The end of Maradona reopens the eternal debate

If a planetary survey were made among footballers, coaches, critics, fans, ordinary fans and passionate about statistics, there would be no doubt. Alfredo Di Stéfano, Edson Arantes do Nascimento, Pelé, Johan Cruyff, Diego Armando Maradona and Leo Messi, perhaps with the permission of Cristiano Ronaldo, would win by an absolute majority as the best players of all time. Much more difficult and controversial is the choice of the best in history to influence colors, teams, nationalities, tastes, social importance of the character, marketing and, above all, the ages of those consulted.

You cannot measure such different times, from the 1950s to the present day. Although the beautiful game is universal, the old football has little to do with the modern one. Neither the tactics, which have varied from playing with five strikers to just one and even a false striker, nor the physical preparation, nor the diet, nor the health care of the professionals, nor the strategy, nor the markings, brutal in Diego’s time and much lighter in the Messi era.

Would Leo have shone so much in the time of the Italian Gentile or of centrals like Andoni Goikoetxea? Can you imagine the Saeta Rubia facing the fast and powerful athletes of today? Today, it would be unthinkable, for example, to see a star like Cruyff quietly smoking during game breaks. Or those tremendous smoke that not so many years ago made the atmosphere in the buses of the teams unbreathable after the games.

What to say about the evolution of materials, boots, balls and grass. Those patatales and those spherical ones that weighed like stones and flew by kicking and tentetieso are not comparable to the light leathers of today, beach balls for the goalkeepers, nor to those rugs made of grass.

Di Stéfano, the total player

Alfredo Di Stéfano poses with five European Cups. / Real Madrid

The first great was Don Alfredo, a symbol of the time. The Argentine nationalized Spanish revolutionized the game some 70 years ago and made Real Madrid the most winning team on the planet. For many older people, it is the most complete because he could act and stand out in any area, even as a goalkeeper, they say. Di Stéfano scored, passed, led, fought and spread his winning character to his teammates.

After growing up in Argentina and passing through Colombia, in 1953 he ended up at Real Madrid in Santiago Bernabéu after an operation always highly criticized by Barça, which sees behind a black hand of the Franco regime. He forever changed the history of the white club, of which he was also an honorary coach and president with Florentino Pérez and until his death in 2014.

Real Madrid would not have been the best club of the 20th century without Di Stéfano, an example of past and future generations. He had not celebrated a league title for 20 years, but with the all-field player he won eight regular tournaments and, above all, five consecutive European Cups. His big mole, not having enjoyed any World Cup with the national team.

Edson Arantes Do Nascimento, Pele.
Edson Arantes Do Nascimento, Pelé. / Sven Simon

When the bolt stopped shining, Pele’s in Brazil lit up. ‘O Rei’ played his entire career at Santos, except for a final stage in the New York Cosmos, but his legend, unlike that of Di Stéfano, was forged in La Canarinha. Polychromatic, Pelé is the only one to have won three World Cups. At just 17 years old, the youngest to do so, he celebrated Sweden’58, returned to celebrate the title four years later in Chile and rose to prominence in Mexico’70 with a Brazilian team remembered as one of the best teams ever.

Top scorer of all time, although ‘only’ 767 of his 1,284 goals were in official matches, Pelé is the father of the ‘jogo bonito’ that was later followed by compatriots like Ronaldo, Ronaldinho or Neymar. Fast, exquisite striker, devoted to dribbling, fantasy and scoring, he drew some unforgettable targets and others that didn’t even make it. For example, the goal of the ‘four hats’ in the final of that World Cup against Sweden and that of ‘the plaque’ that they dedicated in Maracana for that goal to Fluminense after dribbling seven opponents.

Cruyff, the leader of a clockwork orange

Johan Cruyff, in one of the historic matches against Argentina.
Johan Cruyff, in one of the historic matches against Argentina.

Cruyff was not the best, perhaps not even the fifth if you look at the numbers of CR7, but he has to occupy a privileged position for leading a revolution that continues to this day. His legacy is impressive on the field and on the bench. As a hitch, striker or coach, he advocated a change in the absolute model, a total football in which the ball and the versatility of the players prevailed.

He made the Netherlands the best team without the World Cup and transformed Barcelona into a dream team. Pep Guardiola’s great Barça team, and therefore the Spanish team that won two Euro Cups and a World Cup with the tiqui-taca, drank from the influential Johan and his clockwork orange.

Diego Armando Maradona lifts the World Cup.
Diego Armando Maradona lifts the World Cup. / Ep

Almost everything has been written about Maradona, who until the day of his death has left no one indifferent. His love relationship with the ball was not seen until Messi came out. If Di Stéfano was a barbarous all-field player and Pelé a unique striker, Maradona was a juggler of that ball that he had sewn and pampered so much. The 10th who was born into poverty in Villa Fiorito, in the Buenos Aires suburbs, he was a leader.

They always kicked him but even injured or infiltrated, he managed to do magic on the field since he was 16 years old and especially at Naples. He twice made a minor club champion of the ‘scudetto’ and also in the capital of southern Italy he entered the underworld. A life full of excesses.

In Argentina everything is forgiven. They consider him an eternal god because with his enormous performance the albiceleste conquered the World Cup in Mexico’86 and avenged the English affront in the Falklands War. That tricky goal with the hand, unimaginable in VAR football, and that demonstration of class and power in the goal that started from the center of the field, show the two faces of the cosmic kite. In Italy ’90, practically lame, he almost officiated as Cid Campeador to guide the battered albiceleste to the runner-up, as the writer César Ferrero recalls

Messi, art made regular

Leo Messi celebrates a goal going to heaven.
Leo Messi celebrates a goal going to heaven. / Efe

Messi is Maradona every day », underlines the analyst Julio Maldonado, ‘Maldini’. The Barça star has been away from the stratospheric level that led him to the top for a while, but nobody showed the beauty of his game with the regularity of Rosario. Ten Leagues and four Champions lead his record, framed with hundreds of goals and stellar performances. He has not dropped below 23 goals in the league for twelve years and it is not news when he scores a double or a hat trick but when he does not. His best years have coincided with those of Barça more ‘trionfant’.

His detractors, including many compatriots, do not forgive him that he has not yet won a World Cup or a Copa America with the albiceleste. With class in abundance and another prodigious left-hander, time is running out. He does not have the character of the Pelusa, but he is an example of behavior for his idols.

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