LIAM MACKEY: The fabulous birthday boys

SO happy birthday Maradona, 50 today. And a belated happy birthday to Pelé, who turned 70 this day last week.

Of course, rather more than 20 years and one calendar week separate two of the leading candidates for the title of greatest footballer the world has ever seen, not least the curious but inescapable fact that Maradona is the one who looks 70, and Pele more like a chap hitting the half-century mark.

And then there’s the little matter of the long running and long raging personality clash which has kept us all royally entertained for years now.

“I won’t network and lick my way through Fifa,” Maradona once said. “I won’t do that. That would make me a total son of a bitch. Like Pelé.”

The Brazilian responded that Maradona should be stripped of all his honours, asking “Why is it Olympic athletes lose their medals when caught taking drugs, but not him?”

More recently Pelé even questioned Diego’s ability to, well, you know, play football. “He could not kick with his right foot and did not score with his head,” said Pelé. “The only time he scored a big goal with his head it turned out he had used his hand.”

Maradona’s thoughtful response? “What can I say? Pelé lost his virginity to a man.”

Still, at least the Brazilian can console himself with the knowledge that he is keeping good company in the Argentine’s little black book of hate figures. Right up there, or even down there, with an eight-tentacled sea creature, in point of fact. Like the rest of the civilised world you, are doubtless mourning this week the sad passing of Paul, the ‘psychic’ octopus who gained international fame during the summer by correctly predicting the winners of seven matches during the World Cup in South Africa, including Spain’s victory in the final against the Netherlands and – of particular pertinence to our story here – the 4-0 German trouncing of Argentina which marked Maradona’s last game in charge as coach. (Incidentally, still out of a job, he announced this week that he’d quite fancy a gig in the Premier League. Dear Santa, I know I’m writing a bit early, but please, please, please, please make this happen).

According to a tweet purporting to come from an account named Diego Maradona on Tuesday, the ex-gaffer had this to say about the ex-cephalod mollusc: “I am happy your psychic octopus is gone; it’s your fault we lost the World Cup.”

So it seems octopus and revenge have at least one thing in common – they are both dishes best served cold.

Whether or not the tweet is genuine is of less significance than the fact that you could quite easily believe that, in one of his darker moods, El Diego would think nothing of letting his stubby little fingers walk all over the cherished memory of the world’s favourite denizen of the deep.

By contrast, it wouldn’t take a great effort either to imagine Pelé’s response – a solemn letter of condolence to the aquarium perhaps, copied to all the news outlets, with the promise to become patron of a charity for seven-legged octopi in memory of Paul.

But, even as I write, there’s breaking news – coming over the always-reliable internet – that a conspiracy theorist is claiming Paul really died two days before the World Cup final and that a replacement was found to keep up appearances until the tournament was over. Mark my words, Interpol will be off to Buenos Aires before too long.

As to which of the fabulous birthday boys was the greatest of them all – well, that’s one which will keep the rest of us bickering happily from here to eternity. (And while we’re at it, we should not forget the famous remark of another candidate for the ultimate gong. “If I’d been born ugly, you’d never have heard of Pelé,” George Best once said).

Pelé had the greater career longevity, racked up more goals and has three World Cup medals. And he was, as Eamon Dunphy once put it, “freakishly gifted”. But then so was Maradona, even if the freakish too often eclipsed the gift.

The nice thing is that you can have both, just like you can have The Beatles and the Rolling Stones, Cliff Richard and Keith Richards, God and the Devil. (By the way, that’d be the God who just thinks he’s Pelé and the Devil who gets a bit nervous around Maradona).

To this day, few things give me more exquisite pleasure than watching a tape of Maradona’s feet of a god goal against England in 1986 or Pelé’s outrageous dummy which bamboozled the goalkeeper of Uruguay in 1970 – an effort which beats off all contenders as the greatest goal never scored.

To paraphrase the son of god: Pelé and Maradona – they’re one but they’re not the same.

Or as Michael Owen, leaping to the defence of his put-upon fellow professionals, put it rather more prosaically this week: “People like to judge footballers as a whole but I think that’s pretty unfair. Everyone’s different.”

Well, at least that’s something on which Pele and Maradona can agree.

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