While Pele’s infirmity was a surprise, the death of Diego Maradona, at the age of 60, could hardly be called unexpected. It had been, for many years, a tragedy-in-waiting. Maradona most definitely did not treat his body well, assaulting it with all manner of drugs and treatments and, inevitably, operations. Where Pele had his early triumph at age 17 in the 1958 World Cup, Maradona had to wait until he was 25 before global fame found him, and he led Argentina to World Cup victory in 1986.
I treasure memories of both those guys. I saw much more of Pele, spending a month filming with him in the summer of 1972, in Santos, then later being close at hand as he played out his final years in New York.
I had two interviews with Maradona, was present at all four of his World Cups, as a TV commentator during the drama of his 1986 brilliance, as a reporter in 1994 when a failed drug test got him banned.
Pele always had something of the gentleman in his comportment (nothing that ever diminished his competitiveness, though), a calm, thoughtful man, it seemed. How different from Maradona, who played in Naples for seven years and fit in so perfectly in that bawdy town. Scugnizzo -- a spinning top -- is the name the Neapolitans use for the cheeky ragged irrepressible young gamins who roam its streets. Something Maradona never needed to do but, at heart, he seemed to me a scugnizzo.
I have a couple of cranky memories to share, tangential memories, a story about Pele with little soccer in it, and a tale of Maradona which doesn’t feature Maradona.
Brazil, 1972: We’re in Santos, in the soccer club’s stadium. About seven or eight of us, filming Pele for a Pepsi-sponsored instructional series. I’d learned that we needed strong sunlight, that we needed to start filming early, around 8 am. We’d managed to convince Pele -- not an early riser -- to arrive on time. But today will be a bit different. We’ve been warned that filming will have to be suspended for a while around noon. A party of important Japanese dignitaries will be arriving to present an award to Pele.
Not everyone is happy with that. Sal, the director is actually furious. “Dignitaries? What does that mean? The emperor or somebody? They’re taking the daylight we need ...” Sal was politely told by the Pepsi guy to shut up and just keep all signs of filming out of the way for half an hour.
Sal did not shut up. “Why can’t they do this indoors, at night?” He became even more annoyed when he learned that part of the award was a traditional Japanese tea ceremony.
“What the hell is that? Where are they going to get hot tea from?”
“Maybe it’s iced tea,” suggested a cameraman, who then turned to me, “Well you’ll feel right at home anyway.”
I sensed that some silly slur about cricket was about to be unleashed. The cameraman was American, and Americans, not knowing what they’re talking about, specialize in silly cricket slurs.
“What do you mean?” I asked, as offensively as I could.
“Well, cricket -- don’t you stop the game for afternoon tea?”
“Have you ever seen a cricket match?” I asked
“Not lately, no ...”
“Well then. . . “
This could have gone on forever. It was abruptly ended by the Pepsi guy who proclaimed “OK, that’s it. Ten minutes til noon. It’s a wrap for now. Keep all the equipment over here, no shouting, and no one can go across the field.”
So we stopped filming. Pele disappeared into the locker room, to reappear in a smart suit. Just a few minutes after noon, the Japanese dignitaries arrived and made their slow dignified walk to the center circle where Pele awaited them.
An elaborate sequence of bows and nods began. Most of the dignitaries were women in lovely flowing robes, kimonos I assumed. Pele seemed -- perhaps for the first time ever -- to be the tallest guy in an adult group.
There was a pause when nothing was happening. Sal kept up his critical comments. “Now what, for heaven’s sake?” Pele made a few more bows, then three Japanese men came slowly on to the field, carefully carrying a table on which the tea paraphernalia wobbled precariously. (Sal: “I’ll scream if they drop that lot.”)
“Pele ought to be sweating like a pig in that suit” said the cameraman, using binoculars.
The Pepsi man jumped up and stood in front of the binoculars. “Put those damn things away, now -- they’ll think you’re filming.”
The cameraman obliged, grinning slyly. (Sal: “Pele probably is sweating, what does he expect, wearing a suit in this heat, and drinking hot tea?”).
The ceremony seemed endless, and very repetitious.
The cameraman proclaimed loudly, “Take six!” “That’s not funny,” said Mr Pepsi, who definitely was sweating profusely as the clock ticked on.
“It’s nearly 3 o’clock,” said Sal, “If they keep this bobbing and bowing up for another half hour, we lose the light. We might as well all clear off. What a farce.”
“They’re finishing now,” said Pepsi. “How the hell can you tell?” demanded Sal, “they’re still doing the same routine.”
“No, this is the farewell.”
“Oh just what we need, a closing tea ceremony now.”
It was around half-past three when the tea dignitaries made their neat and disciplined exit from the field, complete with the table and the little heater and the glasses.
Sal, by now close to meltdown, was silently and ironically clapping his hands. “Sayo-effing-nara,” he muttered.
Pele came over, smiling and apologetic. But not sweaty. “We can’t do anything now,” said Sal, “We’ve lost half a day.” Pele, completely unruffled, turned to leave and told us “Tomorrow at 8 o’clock then.”
Sal turned savagely to Mr Pepsi: “I hope you’re noting this -- four hours lost to a tea ceremony. Not my fault.”
Among the onlookers was Jose Ramos Delgado, a big muscular Argentine, a full back for Santos, who loved everything Brazilian -- except the inability of Brazilians to turn up on time, or keep to any timed schedule. “Very unprofessional” he would say, in English.
As the wonderfully calm and composed Pele made his way off the field and everyone else started putting the equipment away, Ramos Delgado had the last word on the tea ceremony episode: “Very unprofessional,” he tut-tutted, shaking his head.
Beijing, China 1985: FIFA’s first-ever under-16 World Cup (soon to become the under-17 World Cup) is underway. A special flight from Paris had carried several teams, plus assorted journalists and others to China. I was on the plane, aware that the Argentine team was aboard, including Diego Maradona’s young brother Hugo. I tried to interview him during the flight, but he preferred to pass his time joking around with teammates.
I did, though, manage a short conversation with his (and Diego’s) father, Diego senior -- a jovial man who seemed to think I knew everything about China, when in fact I knew next to nothing. He asked what we would be eating in Beijing. I joked -- “Panda, I think.” He laughed heartily. A man with a subversive sense of humor.
In Beijing we went our own ways. I was sorry, I would have liked to see more of Diego Sr. A week or so later, I went with the U.S. team on a visit to the Mao Tse Tung museum (or was it the Memorial Hall?) A suitably large set of exhibits covering just about every facet of Mao’s life.
I became aware that several other teams were in the building -- including Argentina. I kept an eye open for Diego Sr., but evidently he had chosen to pass up the visit. I’m not a museum person, and soon became uninterested in what I was looking at. Paintings and sculptures of Mao, old photographs, documents, some articles of clothing and so on. And so on. I made my way determinedly toward the exit, paying brief attention to each exhibit.
With the exit in sight, I arrived at what was evidently the final display. A large rectangular glass cabinet. Inside the cabinet was a very ordinary-looking pot. It was unlabeled. A cooking utensil, it seemed to me. But that obviously could not be. I walked around the cabinet thinking there might be some information on the other side. Nothing. Just a solitary man, staring at the pot and looking as bemused as I was. Diego Sr.
We nodded to each other. I was about to ask him if he had any idea what we were looking at, when he pointed at the exhibit and said: “And that is the pot that Mao pissed in” and gave me an impudent grin.
And then I knew where Diego Jr. got his scugnizzo personality from, his impishness. He had a word for it. He once predicted that Argentina would beat Germany in an upcoming game, “because we have more picardia.”
The word even sounds right. The dictionary gives “slyness” as one definition. Trickiness would be a more general description, broad enough to take in both Maradona’s amazing ball skills and his “hand of God” goal. The picardia has always been there. Remember, in his debut game as a first-team pro in 1976 -- he was 15 years old -- he pulled off an extraordinary nutmeg against a seasoned opponent. Diego Jr. was a player brimming over with colorful, exciting and just plain brilliant picardia, a wonderfully irreverent talent that could not be suppressed, not by his opponents, and certainly not by himself.
Some years later, when I had spoken with Maradona and seen more of his on-field talents, I would recall that piss-pot moment and ponder that if there be a gene for picardia it was clearly handed down to him. Thank you, Diego Sr.