Pope Francis surprised many this Wednesday when he was asked who he favored between Argentine football stars Lionel Messi and the late Diego Maradona. The pontiff, who was born in Argentina and is a known football fan, didn’t pick either and opted to bring up late Brazilian legend Pelé.
After Lionel Messi won his eighth Ballon d’Or, Italian TV channel Rai 1 journalist Gian Marco Chiocci asked the pope during an interview who he’d rather have, Messi or Maradona. “I would add a third one, Pelé,” replied Pope Francis. “They are the three that I have seen play.”
“Maradona was great as a player, but as a man, he failed,” added Francis. “The poor man slipped, with an entourage that praised him but didn’t help him. He came to see me here during the first year of my pontificate. Then, unfortunately, he died.”
The Pope commented on the difficult conditions in which many footballers and boxers find themselves in their last years, often in poverty and poor health. He called the situation “very curious.”
“Messi is a gentleman, but for me, among these three, the greatest is Pelé,” Pope Francis said. “He was a man with a very big heart. I spoke with him, met him on a plane in Buenos Aires, and he was a man of great humanity.” His answer surprised many, considering the heated footballing rivalry between Argentina and Brazil.
During his career, Pelé was a vocal supporter of social causes such as education and the environment. After retiring, he was appointed Brazil’s sports minister in 1995. Pelé also served as an ambassador of international football’s governing body FIFA.
Messi has also done humanitarian work through the Leo Messi Foundation, which supports children in Argentina and the rest of the world.
For his part, Maradona also supported many humanitarian causes. Former teammates and acquaintances highlighted his generosity. However, he was a critic of some aspects of the Catholic Church. .
In his autobiography “Yo Soy El Diego de la Gente” (I am the Diego of the people), Maradona recalled meeting Pope John Paul II in the 1980s. He argued with the pope over his luxurious life while kids lived in poverty. Maradona claimed he told the pope he should “sell the [gold plated] roof in the churches” and donate the money.