When you talk about people being geniuses, when you talk about people having a natural sporting talent, and, when you talk about a sports person that only comes around once every so often, then Diego Armando Maradona fits that bill perfectly.
Born in the suburbs of Buenos Aires, in a slum area named Lanus, this young sturdy lad rose from the back alleyways where football was a way of life, to become the messiah of Argentina and all of its enlightenments. On world footballing terms, he was the new kid on the block come the late 70’s.
Having missed out on the selection for the 1978 FIFA World Cup finals in Argentina, as he was no more than a 16 year-old lad, Maradona then sprang the curtain wide open for all to see, in massive anticipation, after Argentina had won the 78 World Cup.
Cesar Menotti, the chain-smoking manager of the country, in 1979, then added Diego to his future plans. Having been staring for Boca Juniors on a weekly basis, there was not much choice but to include the up and coming miracle worker in the national side.
My first personal recollection of this up and coming wonder player that the whole world was talking about, was at Hampden Park in 1979 when Scotland, and a very strong Scotland team at that, welcomed “The Argies” as part of their tour to the home islands.
During the game, this small, but extremely strong lad, showed glimpses of such magic that it actually had to be viewed again to see how constructive his instrumental excellence was. When on the ball he was in charge of cavalry. Let’s say, it was quite evident that he was already stamping that quintessential authority at a young age that would stand his international career in great stead over the course of future years.
Scotland were beaten 3-0 on the night by Argentina, however, it was really the young lad from Boca Juniors who created more damage for the boys in blue to deal with than they were capable off handling.
The next time anyone from this hemisphere witnessed Maradona in the flesh was when England entertained Argentina in 1980 at Wembley stadium. The home of football witnessed some play and skills that night from the little “Argie Tank” that it would never forget.
In a number of moments of complete remarkable genius, the first when having taken the ball from his defenders in the middle of the park, to literally dribbling past six top-class English players to skipping the ball past the late Ray Clemence as if it was like a magician with a wand casting a spell.
Another moment of magic was when he had the ball on the wing and swayed his way inside to create an opening leaving five England players wondering what had happened, scenes like this are indented in my footballing memory, forever.
Diego Maradona was not like any other footballer of his time. The standard of world football in this era was totally exceptional. Every nation had top class and world class players, but then Argentina had Maradona. To say he was a little bit above would have been an understatement. Diego Maradona was clearly the best player in the world come the 80s.
Having qualified for the 1982 World Cup as Holders, Argentina with Maradona were looking to rubber stamp to the work that they were the best and had the best player. It didn’t pan out that way though as the young and somewhat rebellious Maradona ended up being sent off against their arch nemesis South American rivals Brazil in the second round in the heat of the Sarria Stadium, Barcelona in front of 44,000 fans.
A high footed tackle on Brazil’s Batista spelled the end of the dream for Maradona this time.
There would be another time.
In Mexico 1986, The FIFA World Cup Finals were to take place. This was on South American soil which offered some advantage to the South American representatives. None less than Argentina who felt at this stage they were more than capable of regaining the holy grail.
Since the failure of 1982, Maradona had signed from Boca Juniors to Barcelona for a redord fee at that time of £5 million where he had become an instant hit in La Liga. He was feared throughout the land. In 1983, under coach ex Argentina manger Cesar Menotti, Barcelona and Maradona won the Copa Del Rey, the Spanish cup beating Real Madrid in the process as well as the Spanish Super Cup beating Athletico Bilbao.
Then later in 1983 Maradona undergoes an attack on the pitch by “The Butcher of Bilbao,” Alexandro Goikoetxea which could have spelled catastrophe for his career. With a terrible ankle injury, instead of laying down, Diego went through the rehab of the next four to six months and bounced back. However, there was to be a change of direction in his career.
Maradona arrived in Naples and was presented to the world media as a Napoli player on 5 July 1984, where he was welcomed by 75,000 fans at his presentation at the club stadium which had never witnessed this likes before. The importance of such a player of such stardom as Maradona signing for a club situated in an area where riches were far from being common, Sports writer David Goldblatt commented, “It was like as if the fans were convinced that the saviour had arrived.” A local newspaper stated that despite the lack of a “mayor, houses, schools, buses, employment and sanitation, none of this matters because we have Maradona”.
In his first season for Napoli he represented this smaller club and slowly showed glimpses of his old self, before the injury in Spain. The first season was to take its time in passing, however, his fitness was picking up and with the FIFA World Cup in Mexico in the summer of 86, it was not hard to know what Diego’s goal was.
Mexico 86 was the summer of footballing love as the anticipation around the world was would Diego do himself justice after his failure of 82? or, would he become the king of the footballing world? These were some of the questions buring on the lips of every football fan in the universe.
The tournament started for Diego with the usual heat of the media following him around, even though he was with the squad. Television crews would be looking over the fence of their training ground trying to catch a glimpse of his genius.
The first game Argentina played was vs South Korea who posed no threat whatsoever and they ran out the 3-1 comfortable winners with Maradona creating some great openings without scoring himself.
Their second game was a 1-1 draw vs the Italians where Maradona scored a wonderful equaliser which started of by him leaving Claudio Gentile and Antonio Scirea in their wake and creating a one two to get on the end of it and slice the ball finely into the net leaving Giovanni Galli in the Italian net helpless.
In their last group game Argentina defeated Bulgaria by 2-0 where Maradona set up both goals for Burrachaga and Valdano, his strike partners.
In the second round Argentina were drawn with Uruguay. This was the last 16. The winners would go on to play England in the quarter finals. Uruguay traditionally are the old bitter rivals due to the first world cup in 1930 where Argentina were hot favourites only to be defeated in the final by Uruguay. However, Argentina made amends this time and beat them 1-0, even though Diego had a goal disallowed.
In the last 8 it was Argentina v England in one of the most hotly anticipated games of the century. Both countries had been at war in the Las Malvinas ( The Falkland Islands) in 1982 ans there was a bitter taste in the mouth of both societies, however, in sport this can not come into such an event, but try telling that to 100,000 mixed fans.
During the game the English were well aware that it would only take one moment of magic for Diego Maradona to cause mayhem. After the start of the second half Diego Maradona had latched onto the ball from 30 yards out.
After ripping through four English players as if they were not there he then played a one-two with Jorge Valdano, the return the ball was played in high and this left Diego and Peter Shilton to contest for the ball. The rest is history. The Hand of God appeared and this is what created the most fascinating talked about moments world football is most likely ever to witness.
The referee gave the goal which was clearly a hand ball and Argentina went up 1-0 to the total aberration of the English team and bench who were almost feeling totally cheated by this terrible decision.
However, only 5 minutes later the small stocky lad from Buenos Aires got the ball just inside his own half. In a turn that any ballet dancer would have been proud of, he removed three English midfielders from the play. He then made a chase for the goals and by beating a further five players by swerving left to right swapping the ball from foot to foot he then made his last move by pulling the ball past the outcoming Peter Shilton, only to slot the goal into the open English net which in many ways, to this day, is possibly the greatest individual goal ever seen, not only in world cup history but in footballing history.
Against Belgium, in the semi-finals, he had played what many think was his greatest game. In scoring twice he created another moment of Maradona magic. On collecting the ball in midfield he cruised forward and while leaving four Belgian defenders in his wake, he then swerved to the side and slipped the ball under the outcoming Jean Marie Pfaff in the Belgian net for another truly wonderful Maradona moment.
He was like lightning, but instead, he struck twice. The two goals he scored steered Argentina to the world cup final again where they would meet West Germany in a game that would wet the lips of any fan.
This was the climax of four years hard work since Diego had walked off the pitch in Spain in tears after being red carded in their last game of the tournament where they lost the trophy they won in Buenos Aires in 1978. This meant more than anything to Argentina.
West German would prove to be a formidable opponent and during the game showed moments of worry for the Argies, however, going in at half time Argentina had one hand on the cup with a Jose Luiz Brown goal after 23 mins where he headed in from a cross from the right hand side of the field.
After the half Argentina knew that a quick goal could almost give them two hands touching the trophy and this was created by Jorge Valdano who after some great play by Diego Maradona was set free to slot the ball calmly below Schumacher in the German goal to make it 2-0. Surely this was it, surely Argentina had the cup within their grasp.
Anyone who knows football, especially international football, will then understand that West Germany never ever went down without a fight. Karl Heinz Rummenigge, former European player of the year and one of the greatest german players of all time, with all the tricks and cards up his sleeve any team could wish for, grabbed a goal for his team in the 74th minute giving some hope.
And, in the 83rd minute Rudi Voeller, a centre forward with goal scoring pedigree equalised with a header providing the watching fans with a finishing spectacle like never ever witnessed before.
It was 2-2. Were the Argentinians on their last legs? Did they have anything left? Were the Germans about to score another to cause a massive upturn in the games events? Was there going to be one last glimpse of magic that would steer one of the teams to victory?
Minutes later the ball fell to Diego Maradona who slipped a wonderful ball through to the on running Jorge Burruchaga who when making it clean through on goal and one on one with Schumacher, he coolly slotted the ball below him and in celebration created hysterical emotion among the team who were in realisation of their dream.
The referee played out the last minutes of the game and on the final whistle Diego Armando Maradona, the small stocky lad from the slums of Lanus in Buenos Aires, was therefore hailed higher as the king not only of the footballing world, but of Argentina.
Diego Maradona, at this moment in time, in Mexico 1986, reached the top. Anything he would do after this would never have the same measure. In club football he did go on to win Serie-A with Napoli in the 1986/87 season where the contagious outbreak of overwhelming celebration was a sight to see. hundreds of thousands of people celebrated in Naples like as if there was a second coming.
Perhaps to the 1000’s, this was better. Having then finished runners-up over the next two seasons, the Napolese club under the stewardship of Maradona then regained the title and also landed the UEFA Cup the following year which then seen the last of Diego as personal issues had gathered to bring him a ban from the game for 15-months.
From the international perspective, in 1990 he captained the Argentina team who were defeated by 1-0 in the FIFA World Cup final in Italy by West Germany. In 1994 Maradona was to be sent home from the tournament in USA in disgrace due to drug issues.
Mexico 1986 was his moment. It was the moment when he rubber stamped and delivered the message to the world that he was the number one and there is no one can ever doubt that fact.
Diego Maradona may have had a life of ups and downs, however, at the end of the day, he was also human.
Rest in Peace The Wee Stocky Argentinian.
Rest in Peace Diego Armando Maradona.