Maradona memories

Diego Maradona turns 55 on October 30. Team Sportstar wishes the legend a very Happy Birthday. We reproduce a Kicking Around column which appeared in Sportstar on November 15, 2008 to celebrate the iconic No. 10.

Diego Armando won over hearts during his visit to Kerala in 2012.   -  H. Vibhu

Diego Maradona during the Rugby World Cup semifinal between Argentina and Australia in London. The football legend is still a fan favourite.   -  AP

Perhaps it was written in the stars. That one day Diego Maradona, star of Argentinian stars, would emerge from his various travails and manage the national team which he had twice inspired to World Cup success. Diego himself says that he was surprised to be chosen. But he seems blessedly to have recovered from his enormous physical problems, much influenced by drugs, cured it seems in his Cuban sojourn, to emerge a far slimmer, more healthy figure.

To question his appointment on the grounds of lack of managerial experience would perhaps be mistaken.

After all he has been twice in charge of clubs, albeit only briefly. And other Titans of the game, Franz Beckenbauer and Jurgen Klinsmann of Germany, Michel Platini of France, were made managers of their national team with no managerial experience at all.

On the field, Maradona was beyond doubt a priceless inspiration to his Argentine teams. It is unthinkable that they would have won either of those World Cups without him. And he will start with the great advantage of being respected, even hero worshipped, by his players. But, as we well know, his temperament has always been explosive, his career however glittering was punctuated by episodes of violence and contention.

Still, he will have at his shoulder Carlos Bilardo, manager of the World Cup winning Argentine teams. The national manager who shrugged off the criticisms of the country’s President to win the World Cup in Mexico in 1986. A qualified research medical doctor, he was also the man who headed poor Nobby Stiles above the eye in the notorious World Club Cup match in Buenos Aires in 1968; a game if you can thus describe it which I saw. Stiles himself was, ironically, sent off for a trivial offence.

Maradona was a boy wonder, a star at 16 who, surprisingly, was at 17 left out of the Argentina 1978 World Cup squad by his mentor, Cesar “El Flaco” Menotti. Surely a mistake. Alonso, who filled Maradona’s spot, was competent enough, but given the fact that Argentina prevailed in their vital last qualifying pool match against Peru because they unquestionably bought the game, and given how very nearly they lost the final to Holland, you might think that Maradona even then might have made a difference.

Curiously, he didn’t make all that much four years later in Spain, though he was very much the victim in the match against Italy, in Barcelona, when he was continually obstructed by the notorious Claudio Gentile; who got away with it. It looked as if Maradona took out his frustration on the unfortunate Brazilian midfielder Batista in the ensuing game when a shocking foul had him sent off.

  Mexico 1986, however, saw him scale heights as breathless as those on which, at the Azteca Stadium, the games were played. Both against England and in the subsequent match against Belgium he scored goals of dazzling solo virtuosity, spinning his way past man after man. Even if there were those who thought that the goal against England might have been somewhat conditioned by the fact that he had previously scored with the notorious ‘Hand of God’, punching the ball home when keeper Peter Shilton went for it. “The England team,” Gianni Melidoni, the Italian critic, told me, “were still in state of shock, like a man who has just had his wallet stolen.” There was no doubt however that Maradona was the shining inspiration of his team.

Leaving Argentina for Barcelona and Naples, he had his vertiginous ups and downs. In Spain, he was viciously kicked by a ruthless opponent, Andoni Goicoechea, and ruled out of the game for months. In Naples, where he was adored, and whom he enabled to win their first ever scudetto, he made dubious relations with the Camorra, the local Mafia, and was reportedly taking cocaine.

Back, subsequently, in Buenos Aires, his health deteriorated, his weight soared up and he was in trouble when he shot at journalists who were besieging his house. Yet, as though miraculously, there he was again in 1994 for the World Cup in the United States, playing as though he had never suffered his previous troubles. Until, after his team’s victory over Nigeria, a dope test showed that there were several types of ephedrine in his system and he was consequently packed off home, crying “conspiracy”; insisting that FIFA were taking revenge on him.

Episodes of violence have chequered his career. Not least in the days before the World Cup Final of 1990 in Rome when, at the Roma training camp of Trigoria, he and his brother viciously attacked a guard, after the brother had been pulled up, illicitly driving Maradona’s car. The other side of the coin saw Maradona struggling heroically and, in the match against Brazil, decisively, with a painfully injured ankle. He did manage to play in the torrid final against the Germans but he was plainly in dire straits.

I’ve met Maradona only once and it was a beguiling occasion, one which showed another side of this complex, gifted and impulsive man. The scene was the little stadium of an Italian C2 club, Latina, the town dug out of the swamps by Mussolini. Napoli came to play a friendly game against the local team and another C2 side in Civita Vecchia, each of whom played one half. Maradona, far from eliciting applause, trotted happily on to the field, pursued by a retinue of delighted small boys. He then proceeded to play the whole of the game, which few expected, enthralling the crowd with his shots and insidious free kicks.

Afterwards, I knocked on the door of the Napoli dressing room. It was opened by Maradona’s Press officer, Senor Blanco who reminded me we’d met in Buenos Aires in the office of the magazine, El Grafico. I told an amused Maradona that when a year earlier, I’d been at the same stadium it was to watch my 17-year-old son Toby play midfield for the Formia youth team against Latina. A pleasant meeting.

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