Igor Stimac: El Diego had a heart of pure gold

Stimac, a Croat World Cupper central defender, played twice against Maradona -- in a 1992-93 La Liga match and an international friendly in 1994.

Stimac said he was always in awe of Maradona against whom he had the opportunity to play twice in his career.   -  FILE PHOTO/ PTI

Diego Maradona looked “intimidating” while showcasing his artistry with the ball but had a heart of “pure gold”, said India football team head coach Igor Stimac.

Paying tribute to Maradona who died of heart attack on Wednesday at the age of 60, Stimac said he was always in awe of the Argentine wizard against whom he had the opportunity to play twice in his career.

“Diego Maradona — the ‘King of Football’, the legend. How can someone describe him with one word or just an adjective? ... I am still in awe of this maestro,” Stimac wrote for the All India Football Federation website.

“His balance and acceleration were things that every defender was scared of. You could barely knock him down while he was running with the ball. His no-look passes were intimidating.”

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Stimac, a Croat World Cupper central defender, played twice against Maradona -- in a 1992-93 La Liga match and an international friendly in 1994 -- and he was lucky not to have conceded a goal as both were goal-less draws.

But more than that he interacted with the legendary Argentine on many occasions, including during 2016 Davis Cup Final between Argentina and Croatia in Zagreb.

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“El Diego had a heart of pure gold. He didn’t think twice before expressing himself. He never thought about how people would judge him. He lived on his own terms, left on his terms, rendering us shell-shocked,” said the 53-year-old Stimac.

Stimac said Maradona was “jumping like a kid” when Argentina beat Croatia to lift the Davis Cup trophy.

“Little did I know that it was going to be our last meeting. We were cheering for opposite teams but spent many hours discussing various topics from politics to football,” said Stimac, a member of the Croatian team which had won a bronze in the 1998 World Cup.

Recollecting the international friendly against Maradona’s Argentina just before the 1994 World Cup, Stimac said, “Very often, he (Maradona) was dropping deep to receive the ball, and his long deliveries to (Gabriel) Batistuta and (Caludio) Caniggia were absolutely perfect.

“He was everywhere on the pitch. Sometimes, he was running past the defender through the right-flank. Next, he was seen playing a quick one-two with the forwards to work an attacking move. It was a menacing task ... as a central defender, it was a real test for me.

“Thankfully, we came out with a stalemate in front of 38,000-strong Croat supporters at the Maksimir Stadium that night. But, Diego’s performance was very, very special that night and we were really fortunate to have shared the pitch with him.”

In the 1992-93 La Liga match, Maradona was playing for Sevilla and Stimac for Cadiz FC.

“He was the biggest star ... everyone in Spain go absolutely berserk. Whether Sevilla played well or not, it depended upon whether Maradona was playing well, and he controlled the side with his world-beating left boot,” Stimac wrote.

“We had a torrid time in defending against the likes of him and (Davor) Suker. Unfortunately, we had a collision on the pitch and Diego had to be substituted half-way through the game. It was a stalemate. I must say, I was lucky enough to have not conceded a goal against him!”

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