On October 1, 1977, Brazilian football superstar Pele was handed the microphone to address the crowd ahead of a friendly between New York Cosmos, the team he had played with for over two years, and his beloved Santos, where his career started and reached dizzying peaks. Among the sold out crowd at the Giants Stadium in New Jersey was boxing legend Muhammad Ali and England’s World Cup winning former captain Bobby Moore, apart from Pele’s father and wife.
“Love is more important than what we can take in life,” he told the crowd before commencing the game, in which he played for the Cosmos in the first half and Santos in the second. The match ended in rainy conditions and with it, marked the end of the career of football’s first true global superstar.
Almost exactly a year before that, a diminutive 15-year-old made his senior debut for Argentinos Juniors, becoming the youngest to play in Argentina’s top flight. Young Diego Armando Maradona set stadiums alight around the country and took his performances to international football in the light blue and white of Argentina.
He was a goalscorer, just as Pele was, although he played a deeper role than the Brazilian and was often involved in the defensive side of the game. The skills and the cleverness with which he manoeuvred on and off the ball on the pitch convinced coaches before long that they needed to make their teams block passing routes to Maradona as much as possible. Football has always been an escape from social ills for the Argentinean people and amid the poverty and destruction that came with the Dirty War in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, Maradona — the boy who rose from the slums of the national capital — was increasingly deified. Comparisons with Pele was probably the most unsurprising by-product of Maradona’s rise.
While Cristiano Ronaldo vs Lionel Messi may be the argument that has dominated the game since the turn of the century, the focus was mostly on Pele vs Maradona before that. As is the case with Ronaldo and Messi, the two players weren’t exactly carrying similar responsibilities in the team.
“I lost a great friend and the world lost a legend. There is still much to be said, but for now, may God give strength to the family members. One day, I hope we can play ball together in the sky,” Pele said in his tweet.