WHO is the greatest footballer of all-time? It is a question that has been asked for almost as long as the game has been played. At at no time has a consensus ever been reached. Nor is one ever likely to.

Franz Beckenbauer, George Best, Johan Cruyff, Alfredo Di Stefano, Eusebio, Garrincha, Gento, Lionel Messi, Pele, Michel Platini, Puskas, Diego Maradona, Cristiano Ronaldo, Ronaldo, Marco van Basten, Xavi, Lev Yashin, and Zinedine Zidane; they all have justifiable claims to the mantle and they all have their champions.

An argument about which individual deserved to considered without equal in the history of the game broke out in Herald Towers earlier this week as the Russia 2018 finals came to life at long last with a succession of fascinating, exhilarating, surprising games.

One of those involved in the debate swore blind that there was no discussion required. Pele, with his three World Cup successes with Brazil in 1958, 1962 and 1970, was the finest exponent of the beautiful game.

Another was having none of it. Messi, regardless of his failure to triumph in that tournament with Argentina, was the best by some distance.

Your correspondent disagreed with them both. The aforementioned duo didn’t deserve to be mentioned in the same breath as Maradona, perhaps the only man who ever single-handedly led a country to the greatest prize in the sport, in his opinion.

The fact that each person involved in the discussion favoured the individual who had been the eminent player on the planet during their adolescence was no coincidence. The personality who captures your imagination in your formative years forever holds a special place in your heart. You never, as they say, forget your first love.

Which is why the widespread disgust, outrage and indignation about Maradona’s reaction to Argentina’s late winner against Nigeria in their final group match on Tuesday night will have no discernible impact on the views of those, yours truly included, who are convinced nobody has ever come close to him or is ever likely to in future.

Giving both middle fingers to opposition supporters shortly after a Marcos Rojo strike had secured a last 16 spot for his country was widely condemned. His old nemesis Gary Lineker branded him a “laughing stock”. And it was hard to argue.

It later emerged the man who is being paid £10,000-a-day to be at the finals by FIFA – president Gianni Infantino is keen for heroes of yesteryear to be present to see today’s stars in action - had been inebriated after over-indulging in white wine.

Such behaviour is par for the course for a paying spectator. In fact, it is almost expected of a football fan. But for somebody in Maradona’s privileged position, a public figure, a highly-paid tournament ambassador and a role model to millions, it was shabby.

Those who argued that Pele, Messi, Ronaldo and others were better felt they had the moral high ground. What a classless oaf! Imagine behaving like such a boor in public! How undignified! Send him home!

It was, though, entirely in keeping with the character of a complex man. He is, and never has been, a paragon of virtue. Rather, he is the quintessential flawed genius. But his frequent indiscretions, both during his playing days and since, have simply added to his legend and his attraction to many.

Letting himself down with his reaction to a result of a football match pales into insignificance with his other infractions. Being drummed out of Barcelona after a cup final brawl, fathering an illegitimate child, becoming addicted to cocaine, failing a drug test at USA ’94 and being sent home, his ongoing issues with the tax authorities in his homeland; these are just a handful of the controversies which he has been embroiled in over the years.

Maradona long ago left the Villa Fiorito slums which he grew up in on the outskirts of Buenos Aires, but the Villa Fiorito slums have never left him.

The appeal, though, of sportsmen like Maradona, and Ian Botham, Alex Higgins, Michael Jordan, John McEnroe, Paul Gascoigne, Mike Tyson, Tiger Woods and Zinedine Zidane all fall into the same category, lies in their fallibility not their invincibility.

The fact they are just as capable of disgracing themselves in their daily lives as they are of moments of brilliance in their chosen field endears them to millions.

No impressionable teenager who watched agog as Maradona weaved his way through the England team at the Azteca Stadium the quarter-finals of Mexico ’86 to score what would later be voted the Goal of the Century will ever be dissuaded from the fact that he is the greatest.

And two fingers up to anyone who suggests otherwise.