It’s magnificent that everyone in England is in the grip of World Cup fever – yes, yes, it’s coming home and all that, but there’s a slightly unsavoury side to all of it. I’m referring to the casting of Diego Maradona as our public enemy number one yet again.
Yes, the stumpy Argentine cheat well and truly pinned his colours to the mast on Tuesday night by wearing a Colombia shirt ahead of kick off. After all, he’s had a significant input into the Colombian economy over the decades so you can’t blame him for a bit of brand loyalty.
And yes, he had a post-match outburst against referee Mark Geiger and described England’s penalty shoot-out win as a ‘monumental robbery,’ but the reaction to his latest antics from some England fans has been petty and small-minded.
It’s time for all of us to set aside the pain of the 1986 ‘Hand of God’ goal and see Maradona for what he truly is – the greatest footballer of all time… and arguably one of the greatest men who has ever lived.
If you can’t handle his single-minded idiosyncrasies, the fact is that you’re living on a different existential stratosphere to him. Sorry but suck it up.
We’re talking about a man who in 1978 and at the age of 17, threatened to retire if he wasn’t allowed to be transferred from Argentinos Juniors to England and the mighty Sunderland. The ruling junta of Argentina regarded him to be so precious that he was forbidden from playing in another country.
Who knows – perhaps this episode forever tainted his mind against England? As a Sunderland fan, I spend more time dwelling upon what might have been than is actually healthy.
As a number ten, he had the lot. Skill, speed, ball control, vision, flair, killer passing ability, and the finishing of an artist. He was a genius.
Once he was finally allowed to leave Argentina (for a troubled but successful spell at Barcelona), the stocky maestro signed for Napoli. Upon his arrival in Naples, a local newspaper proclaimed that despite the lack of a ‘mayor, houses, schools, buses, employment and sanitation, none of this matters because we have Maradona’. That was probably a trivialisation.
Their new saviour dragged Napoli to heights they’d never imagined possible, leading them to two Serie A title wins, two more than they’d managed in their entire history to date. Street parties went on for over a week after the first title win, with mock funerals being held for Juventus and Milan. (The brilliance of mock funerals by triumphant, gloating football fans can never be overstated, by the way).
Under Maradona’s spell, Napoli also finished as runners up a couple of times and won the UEFA Cup in 1989. Imagine if Channel 4’s ‘Football Italia’ coverage had started five years before it actually did – men of a certain age would still be wandering around in a half-daze in 2018.
Then there was the 1986 World Cup triumph. It’s all been said before, and while the received wisdom that Maradona led Argentina to victory all by himself is an exaggeration, it’s only a slight one.
Never mind the handball, that subsequent wonder goal against England, stacked up with the one against Belgium where he danced through a terrified four-man, close-knit defence, should be more than enough for anyone of any nationality to recognise his thundering genius.
Sure, it all fell apart in a blizzard of cocaine, gun shots (he once opened fire on reporters who were camped outside his home) and the notorious five-drug cocktail which saw him booted out of the 1994 World Cup. Sure, he was once forced to have plastic surgery when his dog bit his mouth after he tried to kiss it. Sure, he had to receive emergency medical treatment for being ‘over-refreshed’ after his excited response to Argentina’s dramatic 2-1 win over Nigeria a couple of weeks ago.
But if you’re going to be the greatest player that ever lived, a certain level of inherent arrogance is necessary, and Maradona has always been as overburdened with swagger as he was with skill.
On Tuesday night, I watched England v Colombia on two screens – as well as the match itself, Maradona was broadcasting a live video of himself on Instagram as he sat in what looked like the bar of a solid gold hotel, mumbling and cackling away as the action unfolded. It was mesmerising – just as watching him as a player was three decades ago.
Never mind the hand – he had the feet of God and we should love him forever.