KEIR RADNEDGE COMMENTARY: No man was ever better placed than Cesar Luis Menotti to express a definitive opinion in the recurring debate about the comparative genius of Pele and Diego Maradona. After all, Menotti played alongside the one and managed the other.

Menotti was born in Rosario on October 22, 1938, the son of a doctor who did not register the birth until November 5, hence confusion over the precise age of the man who masterminded Argentina’s first World Cup triumph and who has now died at 85.

He began his professional career with Rosario Central then went on to Racing and Boca Juniors with whom he won the Primera Division in 1965.

Menotti was a No5, always the pivotal central role in an Argentinian team, not the centre-half pulled back into the middle of defence in Herbert Chapman’s WM. He played half a dozen times for Argentina but River Plate’s Nestor Rossi had been a more talented (and hot-tempered) predecessor while Antonio Rattin was a more gifted (and notorious) Boca successor.

Indeed, it was the rise of Rattin which forced Menotti out of the Bombonera to pursue his career in Brazil, alongside Pele at Santos. They won the Sao Paulo state and national championships together as well as an Intercontinental Supercup against Italy’s Internazionale.

US experience

Inbetween leaving Argentina for Brazil Menotti played half a year in the United States, with New York Generals in the old National Professional Soccer League. One veteran sports journalist recalled Menotti as “the laziest footballer I ever saw, strolling endlessly round and round the centre circle.”

Menotti, on the brink of retirement, was inspired by what he witnessed at the 1970 World Cup in Mexico to go into coaching. He started with Newell’s Old Boys back home in Rosario then enhanced his young reputation leading Huracan to the championship in 1973. His positive brand of football, after two stultifying decades of cynicism and self-delusion, propelled him into the national team job in late 1974.

Menotti found it the role of a lifetime, the role of nightmares. He was appointed under the chaotic collapsing government of ‘Isabelita’ Peron and stayed in post after the subsequent military coup. Menotti capitalised on the powers at hand to demand the release of his stars from their clubs for weeks on end while also creating a separate squad from the previously disregarded provinces.

Results in a never-ending series of friendlies did not always go his way. His Communist party membership made him a figure of suspicion within the junta and the club success of Juan Carlos Lorenzo at Boca was a lurking threat. Menotti twice offered to quit but the AFA recognised him as the only man for the task and he was ultimately rewarded with the glory.

“My talented, clever players have defeated the dictatorship of tactics and the terror of systems,” said Menotti in one of his rare oblique references to the regime. His popularity was such that everyone pretended not to notice.

Mending bridges

Menotti had dropped the teenaged Maradona from his preparatory squad. Not so controversial then as it might be assumed now. Maradona’s subsequent year-long tantrum vindicated Menotti’s assessment; the 1978 World Cup campaign had been a job for men not boys. A year later bridges were mended as Menotti sought out Maradona to be his inspirational captain at the victorious World U-20 finals.

Quickly Maradona’s star outshone his mentor. The World Cup was lost in 1982 after which Maradona stayed on in Spain with Barcelona who contracted Menotti as the mentor best able to channel their explosive new superstar. They won the Spanish cup, league cup and Supercup but Maradona’s turbulent exit to Napoli in 1984 meant an inevitable parting of the ways.

Menotti went on to coach Atletico Madrid, Italy’s Sampdoria, Uruguay’s Penarol, Tecos and Puebla in Mexico plus Argentinian giants River Plate, Boca Juniors and Independiente.

He won nothing more while always being granted the utmost respect for the opinions which his career demanded. Hence the repeatedly requests to compare Pele and Maradona.

Menotti’s stock answer: “Pele was an alien, let’s talk about others. Don’t compare him with anyone. It’s impossible. Then we have Diego, (Johan) Cruyff, (Alfredo) Di Stefano, and now Messi, but Pelé was something else.

“I can say this with certainty because I lived with him and played alongside him every day for a year.”