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Diego Maradona 1960-2020

Diego Maradona, arguably the finest soccer player of the Twentieth Century, perhaps of all time, is dead.  Maradona’s years of greatness – in the 1980s – preceded today’s saturation TV and Cable coverage of soccer, and while we have certainly the films of his greatest goals and exploits, these are all too few.  Memories fade quickly and there is also the sad flawed spectacle of the man in his declining years to blur his memory. Like most admirers, I never saw him play in person, only on film.

How good was he? He inspired passion for and against. He was subversive; underdogs rooted for him. He was transformative. Other great players played in great teams; Maradona foraged alone, elevating those around him. His exploits were unique. Off the field he had major flaws. He should have been better protected; too late now. Yet read what his footballing peers wrote about him. And watch, please, those films of him in action.

2021 will mark thirty five years since Maradona in 1986 almost singlehandedly delivered a World Cup to Argentina, scoring in the process the “Goal of the Century,” and linking his name forever with that World Cup. He very nearly won another World Cup four years later with a far inferior team when by then his greatness was fading. Yet by 1986 his star had been in the ascendant for nearly a decade after he burst on the Argentine scene as a teenager, a mop-headed undersized kid from the Buenos Aires slums. He was omitted inexplicably from the 1978 Argentine World Cup squad, a squad that was strong enough, with the assistance of good luck and home advantage, to capture the trophy. In a fascinating documentary last year Maradona revealed his hurt at being left out and denied the chance to raise the Cup before his countrymen. (Pele, after all, at the same age in 1958, HAD been given his chance.)

By 1982 the world soccer scene had reconfigured. Maradona was now acknowledged as the world’s best player and was already signed up for Barcelona for a record fee. He was also, as befitted his status in the cruder and crueler environment of 1980’s soccer, a marked man, with opponents committed to stopping him by fair means or foul, usually by kicking him around and off the field. Such tactics would not be tolerated today, when some protection at least is provided for creative players, but then it was open season, a time moreover of heavier pitches and balls and more license for the tackler. And given that Maradona did not hide but was proactive, and once in possession of the ball had only one aim, to get forward and score or assist his teammates to score, there were ample opportunities to “get” him in every match.

So it was in World Cup 82, where additionally the opposing teams were gunning for Argentina as the holders. Maradona was harried, hacked and pursued in every match, most memorably in the match against the eventual winners, Italy, where he was shadowed closely and neutralised by the inappropriately named Italian defender Gentile. In the next match, against traditional Latin American rivals Brazil, Maradona, who usually took the fouling and punishment stoically, finally snapped, retaliated after a succession of fouls, and was sent off, Argentina’s chances disappearing with him. With eerie prescience, given the shelf life of football superstars, Sean Connery, narrating the official FIFA world Cup film shortly after, commented that Maradona would have to await another occasion to fulfill his potential.

By 1986 Maradona was playing in Italy where he was in process of transforming perpetual losers Napoli into a championship winning side and instilling pride and self- belief to Naples and the Neapolitans, long looked down upon by much of the rest of Italy. His time in La Liga had not been happy. Frequently fouled, the target for every defender, in 1983 he suffered a savage and potentially career- ending ankle injury at the feet of Goikoetxea, the “Butcher of Bilbao,” which side-lined him for several months. In Naples he was welcomed as a Hero, his impact immediate. What he was to do with an ordinary squad at Napoli over the next six years mirrored what he did for his national team on the world stage.

World Cup 1986 will be remembered, certainly in the English-speaking world, for Maradona’s performance in the quarter final against England, featuring his “Goal of the Century” and the “Hand of God” goal. The latter continues to rankle with sections of the British tabloid media; indeed not too long ago one pundit declared that Maradona had not scored twice, since the first was not a goal! There was history of course, both off and on the field.  In 1982 the UK and Argentina had been at war, over the Falklands, a war won resoundingly by Britain, a humiliation which left the Argentines smarting. Those with memories of 1966 could recall another World Cup quarter final, a nasty foul ridden contest (typical of the tournament itself) where England, on home soil, triumphed 1-0 in a match that saw the Argentine captain sent off and the England manager Alf Ramsey, categorise the Argentines as “Animals.” It was hardly surprising that, after the “Hand of God” goal stood, and was followed by what is generally regarded as the greatest goal of all time, and England were out, the Argentines celebrated. It wasn’t the first; it won’t be the last, controversial moment in a World Cup match.

The difference between the teams, as throughout the competition, was Maradona. There were six roughly equal teams competing, but only one had Maradona. He led a good, but certainly not great, Argentina team to overall victory, scoring, in addition to those against England, a superb  often overlooked goal against Italy, and two against Belgium in a virtuoso semi-final performance where he created, and teammates squandered, several gilt-edged chances.  In the final against Germany, man marked, but fairly, he was subdued but still produced flashes of brilliance including the sublime through pass for the winning goal.

Unsurprisingly the official World Cup film was entitled “Hero.”

By 1990 he was clearly past his peak. He had led Napoli to dominate the cauldron of Italian soccer, was lionised in Naples, had logged breath-taking goals and performances but off the field had succumbed to the temptations of drugs, high living and the claustrophobic embrace of local gangsters.  His last effective bow was the foul-ridden World Cup 90. Argentina’s team was mediocre, even compared to that in 1986, with only one other fine player – the striker Caniggia.

Argentina’s opponents’ tactics were simple – kick or foul Maradona – something demonstrated initially by surprise packet Cameroon in the opening match. Yet incredibly Maradona dragged his side to the final, eliminating both Brazil and hosts Italy along the way. This time Germany were ready and won 1-0; perhaps the result might have been different had Caniggia not missed the match over a silly technical foul. His appearance at World Cup 94 was brief – he failed a recreational drug test early. From then on it was downhill all the way.

On the field he was sublime. We shall not see his like again.

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