Thursday, 26 November 2020

El Diego: class is eternal

I only saw the incomparable Diego Armando Maradona play one in the flesh, in a friendly encounter at Wembley Stadium in the summer of 1987, when Maradona outshone everyone else on the pitch - Michel Platini and Gary Lineker- -big stars all: but not as blazingly bright as the unique urchin of Buenos Aires. El Diego’s team lost 3-0 on that day, 8 August 1987, but the score-line was irrelevant: the master had performed. ( Maradona was brave to show up for this match, as just over a year earlier, he had helped dump England out of the 1986 World Cup, in Mexico City’s Azteca Stadium, with his infamous Hand-of-God ‘Goal’. To say the least, he was widely disliked in England. I had watched that game, not in England, but in a bar in Miami, on holiday. I recall it very well. When Maradona punched in his first goal, it barely caused a ripple in the bar. The US was not, then, much interested in soccer (as it was called, in contrast the football - the US version that permits handling the ball by all players). Maradona, barely five feet five inches tall, had out-jumped England’s excellent goalkeeper, Peter Shilton, 6 feet one inches tall. But a few minutes later, when Maradona won the ball in a skirmish in the centre circle on then bumpy recently re-laid turf, and headed at speed for the England goal, leaving six desperate England players in his wake in a mazy run, before poking the ball passed an already shattered Shilton for the winning goal, the entire bar rose to its feet in unison, applauding. They- we- had just witnessed in real time, the best World Cup goal ever. And the little diablo from Argentina had scored it. Gary Lineker, in that England team, later said it was the only time he felt like clapping a goal scored against his own team. Extraordinary. Fast forward to November 2020. In the current issue of the monthly football magazine 4-4-2 whose cover is adorned by current Argentine super star, Lionel Messi, they perchance run an excellent series of articles on Maradona: the untold stories. Being barely educated urchin from a barrio on the SE outskirts of Buenos Aires, refined speech was not his forte. And so, fresh off a 6-1 thumping by Bolivia in La Paz, early in his managerial term of Argentina in October 2009, he faced off a hostile Argentine football press at the press conference before his next match, in Montevideo, opening his press conference with “You lot take it up the arse!” As 4-4-2 observed, that’s a tone setting sentence if there ever was one. Indeed. Messi said on hearing of EL Diego’s death: “He leaves us but he does not leave, because Diego is eternal.” Too true. A short life, Diego died at barely 60; but his memory will live long.

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