CAPE TOWN -- There is something even more poignant than the ejection of Brazil by the Dutch team they had come to genuinely admire and fear these few days. It is that their most celebrated son Pele, about whom some of the best judges of football would rather have their hand thrust into an open fire than accept that anyone was better, just cannot leave alone the subject of Diego Maradona.
Almost every time he opens his mouth he slips a little further into the role of a snarling character assassin.
This is becoming tragic or, even worse, tragic-comic, as the Argentine hell-raiser confidently attempts to advance here Saturday against Germany the extraordinary possibility that, while rising from the debris of a ruinous life, he will in eight days time complete a World Cup double to astound all of football.
Maradona won this trophy as a player 24 years ago in a way no-one who saw him do it will ever forget. Now, at 49, twenty years younger than his Brazilian arch-critic, his ambition is even more prodigious.
He seeks to make clowns of all those respected critics who lined up behind the great Pele and said that the rulers of Argentine football had committed an act of collective lunacy when they made him coach.
The improbability of Maradona's possible success in the minds of his accusers, though, is best defined by the bizarre charge that really he did not want to see the success of his superb on-field successor Lionel Messi here because it would threaten his own status as the football icon of the nation and a large part of the world.
Yet as this indictment is made progressively absurd -- Maradona has fussed over Messi these last few weeks as if he was a first, late-born son and this week ushered him off to bed and hot lemon at the first sign of a sniffle -- it is Pele who continues to play the embittered, aging man who cannot surrender the stage he once dominated so magnificently.
The tragedy, it appears, is being made not just by the ticking of the clock but something in the great footballer that refuses to allow him to see that sometimes life offers even its worst abusers the chance of extraordinary redemption. Maradona may fail here in the end, he may be ambushed by the impressive, renascent young Germany, he may be engulfed by the skill of Spain or the surge of Holland, but no-one will be able to say that he did not provide glorious theatre here along with the chance of making football history of the highest, most entrancing order.
Except Pele, that is. This is him digging into the old rag-bag of resentment this week on behalf of a German magazine, "Maradona is not a good coach because he has a bizarre life style and this cannot go down well the team. He is doing the job only for the money."
This is on the heavy side of rich from a man who has travelled the world trading on his achievements, piling one ad campaign on top of another with the crowning recommendation for the wonders of Viagra. Also unforgettably, in one sponsored lunch at the World Cup in Japan eight years ago he told a gathering of English journalists that he thought - and he apparently expressed the view without a flickering of an eyelid - the most influential player in that tournament, which also featured the young Ronaldinho, the still potent old Ronaldo and a Zinedine Zidane who had just scored one of the great goals ever seen in a Champions League final, could very well be a holding player of the name of Nicky Butt.
Not a hanging offence, perhaps, but perhaps not the opinion of someone icily detached from an awareness of what might have most effect on the morning prints and the inevitable sponsors' name check. Nor of someone best placed to pass verdicts on the money-grabbing motivations of others.
He was in that kind of form this week while heaping praise on the new Germany for the sake of a home audience. "The young German team are a pleasure to watch," he said. "It is clear that something has changed in German football. It was already beginning to happen in Euro 2008 when Germany finished runners up to Spain. The youngsters Mesut Ozil and Thomas Muller, they are like their predecessors Wolfgang Overath and Pierre Littbarski. They can dribble, deliver pinpoint passes and produce something at any moment."
So far, though, no lavish praise for the mesmerizing performances of Messi, the huge heart being displayed by Carlos Tevez, the predatory instincts of Gonzalo Higuin and the potentially sensation resurrection of Juan Sebastian Veron. No hint that maybe the carousing side of Maradona's nature has been rather effectively balanced by the dream-like passion he has generated in a nation that has spent 24 years wondering when it might celebrate the God-given talent he exploited so astonishingly all those years ago.
No, there isn't any question about Pele's right to be remembered as the world's best player. For 12 years, he represented everything that was most admirable in the game: he was brilliantly gifted in every aspect of football, physically strong in the most awesome way and his understanding of time and space often reached supernatural levels.
There was, however, another quality that carried him beyond all rivals and it is that attribute which nags so poignantly now as he insists on waging his mean-spirited vendetta against the player who for so many ranks behind only himself.
It was humility, an ability that welled out of him at the most vital of occasions and was probably captured for all time when he supplied the pass for Carlos Alberto's crowning goal in the defeat of Italy in the all-time World Cup final of 1970. Pele was so superb that day because his creativity was so controlled, geared so absolutely to the needs of a team already bristling with exceptional ability. If there was killing feint to be made and a simple but devastating pass, he would make them. Football wasn't his personal ad hoarding then, it was the challenge he had mastered more purely than any player before or after.
As he approaches his 70th birthday, it is how we should be allowed to remember Pele. Nothing that Maradona achieves here, or produced on his own day of the highest football destiny in Mexico City 16 years after Pele's supreme performance, should interfere with our picture of a man who knew football so well and brought to it such unprecedented distinction.
It is, surely, time for him to remember who he is and what he should always mean.
- James Lawton writes for The Independent in the U.K.