Goodbye Maradona

I don’t normally get upset when someone famous dies but I was sad to hear about the death of this towering presence during my formative years.

I first came across Maradona when I saw a clip of him as a child. His control of the ball was mind-boggling. I’d never seen anything like it.

Growing up, I loved football. I used to play all the time in the street and at school. Most kids in my area at the time were mad about football and the World Cup, which was always a special occasion. Unusually, you were able to see the best players in the world. This was a time before the Internet, satellite TV and global football coverage.

Perhaps Maradona’s greatest moment was in the 1986 World Cup. English fans will remember it for the “hand of God” incident when Maradona used his hand to score, which is illegal in football.

If you’re not a football fan, you may not know that there’s a lot of gamesmanship – sometimes a euphemism for cheating. Players, if they’re not kicking others surreptitiously, are spitting on the opposition, cursing their loved ones, and doing anything to put their opponents off their game. Football, the beautiful game, can be very ugly. Many footballers cheat but fans complain only when the opposing players get away with it. That is the background to Maradona’s “hand of God”.

You may recall Frenchman Zinedine Zidane, another great player, who in the 2006 World Cup final was sent off for headbutting an opponent. This happened after a long match in which an Italian defender repeatedly insulted Zidane’s ill mother (or sister, depending on the version) until Zidane cracked.

David Beckham was also sent off for petulantly touching an opponent after being fouled.

I’ve always found it unfair that the player who is provoked and reacts is the one who is punished not the person committing the original crime.

In those days, a defender would follow a star opposition player around all game to stop him playing. Maradona, being a good player, played much of his life being kicked and harassed on the field. It was probably a result of taking painkillers to help him through his many injuries that Maradona became addicted to various drugs.

In the game against England, in which Maradona handled the ball, he also scored, four minutes later, one of the best goals of all time, passing several England players before slotting the ball into the net. That was one of many extraordinary goals.

Maradona’s effortless mastery was the result of countless hours with a ball as a child. At his best, he played the most sublime football. Whether he was the greatest of all time has long been debated. The question, however, is academic because the conditions under which footballers have played have been different for each generation. We can only speculate how players would have played under different circumstances. What is certainly true is that Maradona is the only player in history to have been surrounded by a mediocre national team, and still to have won the World Cup for his country. He did something similar for Napoli, who’d not won the Italian national championship (Serie A) for years until Maradona arrived. He is a legend there. There will be tears in Napoli tonight.

In Argentina, Maradona is a god. The attached photo is one of many I took when I was there. His murals seemed omnipresent. They loved him and will be mourning his departure.

When I was travelling in Vietnam, I came across ardent football fans. Many Vietnamese follow the game. They would tell me the player they liked and then, perplexingly, the footballer’s height. When I mentioned Maradona, their faces lit up and they said “1.65 metres”. For them, height was important because they were on the shorter side. Seeing the diminutive genius succeed meant there was hope for Vietnam in football!

Maradona, a religious man, grew disenchanted with the Vatican. He’s quoted as saying, “I’ve been to the Vatican and seen the gold ceilings. And then I hear the Pope [John Paul II] saying that the Church was concerned about poor kids. So? Sell the ceilings, mate!” He stopped believing in the church, saying how could someone “live with a golden roof and then go to poor countries with a full belly and kiss children?”. More recently, Pope Francis restored his faith.

Asif Kapadia’s documentary on Maradona brilliantly captures the complex man — how he was blessed and how he suffered. He was destined to be one of those candles that burns brightly but briefly.

The other player to be considered the greatest of all time, Pele, paid this lovely tribute to Maradona: “What sad news. I lost a great friend and the world lost a legend. There is still much to be said, but for now, may God give strength to family members. One day, I hope we can play ball together in the sky.”

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