Diego Maradona: vale to a flawed football genius
Champion. Cheat. Hero. Villain. Saint. Disgrace.
All words used to describe Diego Maradona, the world’s best-ever (for me) footballer, who died this week, aged 60.
Scarily, most people in this firm were not born when Maradona starred for Argentina in the 1986 and 1990 World Cups. Maybe you will permit an ageing English expat a personal memory which may fill in some gaps.
In the 1986 World Cup quarter final, England faced Argentina. Just four years earlier, our two countries had been at war in the Falklands. As a native of Portsmouth, from where our taskforce ships had sailed, carrying young men destined to fight in bloody hand to hand combat on the South Atlantic islands, I felt the passion as much as anyone. The country was on edge in the days leading up to the game. This could never be any ordinary football match – it was sport as geopolitics.
Tucked away, relatively speaking, at University in the Midlands (end of year exams mercifully over) we packed into the campus TV room. Half-time 0-0, then possibly the most dramatic second half ever in a World Cup. Five minutes after the restart, Maradona scored with the infamous ‘Hand of God’ goal, punching the ball in, somehow missed by the officials. The atmosphere in the TV room became toxic at this injustice but was then defused five minutes later as Maradona scored the best goal ever seen in World Cup history, slaloming past half our team and slotting home.
As the ball hit our net, the wonderful English commentator Barry Davies paused for a few seconds deciding what to say to millions of his distraught countrymen and came up with the perfect magnanimous comment ‘ ‘You have to say that’s magnificent’. It was. In the TV room silence suddenly reigned. What could you say when the opposition had someone who could do that? Genius transcends parochialism.
It wasn’t yet over. Our own superstar, Gary Lineker, pulled one back and hope rose in the TV room. He then seemed destined to equalise yet the ball somehow stayed out, defying a mass and premature celebration in our room. It ended 2-1 and we left the room shattered. Maradona did it again in the semi-final scoring twice against Belgium and then inspired his unremarkable teammates to victory in the final against West (yes it was that long ago) Germany.
Four years later he almost did the same, single-handedly pulling an ordinary team to the 1990 final where this time West Germany gained revenge, just four months before national re-unification. Many Australians will recall a semi-retired but still magnetic Maradona then coming to Sydney in late 1993 and once again inspiring his team to a draw and ultimately success over the Socceroos in the two-legged qualification for the 1994 World Cup
Maradona’s story was a classic rags to riches tale, from the slums of Buenos Aires, to national hero, as can be seen by the three days of mourning announced by the Argentine president upon news of his death. Huge crowds came out to file past his coffin before his burial, a testament to the love felt for him by the public.
He was of course vilified in England for his cheating against us, and later more widely for his drug-taking and generally chaotic post-retirement life. But does this detract from his genius, or make him unworthy of the title the best player ever? Not for me, despite the heartache of 1986. I guess it’s a personal decision, or one for the ethicists to debate, but does doing what it takes to win invalidate brilliance?
He knew that as a star player in an ordinary team, his country’s hopes of glory rested firmly on his shoulders. He would do anything to win that World Cup for them in 1986, and if it meant punching the ball in, so be it. Five minutes later, his genius revealed itself. After all, were his actions on the ‘Hand of God’ goal so different, except in degree, from Sir Alex Ferguson, Manchester United’s famously combative and successful manager who often put unbearable pressure before and during matches upon referees, to the point where additional minutes, known as ‘Fergie time’, were seemingly found by match officials when United were in need of another goal? Ferguson spent much of his time post-retirement giving lectures on leadership to awe-struck business executives at Harvard University.
How great was Maradona? For me the best ever. Some modern pundits say Lionel Messi, his compatriot, ranks higher. Don’t believe them. Messi is fortunate to play in an era where forwards are (over) protected by referees. By contrast, if you dare, Youtube ‘Maradona and the Butcher of Bilbao’ where a thug Spanish defender took him out of the game for a year in 1983 with an appalling tackle that would never be allowed today. Maradona shone even in such a brutal era.
Genius so often has its dark side. There will never be another game like England v Argentina, 1986. And there will never be another Diego Maradona.