It’s a hot day in July in 1986. I am almost 8 years old and sitting on my sofa in my house with my mum and dad and my two brothers. We have World Cup fever. It is the quarter finals today and England are playing Argentina. Maradona mania has captured the world and today we will see if a resurgent England can knock the little genius off course. What unfolded in the next 90 minutes summed up Diego Armando Maradona. The sublime and the ridiculous, the genius and the cheat and the man and the enigma.
Let’s back up though before we go through that match. Maradona was undoubtably one of the greatest players in the world by the time he was 21. Argentina were World Champions in 1978 and he was passed over for the squad. He arrived in Spain in 1982 as a precocious talent but sadly, he failed to live up to it. He was kicked from pillar to post (which would become standard for him) and then lashed out in the second round match vs Brazil and sent off. To ' make matters worse for him, his time at Barcelona was coming to and end. A terrible ankle-breaking tackle and what he felt was a lack of love and respect from the fans and the owners meant he was off to Napoli, which was a little known side in Italy, albeit for a record fee, in a move that would define Maradona’s destiny. In more ways than one.
Maradona was a rebel. He came from nothing in Argentina and moved up against the odds. Naples was a ‘poor’ city in Italy looked down upon by the Romans, Milanese and others. Both Maradona and Naples were looking to vengeance against those who would dare to over-look them, write them off and dismiss them. Maradona would build Napoli into a force in European football, winning two titles in Italy and a UEFA cup. It was also the place he fell into company with the less distinguished elements of the city and drugs, girls and excess became his want.
Before that though there was the 1986 World Cup. It was already a strange one. Earlier it was meant to be played in Columbia but a huge earthquake made that impossible and the tournament was quickly shifted to Mexico in stifling heat and half ready pitches. The grounds were lovely but the pitches were not. Not at all like the carpets the best teams play on today. Maradona was stepping into this cauldron, burdened with the ambition of his nation and the pressure of living up to the billing of the greatest footballer in the world. He was only 25 years old.
He played magnificently. The rest of the Argentina side was functional. Nothing great but Maradona lifted them brilliantly. He ran everything in site like a conductor. His diminutive stature allowed him to have a centre of gravity lower than any player ever. He was short but strong and stocky. Hard to knock off the ball even though defenders tried and boy, did they try. He was man-marked, kicked, pulled, harried and harassed, yet still this man took everything and now, in complete control of his talent and temperament, he could out-wit and out-fox every one of the people placed simply to stop him.
In the quarterfinal vs England in the Azteca stadium in Mexico City, the feeling was running high. Just a few years earlier, the UK and Argentina had fought a war in the Falkland Islands off the Argentinian coast and the wounds of that decisive win for the UK was still felt by all Argentina. Maradona wanted to win this one for his nation. England, themselves off almost 20 years of World Cup exile (flopped badly in 1982) were out to show they could hold off the Maradona juggernaut.
People always say that there were two people within Maradona. Diego, the man who loved people, his country and football. He stood up for the poor, was willing to listen to anyone who talked football and give advice and help to every youngster who needed it. Then there was Maradona. The god. The deity. The man who stood above them all. He was lonely, isolated and in desperate need of more and more love. Ultimately Maradona would be Diego’s undoing.
So back to 1986 and that match vs England. Maradona score one goal and Diego scored the other as Argentina won 2-1. The Maradona goal, dubbed The Hand of God, as he punched the ball over the English goal-keeper Peter Shilton, is forever remembered as possibly the biggest example of cheating in a World Cup. Asked after the match if he punched it, Maradona said no, it wasn’t his hand but the ‘hand of god’. This was Maradona. Win at all cost. Cheat if you have to. And then there was Diego’s goal.
I have watched football for over 35 years. I have seen many great goals but if you ask me, no many others, the greatest goal in the history of football was the Diego goal vs England. On a boggy pitch, half dug up, with English players allowed to pull, kick and shove him, he danced past 6 players from the middle of the pitch and calmly slotted the ball past Shilton. It was a goal of pure genius that has never been repeated again. Even today, with more protection for forwards and pitches perfectly suited to dribbling, this goal has not been reproduced. Diego was simply too skilful, too determined and too good.
Argentina of course then went on to win the World Cup. Maradona once again to the fore in the semi final against Belgium, scoring twice and then even though in the final against West Germany, he was man-marked, he still managed to find the space to lay off the pass for Burruchaga to run on and win the game. It was his greatest achievement of an illustrious career. Never has one man dominated a World Cup like Maradona did in 1986. Never again will we see a player stamp his presence on a tournament like Diego did in Mexico. He was other-worldly. He was Maradona. He was Diego.
From there, things don’t get better for him. Maradona stopped training much, became unfit. He was still too good for most and won the Italian title with Napoli and got Argentina to another World Cup final in 1990. But Diego’s best days were behind him. Drugs took their toll and in 1994 in one of his many comebacks, he played brilliantly for a time but then tested positive for cocaine and was kicked out of the tournament despite him claiming everyone from FIFA to the American government was responsible for a conspiracy against him. The world never saw Diego again on the field. He was lost and only Maradona remained and he he become a caricature. A sad and tragic figure who had allowed excess to ruin his god-given talents from beyond.
For me, Diego Armando Maradona was the greatest footballer I ever saw. I never really saw Pele play and though I have enjoyed Ronaldo, Zindane, Christiano and of course Messi, who probably comes the closest to Diego, none of these guys are comparable to his genius. As the great Frenchman Michel Platini said ‘What Zidane can do with a football, Diego can do with an orange’ and that was not said to denigrate Zidane at all. It was there to show how much Maradona was better. However with his passing we have to remember that what made Maradona so divisive and so much a part of popular culture, is that he was human. He was a man of of the people. He made mistakes, big mistakes and suffered for them. Ultimately they took his life at the relatively young age of 60 but for many of us, 60 years of Maradona was worth 100 years of anyone else, that is how he lived his life.
As I said at the start of this piece, for me there was Maradona and there was Diego. Maradona is gone but for every single lover of football, Diego will live on, with the ball as his best friend, skipping past players in that great football pitch in the sky.