pose of sophistication: Pelé's goal-scoring tally can't be real (it includes exhibition games, and it's strangely hard to pin down an exact total), and numbers aren't everything, anyway. Maradona played against better defenses in Europe, while Pelé spent his whole career in Brazil and the United States. And Maradona won the World Cup not with superstar teammates like Garrincha and Jairzinho but with journeymen like Ricardo Giusti.

This past week, the two men were, as ever, in the news at the same time. Pelé gave a speech at the Meadowlands announcing the return of the New York Cosmos, the NASL club he played for from 1975-77. He'll serve as honorary president, essentially acting as the face of a corporate group headed by marketing tycoon Carl Johnson. Maradona, in turn, was fired, then maybe not quite fired, then left in a state of probationary fired-ness, by the Argentine Football Association, the latest and apparently last twist in his bizarre run as national team manager. It was the same old story. Pelé is a sellout, the man Roger Bennett recently called "the sport's first human billboard." Maradona is just nuts.

The contrasts we see today threaten to obscure the real difference between these two stars. To see that, you have to look back to Pelé as a beaming 17-year-old in the 1958 World Cup final, when he scored after a delirious lob over Bengt Gustavsson, then scored again, then fainted when Brazil won the game. You have to look back to Maradona's brilliant, furious World Cup quarterfinal against England in 1986, when he punished his opponents with the Hand of God goal, then humiliated them with a minesweeper run that left half their team in tatters. Pelé, whether he's being paraded on the shoulders of his teammates or accepting the next bright prize from Sepp Blatter, embodies the basic, necessary fantasy of sports as a place of accord. Maradona exposes the falseness of that fantasy and, at his best, makes something beautiful out of the exposure. That, more than any squabbling or jealousy, is why they're rivals, and why they remain locked together in the answer to the unanswerable question: "Who's the best player of all time?" They are the inextricable either/or at the heart of soccer's sense of itself.

Click here to launch a slide show about Pelé and Diego Maradona.

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Brian Phillips writes regularly about soccer for Slate. He blogs at The Run of Play.