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Pele vs Maradona: A statistical comparison of the world's two greatest footballers

Pele vs Maradona - a statistical comparison two of the world's greatest footballers.

Diego Maradona Pele Argentina Brazil
Brazil’s Pele and Argentina’s Diego Maradona are two of the greatest players in football history

“There will never be another Pele. There will never be another Maradona. There will always be new players but not at the same level,” – former Brazilian left-back Roberto Carlos

The age-old debate as to who the greatest footballer of all time is one which will never die down no matter how many moments of magic the likes of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo continue to produce. But even the most argumentative of football fans will concede that Pele and Diego Maradona belong to the very top of the tree; there’s Pele vs Maradona on one side, and every other ‘greatest of all time’ debate on the other.

Pele was born on October 23 and Maradona’s birth date is just a week later on October 30. Both inspired their countries to World Cup victories and still continue to be the benchmark for the illustrious South American nations when a new star comes on to the block. The number of players who have grown up idolising these legends is immeasurable.

The two rightly shared the FIFA Player of the Century award when it was announced a few years ago. However, there is no space for modesty in their minds when they talk about who they consider the greatest of all time is. 

No love lost between the two greats

“According to me, Pelé will always remain second best in football when compared to Maradona,” said the Argentine. And Pele’s opinion of his rival? “(Maradona cannot be considered the best ever player as) he couldn’t kick well with his right foot and he didn’t score headed goals. The only important headed goal that Maradona ever scored was scored with his hand!”

There’s no love lost between the two, that’s for sure. But that doesn’t stop the debates at all; in fact, it exacerbates them! Here, we make a statistical comparison of how the two have performed at the international and club level.

Pele was two-footed and a clinical finisher, as evident from his immaculate goalscoring record. But his critics argue that he played in an era where the game was played at a snail’s pace and that he had better players around him. 

Maradona liked to control the game from midfield, bringing others into play, and his supporters cite his performance at the 1986 World Cup in Mexico as proof of how the Argentine was the greatest ever. But the controversial ‘Hand of God’ goal against England en route to that triumph and the doping scandal later in his career will, unfortunately, forever cloud his achievements. 

Cynics might argue that you cannot compare players of different generations, but the rivalry, or the grudge, that these two icons of the beautiful game continue to share is too great to shrug away.

International career

Unlike Messi and Ronaldo, Pele’s and Maradona’s greatest moments were achieved with their national teams, something which has made the pair a lot more endearing to their compatriots. Pele is the only player to have featured in three World Cup winning teams, having tasted success in 1958, 1962 and 1970, while Maradona almost single-handedly inspired Argentina to the 1986 World Cup triumph.

Pele 1970 World Cup final
Pele lifts the 1970 World Cup trophy, his third with Brazil after success at the 1958 and 1962 editions 

Pele announced his arrival on the grand stage as a 17-year-old at the 1958 World Cup, and went on to win the Young Player of the Tournament award, finishing second top goalscorer with six goals in four matches – including one in the final. His next two World Cups were marred with injuries though as he could play only one game in the 1962 edition while he was literally kicked out of the 1966 tournament through persistent fouling by Bulgaria and then Portugal. 

The Brazilian returned with a vengeance at Mexico 1970 after backtracking on his initial claim that he would never play again at the World Cup. He scored a bunch of goals as usual but Pele, who was now 29, showed his maturity by assisting goals as well, including the famous set up for Carlos Alberto in the final against Italy. That goal is widely considered the best team goal in World Cup history. 

Diego Maradona Argentina 1986
Maradona won the 1986 World Cup for Argentina almost single-handedly with five goals and as many assists

Maradona, unlike Pele, had a lacklustre first World Cup outing as he was man-marked out of the game; he scored just twice in four matches and was red-carded in his final outing, against Brazil. It was four years later that he truly rose to the occasion, and how – five goals, including arguably the greatest goal in World Cup history against England, and as many assists, including one for the winning goal in the final against West Germany.

Maradona came agonisingly close four years later too, missing out at the final hurdle against the same opposition. His last World Cup, the 1994 edition, also marked his last international appearance as he failed a drugs test two matches into the tournament. 

Pele and Maradona - International Record
    Pele  Maradona

 

Overall

Matches 92 91
Goals 77 34
Ratio 0.837 0.374

 

FIFA World Cup

Matches 14 21
Goals 12 8
Assists 10 8

Club record  

Pele played a majority of his career in his homeland with Santos, before finishing off his career in the USA with New York Cosmos. His official record for the Brazilian club is an astonishing 643 goals from 656 matches. His honours during his time at the club include the double of Copa Libertadores and Intercontinental Cup in 1962 and 1963, six Brasileiro Seria A titles and 10 Campeonato Paulista.

Pele Santos
Pele scored an incredible 643 goals in just 656 matches for Santos

Maradona started off his career with Argentinos Juniors, winning the Primera Division title in his fifth and final season with the club. He repeated the feat in his single season with Argentinian giants Boca Juniors before moving on a then world-record transfer fee to Barcelona. His first season in Spain turned out to be a dream campaign as they secured the treble of La Liga, Copa Del Rey and the Spanish Super Cup. 

Diego Maradona Napoli UEFA Cup
Maradona inspired Napoli to their most successful era in history, winning two Serie A’s and the 1988-89 UEFA Cup trophy 

But it was in Italy that Maradona had his greatest time at club level, turning out to be the saviour for Napoli. His rise to the peak of his career was reflected in the most successful era in the Italian club’s history, which was no coincidence. Napoli won the Serie A twice, finishing runner-up the same number of times, and they also clinched the 1988/89 UEFA Cup.  

Pele and Maradona - Club career
Player Clubs Season Matches Goals

Pele

Santos 1956 – 1974 656 643
NY Cosmos 1975 – 1977 107 64
Total 763 707




Maradona

Argentinos Juniors 1976 – 1980 166 116
Boca Juniors 1981 40 28
Barcelona 1982/83 – 1983/84 58 38
Napoli 1984/85 – 1990/91 259 115
Sevilla 1992/93 29 8
Newell’s Old Boys 1993/94 5 0
Boca Juniors 1995/96 – 1997/98 31 7
Total 588 312

Pele and Maradona’s greatest goals 

Statistics don’t always tell the full story, but it’s always fun to make comparisons based on numbers alone. And there’s no doubt that speaking strictly in terms of statistics, Pele nudges ahead of Maradona. 

Looking at the sheer weight of numbers that these two stalwarts managed to accumulate, it makes you wonder: will Messi, Ronaldo or any other player ever surpass Pele and Maradona? We have our doubts.

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