By Ken Pendleton - USSoccerPlayers (June 6, 2006) — Happy Birthday to Freddy Adu, who turned 17 last week. He is not going to get a trip to the World Cup, which is no doubt the present he coveted, but neither did Diego Maradona. On the other hand, Pelé and Ronaldo both made their final squads at a similarly tender age, but the fortunes of the two varied widely. Pelé starred in Brazil’s first World Cup triumph, much like Leo Messi figures to do for Argentina, whereas Ronaldo never saw a minute of playing time, which may very well prove to be the fate in store for England’s Theo Walcott.
Pelé had already established himself at international level before the final squad for the 1958 World Cup was announced, by scoring in both away and home matches against Argentina, but he was still somewhat surprised to be selected. Manager Vicente Feola soon made him a starter, but he suffered a serious knee injury after what has been described as a “vicious challenge” by Corinthian defender Ari Clemente during one of Brazil’s last warm-up matches. Despite assurances from trainer Mario Americo that he would soon mend — “Don’t worry about it kid. Leave it to daddy. I’ll have you chasing girls again in no time” — progress came so slowly that Pelé volunteered to give up his place so that Brazil would not be a man short.
The team psychologist, Dr. João Carvalhais, was opposed to playing him. The doctor, whom Pelé described as “a pleasant enough person who wandered about, studying us all day,” did not believe in private meeting with players, because it made them nervous, or group meetings, which he thought were useless. Instead, he drew his conclusions by asking the players to draw pictures of a man; his theory being that, “the most sophisticated players would draw the most complicated figures, while the least sophisticated would draw less detailed, even stick-man, childlike figures.” Apparently Pelé would not have even passed one of those by-mail art tests. Dr. Carvalhais concluded that he “was infantile and lacked the essential fighting spirit required in a forward and the responsibility needed in a team player.”
Luckily, manager Feola paid little or no attention and brought him into the line-up, along with Garrincha, as soon as his knee came around. History, it’s probably fair to say, justified Feola’s faith. Pelé scored the winning goal in the quarterfinal against Wales, a hat trick in the semifinal against France, and a brace in the final against the hosts Sweden.
While there was some public debate in Brazil about whether Pelé should be selected, it paled in comparison to the controversy surrounding Maradona’s exclusion. He made his club debut 10 days before he turned 16, at the time becoming the youngest player in the world to ever participate in a premier-division match, and received his first cap four months later against Hungary. He came on as a substitute and played fairly well, initiating moves from deep and nearly scoring after a neat one-two. After the match, Maradona modestly harped on the negatives, explaining that he had made “a series of mistakes,” but the press were having none of that. One newspaper, El Gráfico, ran a three-page story on him and fans clamored for his inclusion in the World Cup squad, but manager César Luis Menotti resisted.
Menotti later claimed that Maradona had not yet come into his own as a player, that medical doctors feared he might suffer a severe injury because his muscular structure was still in the process of development, and that there would have been too much pressure on him because Argentina, which had never won a World Cup and was effectively in the middle of a low intensity civil war, was the host. “Can you imagine what would have happened if we had lost, given the pressures that had been building up?”
Critics, however, have argued that Menotti felt that Argentina already had enough talent to win the tournament and that he had too much ego to risk being upstaged by the prodigy. Dr Ruben Oliva, who worked with Menotti at the Argentinean club Huracán, claimed that he was “paranoid” about him. “He didn’t want any important person near him, or assuming the role of number one. Nor did he want anyone imposed on him. Menotti felt that if he ceded to that kind of pressure, he would lose his authority.”
Maradona was so distraught about Menotti’s decision that he locked himself in a room, wept uncontrollably, and more or less had a complete meltdown. He said he would never forgive Menotti and vowed to quit soccer altogether, but a close friend and his dad stayed up until five in the morning consoling him. They hugged, ate pizza after pizza, and the two eventually managed to convince him that the Argentinean public was behind him and that Menotti would regret his decision. Maradona now admits that Menotti made the right decision. “I cried a lot when he left me out, but Flaco Menotti did not make a mistake, because he won the World Cup.”
Even though Ronaldo was also seen as a prodigy, there was far less pressure on him, or on Brazil manager Carlos Alberto Parreira. After scoring 49 goals in his first 50 matches in his first 10 months with Cruzeiro, Ronaldo, like Pelé, made his international debut against Argentina, albeit as a substitute. He caused Argentina’s defense a few nervous moments and scored in his next match against Iceland, but Parreira, despite protests from his own mother, never used him in USA 94.
Why? Well, the answer seems to be that Ronaldo lacked enough nerve for the occasion. One Brazilian reporter who covered the tournament observed that, “Ronaldo was terrified. Here he was, this young kid still aged 17. There were times when he was on the bench and you could see the tears of fear welling up in his eyes. They might have wanted to play him for tactical reasons but the reality was that it would have been a disaster.”
Maybe he would not have passed Dr. Carvalhais drawing test. Brazilian TV reporter Pedro Bial, who spent many evenings eating and drinking with the Brazilian squad, recalled, “Ronaldo was extremely childish in those days. My lasting memory is of him eating hamburgers and looking at every pretty girl who walked by.”
Ronaldo did not end up contributing on the field, but Parreira, like Feola and Menotti before him, was above criticism because Brazil won the World Cup. Argentina boss José Pekerman or Sven-Göran Eriksson can only hope to be so smart, or lucky.