Pele v Maradona

Player Head to Head: Pele v Maradona

The debate about whether one player is better than another is often an emotive one. This analysis refers to World Cup performance facts as much as possible, but inevitably there is much that cannot easily be quantified. We English tend to downgrade Maradona’s contribution to the World Cup because of that game in 1986, but it is without doubt that both he and Pele are true greats of the game, who must surely be on anyone’s shortlist as the greatest player in World Cup history.

Let’s start with a look at the facts in the table below.

Pele v Maradona: Head to Head Report

Playing Time
World Cups44
Goals scored128
Goals per 90 min0.860.37
% of team goals32%23%
Winning Finals21
Overall win %86%67%
Games as captain016
Penalty shoot outsN/A1/2
Red cards01
Yellow cards04
Drugs tests failed01

Playing time: Both Pele and Maradona represented their countries in 4 world cups, which is not a record, but few players can match that. However, there is a significant disparity in matches and minutes played with Maradona some 50% ahead. Maradona’s 1,938 minutes is not quite a record – Paolo Maldini, Lothar Matthaus and Uwe Seeler all have played more – but is still exceptional. Pele’s playing record was hampered by injury incurred during an era when brutal defending often went unpunished, and as a result only played two group matches in each of 1962 and 1966. He has therefore missed out on at least 450 minutes of World Cup football through injury. A secondary reason for Pele’s reduced playing time was that Brazil never faced extra time between 1958 and 1970; they were just too good.

Goals:  Perhaps Pele can be regarded as more of an out and out striker than Maradona. Nonetheless both had licence to push forward and were a major source of goals for their country. Pele’s record is exceptional with 12 goals in 14 games, or 0.86 of a goal every 90 minutes, and he scored 32% of his team’s goals when he was on the pitch. Maradona’s goal statistics are good but not spectacular, with 8 goals at an average of 0.37 goals per 90 minutes and 23% of his team’s goals. It is true that the Brazil sides of 1958 and 1970 were more dominant against other teams than were the Argentina sides of 1982 to 1994, but the difference in their statistics is more than can be reasonably explained by this.

Winning: Awarding a winners’ medal only to players who actually played in the final means that Pele has two to Maradona’s one. Brazil’s results in the games Pele played were remarkable with 12 wins and a draw from 14 matches, losing only to Eusebio’s Portugal in a 1966 group game. Argentina lost 5 matches in which Maradona played; 3 in 1982 and 2 in 1990. This cannot entirely be explained by the quality of the opposition as Belgium in 1982 and Cameroon in 1990 were not in the class of Portugal in 1966.

Leadership: Whilst Pele led by example, he was never asked to captain Brazil in a World Cup and could play free of that burden. By contrast Maradona captained Argentina on 16 occasions, which is a World Cup record and, especially in 1986, often drove his team to over-achieve. If there is an element of tarnish to this record, it can be seen in the shambolic nature of the 1990 team who displayed a lack of strong leadership in the final and rather let themselves down, finishing the game with 9 men.

Discipline: This is probably the area of greatest disparity between the two stars. Pele was noted for his sportsmanship, was never shown even a yellow card in a World Cup match, and managed to keep his reputation in tact despite the frequent provocation of overzealous defenders. Maradona’s 4 yellow cards in 21 matches is not a bad record, but he is let down by both his 1982 red card for kicking Brazil’s Joao Batista in the groin, and for his tournament expulsion in 1994 for failing a drugs test as a result of taking ephedrine. Provocation and its response is a difficult area, and in 1982 the 21 year old Maradona was already frustrated from his previous match where he was man marked by Claudio Gentile, in what is often held to be the finest example of man marking in World Cup history. It speaks volumes that Gentile’s comment after the game was that “football is not for ballerinas!”

It is time now for the school report card, and based on the above analysis, Pele wins it. The marks may seem a bit harsh, but these are scored in the context, not of mere mortals, but are benchmarked against an expectation of true giants of the game.

Pele v Maradona: marks out of 10  
Playing Time69
Total out of 504036

Statistics are all very well and help with the debate, but it is for the enduring memories that Pele and Maradona stand out.

Play this for a great Pele memory

Play this for a great Maradona memory


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