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The ball, space and time were props in a Maradona magic show

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By Craig Ray
28 Nov 2020 0

Craig Ray is the Daily Maverick sports editor.

It was at the Azteca that Maradona scored the infamous “Hand of God” goal against England in the quarter-finals, to put Argentina 1-0 up.

First published in the Daily Maverick 168 weekly newspaper.

Ma-ra-do-na. Four syllables that struck fear into the hearts of opponents from Buenos Aires to Barcelona. Maradona. Genius footballer. Flawed human.

In 1986, under the searing Mexican summer sun, Maradona’s genius shone brightest. He exploded on to the global stage like a solar flare, scorching opponents with his dazzling skill and vision.

By that stage Maradona’s ability had been well documented and witnessed, mainly in South America. His first foray globally, at the 1982 World Cup in Spain, ended acrimoniously.

The slightly naïve 22-year-old Maradona was kicked and hacked in every game. In a second round match against Italy, the ironically named Claudio Gentile, kicked more Maradona than football.

Stats show that Gentile fouled Maradona 23 times as Italy won 2-1 to eliminate Argentina from the tournament. As far as Italy were concerned it was job done. Gentile’s hatchet job was complete and the Azzurri went on to win the World Cup.

Maradona went home in disgrace, following defeat against Brazil and a red card after another pounding by defenders in that game. But it fuelled an even greater desire to make amends.

Four years later, a wiser, stronger, better Maradona could handle the physical battering he took. Now that he was unable to be intimidated physically, he was virtually unstoppable. His jaw-dropping skill and vision was cast to the world in that sepia-toned month in Mexico. At the birth of cable and satellite television, Maradona’s exploits for Argentina were beamed to an audience of billions.

Mexico ’86 is the best way to remember Diego Armando Maradona. Young, fit, strong, brilliant and yes, beautiful. The ball, space and time were like props in a Diego magic show, which he bent and moved to his will. Defenders were reduced to rubble; passes were made into space that none could even imagine, let alone see, and he seemed to have that extra split second on the ball.

Maradona’s ability to avoid serious injury as studs-up tackles flew at him from all sides, was almost as impressive as his dribbling and shimmying. A quick turn here, a dip of the shoulder there and a dizzying piece of footwork created space and opportunity where none had existed moments before. Argentinian author Juan Sasturain said: “He is an artist, because where there is nothing, he creates something.”

Thankfully, by 1986, multiple TV cameras were there to catch his genius so that we can relive it forever. The Azteca Stadium in Mexico City was Maradona’s primary stage, his canvas to create art, in that glorious month of football where he reached his zenith as a player. As former England great Gary Lineker said on BT Sport this week: “I’ve never seen anyone have such a beautiful affection with the football.”

It was at the Azteca that Maradona scored the infamous “Hand of God” goal against England in the quarter-finals, to put Argentina 1-0 up. It would never have stood today, but in a pre-VAR era, Maradona happily cheated to win. But minutes later he scored what has been called the “goal of the century”.

Receiving the ball with a few metres of space near the halfway line, Maradona exploded, leaving hapless English defenders in his wake as he dribbled past them before slotting the ball home despite taking a heavy tackle from behind. Considering the Azteca pitch was as lumpy as a badly made custard, the goal was superhuman.

A week later, in the closing minutes of the final against West Germany, almost on the same spot where he started his run for the second goal against England, Maradona sealed his legacy.

With three German defenders closing on him as the ball came to the Argentine, he glanced up and with one deft waft of his glorious left foot laid off a 20m pass into the path of forward Jorge Burruchaga, who ran 20m and netted the winner. Although he didn’t score in the final, Maradona’s magic won the day.

Perhaps also, it marked the end of his best years. Maradona had scaled his Everest. He had fulfilled the promise he made to himself and his country – that he would win them the World Cup. And seldom, if ever, has one man carried a team to glory like Maradona did in Mexico.

Success followed at Napoli and disaster followed in his personal life. His descent into drug and alcohol problems, exacerbated by almost crippling knee and ankle issues after a career of being hacked by inferior players, stained his legacy.

Books have been written and documentaries made about Maradona that would fill millions of columns. But for me it’s best to remember him as we saw him in 1986.

Humans are fragile and fallible creatures and Diego was certainly both of those. But for a short time, under the greatest mental pressure, he touched footballing perfection.

Lionel Messi, the man closest to Maradona in terms of brilliance, said it best: “A very sad day for all Argentines and for football. He’s left us but he hasn’t gone, because Diego is eternal.” DM168

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