Personal, tangential, memories of the unforgettables -- Pele and Maradona

Pele, who recently turned 80, is suffering with the aches and pains of old age. This, mind you, in the athlete who could be described as one of soccer’s great health nuts, a guy who paid infinite attention to his physical fitness, who was ever fain to point out that he rarely got injured and recovered quickly if he did. And, by and large, that was the truth.

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.

13 comments about "Personal, tangential, memories of the unforgettables -- Pele and Maradona".
  1. frank schoon, December 19, 2020 at 10:27 a.m.

    I always enjoy reading stories like this from the past just like those of Ric Fonseca's early experiences with US soccer.  The older generation of which I'm part of really, I mean really, have been so fortunate,  to have seen and experienced so many great stars.  To me, it can be summed in one word , INDIVIDUALITY. Yes, it is a team sport but we all want to watch an individual  perform his dance out there. In those days we talked about DIDI, van Hanegem, Platini, Gerson, Bobby Charlton, Rivera, Zidane, Xavi as great midfielders but today we  describe midfielders as 'box to box' runners. 

    In those days we enjoyed watching wingers like, Stanley Matthews, Garrincha, Jimmy Johnston, Georgie Best, Piet Keizer, Dzajic, Rensenbrink, Pepe, Gento, Kopa, Figo, and so many,many more performing their tricks and stunts. Today with our evolution or rather 'DEVOLUTION in soccer we have backs who run with foam on their mouths, up and down the flanks performing the jobs as wingers but unfortunatley possess 10% of the skills of what wingers have, lacking great 1v1 moves, and poor crossing ability where upon the ball ends up in the parking lot...

     Watching these type of players a coach can learn from and teach their youth players about skills and moves that can excite the youth by able to talk about the great stars and what they did. Today's coaches have their wallets filled with coaching licenses but have difficulty taking on a lampost 1v1, have no experience what real individualism was or is in soccer. They never grew up when 'individualism' was a HALLMARK in soccer, for now it's all about 'team effort" , 'organization' , 'hustle', discipline, 'no risk', it is more about 'stopping', 'destructing' then CREATING.  

     Today, they practice ,with heart meters, GPS gear showing how much you ran and forget it's about BRAINS; like Maradona states , it is all about TECHNIQUE and BRAINS or  what Cruyff says, the more one relies on running the less skills and brains is employed. They once measured how much Xavi ran on average per game, 6-7 kilometers as compared to the average 'foam on the mouth' midfielder 11-14 kilometers. Could it be about the 'Brains and Skills' he has.
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  2. frank schoon, December 19, 2020 at 11:01 a.m.

    Coaches ,today, are greatly lacking in the SKILLS /TECHNIQUE department, whether it's the INSIGHT KNOWLEDGE and/or DEMONSTRATING and UNFORTUNATELY, what kids need so desperately through the ages of 8-18,when they are young, the most important aspect in development is SKILLS. You can't teach kids CREATIVITY by acquiring a coaching license. You either got it or you don't. Kids need to be encouraged, allow to be creative.

    The USSF coaching academy, can teach all they want about, 'Player Psychology, Anatomy, Tactics and what not, but they are remiss when it comes to the most important aspect of all the application of how to teach SKILLS and INDIVIDUALISM. I have a friend who played professional in Greece and is well-known there. He went for his A-license but Bob Gansler failed him in the 'Anatomy' part of the test, he couldn't name certain muscles. Boy, that's what these kids are in need of a coach who knows his anatomy, not someone who is greatly skilled and has top game experience...

    Yes, I much rather watch a Zlatan, then some box to box runner. BTW, at 39 Zlatan is dealing out there, leading scorer, captain, and tells all his players what to do at AC Milan. He has no wheels, no speed, but relies on 'POSITIONING' , BRAINS, knowing what to do before and after he has the ball, and great TECHNIQUE thus allowing him still to be the leader and their best player on the field in this ,so called, modern game.

    That is what I mean by INDIVIDUALISM, that is lacking in today's game. All the players are predictable in their actions, knowing where they'll pass the ball, speed no brains is their salvations.   How I miss those GREATS!!

    Watch and enjoy PELE, how he disguises his passes,so smooth, so fluid, how he shields the ball at the age of 36 in the NASL


  3. Kent James, January 3, 2021 at 11:24 p.m.

    Thanks for posting the Youtube videos.  I've always been a Pele fan. The videos remind me how far the game has come.  The skill level of modern professional teams is much higher (as are the field conditions).  There were also a LOT of slide tackles, including (in the first game) three by Pele, two of which should have been carded (one was really late).  I don't know if that was always the way Pele played (in terms of the slide tackles) or that game was just testier than most (5-3 final score!).  Pele's skill is always impressive, but many more players are skilled now than were back then.  I'd love to see a young Pele play in the modern game (and be able to take advantage of modern fields, equipment, training, etc.).  The Pepsi films certainly inspired me to acquire skill, so for that, I'll always thank Pele (and Paul Gardner).

  4. frank schoon replied, January 4, 2021 at 11:58 a.m.

    Kent, when Pele played , players were not as protected against fouling as they are today, as a matter of fact you could tackle from behind, which ended van Basten's career. The Toyota Cup once called the Intercontinental Cup,which is the best team of the CL vs the best team of South America, used to be played home and away but is now played one game in Japan. The reason for the change in venue was to keep the game cleaner for there was so much fouling and dirty play going on by the South Americans. Soccer in general, the defense was much tougher and harder....

    Celtic v Racing - The Battle of Montivideo (pt 3) - YouTube  By watching this ,you can better understand the environmen Pele played under.

    Watch this video of Pele and his opponents' fouling on him

    You ask how Pele would do in present would be a Cake walk. Furthermore, the defense today is rediculously easy, mostly zonal and today's defenders have poor man to man defender skills unlike in  Pele's  time he was faced with nothing but nasty individuals going after him...

    Italian defender Giorgio Chiellini the centerback of Juventus stated recently  that 'defenders today don't know how to mark a man".

    As far as your statement today's players are better skilled is simply not true, you would need to debate Pele, Cruyff, Maradona who say otherwise. Todays players are more athletic and physical but that has nothing to do with skills, brains and ability to see the game better , as is shown  by a Zlatan, for example. 

    As far as fields go there were plenty of nice fields ,then and  weren't made of astro-turf fields and in those days there were special crews who took care of stadium fields like they were a baby. This what they did the whole week and took pride in them.  You think Ajax ,Manchester Utd, AC Milan, Wembley ,etc didn't have nice stadium fields in the past. Try watching some old Youtube games...

  5. frank schoon replied, January 4, 2021 at 12:04 p.m.

    Kent, listen what Maradona says about the standard of quality of play of today's teams have gone down.

    Diego Maradona on the Best Team Ever.mp4 - YouTube

  6. frank schoon replied, January 4, 2021 at 12:20 p.m.

    Kent ,sorry, I gave you the wrong URL about fouls on Pele, here it

    Pelé ● How Did They Stop Him - YouTube

     Pelé against one of the toughest defenses in the history of football - YouTube

  7. frank schoon replied, January 4, 2021 at 12:20 p.m.

    Kent ,sorry, I gave you the wrong URL about fouls on Pele, here it

    Pelé ● How Did They Stop Him - YouTube

     Pelé against one of the toughest defenses in the history of football - YouTube

  8. frank schoon replied, January 5, 2021 at 9:59 a.m.

    Kent, enjoy this video on PELE nutmegs . He does this so often that defenders didn't want to rush him which gave him space and time. The beauty of this is not the nutmeg itself but the timing, the knowing which leg the defender will come at him. Sometimes he invites the defender and waits for that initial leg to come...this was brilliant...ENJOY. 

  9. frank schoon replied, January 5, 2021 at 10 a.m.

    Sorry ,Kent, here it

     Pelé ● Panna Trick ● Caños ● Tunnel ● Canetas - YouTube

  10. Kent James, January 7, 2021 at 6:03 p.m.

    Frank, I know the game was more violent back then.  If I'm not mistaken, violence inflicted on Pele was the reason they invented the card system.  I was just surprised to see Pele make the reckless tackles he did.

    As for skill levels, I knew you would disagree with me.  But I was surpised at how many bad passes and bad touches were in the highligh reel.  And, as you know, back then, many defenders simply kicked the ball down the field, so they did not need to have much of a touch.  One of the reasons Pele stood out was his level of skill was so much above most other players of his time.  

    As for zone v man to man, I grew up with the latter and was not thrilled by the transition.  I've had many debates with my now grown children about the merits of one v the other, and often pointed out the weakness of the zone (most evident on corner kicks).  My son's comeback is that if man to man worked better, the pros wouild play it instead of zone.  For me, the difference is that zonal marking allows you to pressure the ball while man marking relies on one defender being enough to stop the player with the ball.  If defenders can't do that on a regular basis, it requires too much switching of marks allowing potential gaps that can be exploited.  I wouild still like to see a pro team try it on occasion to see how it does.  For while zonal marking does allow pressure on the ball, it concedes a lot of space, especially behind the flat defenders and on the flanks.  

    As for the nutmeg, when I first learned to play, I thought that was just shwoing off (which I was not a fan of).  But then I realized it is very effective, especially when you are on the flank and the defender thinks you are about to hit a cross...and it has the advantage of usually allowing you to go straiight in the direction you want to go (rather than around the defender; you essentially go straiight through the defender).  

  11. frank schoon replied, January 8, 2021 at 9:51 a.m.

    Kent, as far as skills of defenders today and 'yesterday' , you stated in the old days defenders just blast the ball up. I would agree if you were ONLY talking about English defenders, but not defenders on the Continent, for there defenders did not blast the ball upfield like the English and furthermore neither did South American defenders blast the ball upfield,for it was all about short passes. I remember two dutch midfield players in the 70's, one of them being an Ajax player, were traded to Ipswich Town playing in England stated their necks were sore just watching balls flying back and forth  over their heads totally skipping midfield.

    Unfortunately, American soccer main influence in the beginning was coming from England. The soccer we watched on TV was English soccer, and many, many English teams and players came to play in the US. So in that we a lot poor 3rd division type of English defenders play here. 

    Soccer's evolution brought about by Brazil and the dutch, included more involvement by defenders, remember the overlap by Carlos Albertos for example, or Djalma Santos of Santos. Michels continued having his backs overlap, and he more involvement of the goalie coming out far. Understand, that the backs at Ajax were always former wingers who just didn't make the grade to be starting wing. In other words these backs had great skills. Beckenbauer was a former winger, all the backs of Barcelona were former wingers, including the centerback Puyol, look at Paul Breitner, so many great defenders were first former wingers. Dani Alves, Alba, Suurbier and Ruud Krol of the famous Ajax of the '70's and WC'74 were former wingers. The centerfullback of Ajax was a former centerforward. I remember the trend of attackers who were getting older became libero's, a la Beckenbauer types,who had the ability to take the ball up on attack which doesn't happen today for the centerback defenders lack good ball skill for attacking purposes, so they just hang back. So when you compare to today's defensive line, like the backs who run up and down the flank without good winger skills, and centerbacks who just hang back for purposes of just receiving backpasses and nothing as far as creative attack than you will understand what Maradona's states about reduction in quality of today's soccer. 
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  12. frank schoon replied, January 8, 2021 at 10:30 a.m.

    Kent,Today's backs lack the skills for attacking purposes. They are required to sort of play wing but lack the moves , and intuitive feelings of a wing having terrible one on one skill and lousy crossing abilities. The centerbacks, idem ditto, they have no ability to take the ball up, like a Beckenbauer but stay in the back waiting for ball passed back to them. In other words the skills of todays defensive line is lousy as a whole, of course there are exceptions. In the long run this is not good for our youth development.

    It is a shame what is happening with our defensive development today. It is not that we should play man to man or Zonal, both should be stressed. But man to man is the most important facet of defensive to learn first and it is the most natural. Everything in soccer begins with,'you have the ball, I got to stop you and prevent you from beating me'. It's that simple, for even if one plays zonal, sooner or later once your opponent comes at you in your zone, it is one on one. All youth on Ajax learn man to man defense first, Zonal is secondary and much later on. Zonal also dampens individual initiative, for not having to think ahead of time for preventive purposes but to wait until someone enters your zone. I think youth coaches today who follow this zonal back system do a disservice to the development of the youth.

    Note a great defender is not known for zonal defensive, which means nothing, but able to stop an attacker man to man. Zonal defense does allow you to quicker attack but depends on good the defensive attacker's skills are. In Holland a defender is judged by how good he is with the, for what good is it if he stops a man but then loses it due to bad pass or dribble or stupid play. This philosophy runs counter to Italian soccer who are only concerned in stopping the man. This is also why Italian defenders are not known for beyond their capability. This is why it was refreshing to see AC Milan, playing a dutch style in the early 90's play with attacking up coming  backs like Paulo Maldini.

    I always encouraged my players to attempt 'nutmegs' ,not for the move itself but for the 'psychological effect it has on the attacker and the opponent. If he fails , I tell him try it again whenever you want. It is a great move. Note in the Pele video ,attackers don't want to commit for this is what is going to happen. In Holland kids in pickup soccer have rule that if a player gets 'nutmegged' his teams comes off and another team comes on...
    He is a dutch guy, Touzani , ENJOY


  13. frank schoon replied, January 8, 2021 at 10:44 a.m.

    Something wrong with URL, try typing it in


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