To many, Diego Maradona is best remembered for the Hand of God goal that knocked England out of Mexico 86 and his later descent into drugs.
But Jeff Powell, who was the first British journalist to recognise his genius, believes the little Argentine should be celebrated as the greatest player (bar one) to have graced the game
Diego Maradona, one of the all-time ultimate legends of football, has died at the age of 60
Many will remember him for the ‘Hand of God’ but the little Argentine was so much more
Two nights after Argentina’s tumultuous winning of the 1978 World Cup, the streets of Buenos Aires still thronged with millions of celebrants as Cesar Luis Menotti held court in the bar of a downtown hotel.
That most languid of football managers was savouring the moment of glory with his heroes.
As Menotti clinked glasses with Passarella and Ardiles, Kempes and Luque, a slight figure sat in a dim corner, too small to be noticed and too young to drink.
Diego Armando Maradona was occupying only a vague corner of Menotti’s mind.
The boy slipped away early into the night and not until dawn was breaking did Menotti have reason to discuss the future of that almost anonymous teenager.
Mario Kempes, the goal-scoring hero in the World Cup and its extraordinary final against Holland, had just informed his manager that he was unlikely to be released by his Spanish club for FIFA’s anniversary showpiece fixture, to which Argentina were committed a couple of months later.
As the players dispersed, in the reluctant way that triumphant gladiators do, I asked Menotti how he could possibly replace the great Kempes for such a prestigious occasion.
‘Did you notice that boy in the bar earlier?’ he asked. ‘He will be wearing the No 10 shirt the next time we take the field.
‘Let me give you one piece of advice. Be there.’ Maradona had been disappointed to be considered too young at 17 to be part of the home glory of 1978. But the advent of the unlikely looking genius who was to become the most potent challenger to Pele’s mantle of Greatest Footballer Of All Time would not be delayed much longer.
As advised, I travelled to Switzerland that autumn and watched in some awe as Maradona unfurled his phenomenal talent in Argentina’s reprise of their World Cup Final against Holland.
Such was my enthusiasm for the new wonder boy of the world game that several of my most distinguished sportswriting colleagues chided me gently for going over the top. But they had not been there.
When Argentina toured on from Switzerland, first to Hampden Park, then to Wembley, so the rest of Fleet Street saw Maradona’s brilliance for themselves – and were astonished.
Not for nothing will the whole world of football now fall into mourning.
The facile tendency in England to vilify Maradona as nothing more than the culprit in the handball goal that defeated Bobby Robson’s brigade in the World Cup quarter-finals of Mexico 86 does no justice to one of the most gifted sportsmen of all time.
Maradona was one of the most gifted sportsmen of all time, even though in England he has been vilified for his ‘Hand of God’ goal against Bobby Robson’s side in Mexico in 1986
As Menotti described him on that long, hot night so many years earlier: ‘You will see that this boy, Diego, is a footballer made in heaven.’
Argentina’s love affair with their flawed phenomenon is all the stronger because he was born in the barrios.
Maradona, as he rose from the poverty of the Buenos Aires slums to play for the team which represented every poor boy’s dream, Boca Juniors, and then to illuminate Argentina’s World Cup exploits, became a symbol of hope for a people.
That he is a rascal, an incorrigible mischief-maker, a troubled human being and, ultimately, a waster of his own talent, only serves to make him all the more appealing to his fellow countrymen.
They like their genius to come wrapped in controversy and bubbling with volatility in South America.
That was one reason why Pele was so reluctant to embrace the natural successor to his throne. The other was that Maradona represented the most threatening challenge to the legendary Brazilian’s unique place in the pantheon of the game.
Maradona became a symbol of hope for his country as he rose from the Buenos Aires slums to play for Boca Juniors (above) and then achieved World Cup glory with Argentina
The unlikely body in which those mercurial gifts were to be found – short, squat, bowlegged and no-necked – made Maradona’s status in Pele’s beautiful game all the more difficult to acknowledge.
Yet it was that low centre of gravity which blessed Diego Armando with a remarkable dexterity on the turn and acceleration with the ball. It was that capacity to produce magical skills at electrifying pace especially in the deadly zone around goal – which still sets Maradona apart from even the sublime likes of Zidane, Ronaldo, Cruyff, Platini and all the rest of Pele’s apostles.
The most vivid demonstration of those talents came, as we should remember, against England in Mexico.
Robson and his players of the day remember it only too well.
No, not the cross nudged in with his hand but the other goal, the one he scored with a dazzling pirouette away from a posse of England players, an unstoppable run from the halfway line and a typically impudent finish. That stands, still, as the greatest World Cup goal of all time.
But what of the Hand of God?
Does that not diminish Maradona’s reputation as much as his misspent life?
Not, if pressed to the truth, in the estimation of Lineker, Robson and Co.
Whisper it gently when Peter Shilton is in earshot but, for the most part, the England team faulted their goalkeeper for not thumping his way through the head and body of the short Maradona to clear the ball. A calm study of the photograph of that incident now reveals Maradona with his eyes closed and his arm raised as if to protect himself from the expected impact of Shilton’s advance from his line.
Subsequently, he became the victim of his own, clever little phrase to describe that momentous happening.
Maradona and Argentina deserved to win that World Cup. Four years later, he was the captain and hero of the team which lost that trophy and I do mean hero.
Argentina staggered into the Final – which Germany reached by virtue of their expert penalty shootout against England – under the self-inflicted handicap of several suspensions as a consequence of their cynical football.
But Maradona was still trying to work his magic even though he had virtually been crippled by opponents desperate to subdue him. He showed me his ankles two days before the Final – a forlorn affair in Argentina’s case – and they were as black, blue and swollen as his self-abused body is now.
By the time he got to the United States in 1994, he was sustaining himself on drugs and, after one magical but manic moment, was caught and shamed by the testers.
Mistaken though he had been in his means of trying to cling to the failing glories, he was a lost soul from that moment on.
The addictions, the scandals, the physical assaults on intrusive representatives of the media and the retreat to such absurd havens as Havana all spoke of his desperation.
By the time Maradona (centre) got to the USA World Cup in 1994, he was sustaining himself on drugs and, after one magical but manic moment, was caught and shamed by the testers
Maradona pictured in March 2020 in his role as manager of Argentine club Gimnasia y Esgrima
Argentina still loved him but he no longer loved himself.
Maradona saw himself for what he is, the little fat boy who never grew up.
In the eyes of his nation, he was Peter Pan, an enchanting child, albeit in a grotesque, misshapen form.
Now, after bringing so many so much pleasure, he is due a full measure of our sympathy.
Think of him not as the Hand of God. Think of him as the second greatest footballer ever to grace the game. Perhaps the greatest.
Think of him not as a drugged fiend. Think of him as a broken doll in a toy hospital A Pinocchio awaiting the gift of life.
That blessing which the hand of God had delivered several times before. Until the Almighty decided the time had come to ring peace to this tortured soul.