Gregory Sica
Wednesday April 9th, 2008

Whenever the two greatest soccer players of all-time set foot in the same country these days, it seems like it's for some luxurious awards ceremony.

For decades, Diego Maradona and Pelé have been congratulated for everything they have given to the sport. They've won numerous awards of excellence, and they continue to be treated as guests of honor by clubs and organizations from all around the world that still recognize their achievements.

This week, they find themselves in Mexico, the same country where both former players excelled as they helped their respective nations lift the World Cup trophy decades ago. Both men were invited to watch their former clubs compete in first-rate Copa Libertadores action against Mexican opposition.

On Tuesday, Maradona watched as Boca Juniors suffered a disappointing 3-1 defeat to Atlas in Guadalajara, severely hurting their chances of reaching the next round of the Libertadores.

The Argentines could still be eliminated from the first round of the competition even with a victory over UA Maracaibo in their final group-stage match (other results need to go their way as well).

Meanwhile, Pelé will attend the highly anticipated clash between Santos and Chivas in the same city on Wednesday. With one point from its match at the Jalisco stadium, Santos will seal qualification to the next round. Mexican bank Santander, the official sponsor of the Libertadores, will pay homage to the Brazilian before the match begins.

Upon their arrival to the land of the Aztecs, both soccer greats must have had very fond memories. For Pelé, it was the place where he guided Brazil to the 1970 World Cup in sensational fashion. "The King" scored four goals in the tournament, including a sublime header in a 4-1 win over Italy in the final at the Estadio Azteca.

Maradona also made his mark on Mexico, scoring five times in seven matches as Argentina won its second World Cup in '86. The incredibly gifted attacking midfielder was by far the best player in the tournament, and it was also on this stage, and in front of 115,000 fans, where he scored arguably the two most significant goals in World Cup history: the "Hand of God" and the "Goal of the Century" in the 2-1 quarterfinal victory over England.

Since their retirement, there has been heated debate as to who was the better player of the two. Obviously the Argentines point to Maradona, while the Brazilians "know" it was Pelé. The rest of the world has mixed views -- it's difficult to tell who was actually better because they played during different eras.

Despite the rivalry, both are widely recognized as the two greatest players of all time, not only in their respective countries, but throughout the world. FIFA has also made comparisons between the two, but can never decide who was the better player.

This has led to much discussion over the years, and the fierce rivalry between both players is also a reason why they are still as popular as ever, and are regularly in the media spotlight.

But even though they have packed agendas, at heart, they're still devoted soccer fans and always find the time to support the teams they follow. Maradona has always identified himself with Argentina's most popular club, Boca Juniors, where he triumphed in '81 and '82 and again from '95-97.

Since his retirement, Maradona has rarely missed a Boca game at the Bombonera, where he now sits in his own private booth, enjoying the skills of the likes of Juan Román Riquelme, Rodrigo Palacio and Martín Palermo.

Maradona is a devoted fan and often catches the attention of the media with his wild goal celebrations and his ever-changing disguises. (On Tuesday, he wore a sophisticated look: black shirt, sunglasses and a white cap while puffing on a huge cigar.)

Like any other fan, Maradona couldn't hide his frustration after Boca's disastrous display against an Atlas side it had thrashed 3-0 in Buenos Aires only last month. Maybe he had a point when he asked the Boca directors not to appoint Carlos Ischia as the club's new coach because he felt Ischia was "inferior" to his predecessor, Miguel Ángel Russo.

Unlike Pelé, Maradona has always been a risk-taker, and always provides his opinion on controversial topics, whether it be racism or politics. In soccer terms, he wasn't afraid to try his luck in Europe, where he found mixed fortunes at Napoli and Barcelona. His wild lifestyle has constantly kept him in the headlines for such things as drug and alcohol abuse, to the point that it threatened his life. That is much of the reason why he was never really considered a role model for children.

Pelé, however, seemed to prefer a completely different lifestyle. He passed up the opportunity to play in Europe and, apart from a short stint with the New York Cosmos of the now defunct NASL, he spent his entire career with Santos. He has always been much more conservative than Maradona, and has been idolized by millions of Brazilian youngsters living in poverty.

He has always been loyal to his beloved Santos, and was responsible for bringing the club to worldwide fame. His legend still occupies the Vila Belmiro stadium today, and whenever promising youngsters emerge from the club -- most notably in recent years, Robinho, now at Real Madrid -- they are compared to The King. Santos has traditionally had a very effective production line, and quality players keep emerging from its youth ranks each year.

Pelé led Santos to several domestic and international trophies, including its only two Copa Libertadores crowns in '62 and '63. His team regularly toured Europe, and often returned to Brazil undefeated. In total, Pelé scored 589 goals in 605 matches for the club, a record that will likely never be broken.

Santos has recently returned to being one of the strongest teams in Brazil, and is hoping to relive its glory days in its current Libertadores campaign. (Early signs are good, as last week it thrashed San José of Bolivia 7-0).

Maradona and Pelé will always be seen as two of the greatest players to have graced a soccer field. What these players have achieved has earned them legendary status in their homelands, and it's unlikely anybody will ever be able to replicate their success or impact on the game.

Both are still loyal supporters of two of the most respected clubs in South America. But now it's up to the new generation of players to continue their legend.

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