Thousands turned up for the march in Mar del Plata and saw Maradona take to the stage wearing a ‘Stop Bush’ T-shirt and embracing current US pariah Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez in front of rapturous crowds. The entire event was dogged by protests, disrupted by arguments and sunk by political indifference. Bush left Argentina empty handed. It occurred to me that someone like Maradona would walk an election in Argentina. His talk show was the most watched on Argentine television, he’s mobbed wherever he goes, can count on the vote of the politician-fatigued poor and can lean on some of the continent’s political heavyweights for support. Imagine if a candidate emerged in British or American politics that had the same attributes – a universal popular touch, a clean slate (after all, his dirty linen had already been washed in public) and 100 per cent name recognition. It would be a cakewalk.
Maybe, I asked, one day he’d consider running for office? Diego paused, the first time he had done so since entering the room. He began cautiously. ‘You are . . . taking . . . from the pockets of the people,’ he responded slowly before warming to his theme. ‘It’s like using the charm of those goals I scored against England just to get some votes from the people. I couldn’t take advantage of that for a vote.’ By the end he was smiling, without actually categorically denying anything. As was once famously said of Eisenhower’s half-hearted denials that he would run for the White House, he slammed the door wide open. Clearly he had learned much from Fidel and Hugo. It was the perfect politician’s answer.
Pele, on the other hand, had a strangely more subdued reception. He arrived at the training pitch where Maradona had previously wowed hundreds of onlookers with his newfound fitness in an electrically powered golf cart and wearing a blue 1970s safari suit that he’d obviously kept from his New York Cosmos days. We’ve got so used to seeing the replays of his magnificent career that you can forget that Brazil’s greatest player is now a pensioner. He gingerly disembarked and wandered aimlessly around the pitch. He was too far gone to kick a ball, so small crowds of middle-aged men politely queued for his autograph. Compared to the histrionics of the previous day, you’d have thought that the Qataris had wheeled out a minor character in world football, but Pele has become strangely accustomed to indifference in recent years.
Despite leading an exemplary life on and off the pitch as a clean cut, family-loving ambassador for the game – and a flawless example to generations of footballing hopefuls – even his countrymen hadn’t been totally convinced by him. In Brazil he was mocked for not being very bright, lambasted for a disastrous but well-meaning tenure as Brazilian sports minister and derided for signing up to be the face of Brazilian Viagra. He quickly withdrew his support when the press began to question his virility. It probably wasn’t the best move in a country gripped by machismo. Yet Maradona’s failings are all but forgotten. Maybe it’s because a flawed genius is someone who can be more easily empathised with. He’s one of us, really. Or maybe it’s because a flawed genius still leaves room for speculation. If he’d played like that half-cut, imagine what he’d have been like sober?
For a true, unadulterated genius like Pele, it must be infuriating, although you wouldn’t know that from the warm smiles that greeted the half-empty press conference. No one seemed that bothered and, besides, the Q&A session was cut short after fifteen minutes as the Emir had demanded luncheon with his two temporary charges. And no one can say no to the Emir. As Pele rose and walked to the exit, a journalist from the Daily Mirror dived at the Brazilian’s feet. It was a fascinating sight, watching a British hack at work. He’d managed to put his arm around Pele’s neck in such a way that he was unable to escape and his security couldn’t prise the Mirror man off. I guess the ‘Pele neck lock’ is something you learn in your first week.
Yet Maradona’s failings are all but forgotten. Maybe it’s because a flawed genius is someone who can be more easily empathised with. He’s one of us, really. Or maybe it’s because a flawed genius still leaves room for speculation. If he’d played like that half-cut, imagine what he’d have been like sober?
He clung on for dear life, just long enough for his photographer to get a snap of the happy moment, to prove to the Mirror’s avid readers that the two had been friends all their lives: Pele grinning crazily, the hack smiling as if hugging his best man. When security had managed to lever him off, Pele’s handler, puce with rage, admonished the Mirror man for disrespecting Pele. In the distance, Pele was disappearing down a corridor, still smiling and waving to no one in particular. You sensed that, after a weekend in Maradona’s shadow, Pele was simply glad for some attention. Any attention.
The lights dimmed and the crowd were in their seats waiting for the main event. In the main hall of Qatar’s Aspire stadium, the local dignitaries in their white dishdashas chattered in animated Arabic at the front whilst journalists and photographers crowded around the hastily erected stage. Qatar’s policy of sporting investment was about to reach its apex. First, Pele modestly sauntered in. Polite applause followed. Then Maradona entered. Perhaps it’s the rabid welcoming from the crowd, or the fact that the spotlight sparkled off his white suit jacket adorned with bright silver thread, but the moment feels less like a meeting of two equals, and more like Diego’s coronation. And then the two shook hands.
A thousand flashes followed, capturing the moment when Pele and Diego buried the hatchet. Except this wasn’t the moment they really buried the hatchet. Pele had been Maradona’s first guest on his talk show debut earlier that year. There wasn’t even any real warmth in their reconciliation but the Pele and Maradona show had become big business and useful for both men: a vehicle for Maradona’s rehabilitation and an opportunity for Pele to counter his detractors whilst both were handsomely rewarded for their time.
Maradona admitted as much when the discussion started – a supposedly adversarial ‘debate’ on sportsmanship. Presumably the Qataris had hoped that Pele would represent the fair-minded professional, with Maradona taking the role of the Machiavellian magician, willing to bend the rules and invoke God to get the right result. “We just never clicked,” admitted Maradona, glancing over at Pele. “We always rubbed each other up the wrong way. We would see each other and sparks would fly.” And he didn’t stop there, kicking out against the press that hounded him and the football authorities that doubted him. “I was addicted . . . drugging myself. Then I would play football without sleeping, eating or even drinking water,” he said, getting increasingly irate. “The media really only emphasised my drug addiction – they wanted a drugs story. All they wanted to do was publicise drugs. They wanted to kill Maradona and I make no apologies for my behaviour to the press.”
His behaviour related to the time he tried to shoot a couple of Argentinean journalists, who had been stationed outside his house. But then Maradona exceeded himself, comparing himself to the one person less popular than George W. Bush amongst the crowd. “To defend my family I will become Bin Laden. And if that’s what it takes I’ll become the fiercest human being on the planet.” Everyone took an intake of breath, Maradona looked at Pele and they both laughed. The rest of the crowd laughed with them. The debate finished and, sensing that Qatar was unlikely to see the two greatest footballers of the 20th century ever again, the crowd rushed the stage.
I followed but the crush took me to the right, where Maradona was standing. To the left, Pele stood on his own. The crowd clambered onto the stage and surrounded Diego, desperate for one last signature. A Qatari man with a walkie-talkie manfully tried to hold back the hordes, screaming for the crowd to get back. The stage was buckling under the collective weight of the scrum but all I could see in the melee was the top of Diego’s unkempt hair, buried in a sea of adoring fans. Unable to move, I looked over to Pele. He was being ushered away. Not for the first time in Pele’s life, not even for the first time in Qatar, Maradona had stolen the show.
This is an extract from James Montague’s When Friday Comes: Football in the War Zone (Mainstream)
Click here for more Football and Sport stories
Click here to follow Sabotage Times on Twitter
Click here to follow Sabotage Times on Facebook