Faust in football

The career of Diego Maradona will always be remembered for its extremes. He was blessed or he was cursed; there were no in-betweens.

For England fans he will always be the cheat whose ‘Hand of God” punched Argentina’s first goal past Peter Shilton in the 1986 World Cup quarterfinal in Mexico.
For the world at large he was the genius who dribbled and swerved his way through the England defence to score the second, one of the greatest individual goals in the history of the game.

He was unarguably the best footballer of his generation. But the best ever? Cesar Luis Menotti, who coached Argentina to their World Cup triumph in 1978, said: ‘Pele was the supreme player of his era; Maradona is the pre-eminent player of his time. You cannot compare them. Such greatness does not submit to comparison.”

Certainly Maradona had to endure harsher treatment from opponents even if Pele was quite literally kicked out of the 1966 World Cup in England. After Maradona left Boca Juniors for Barcelona in 1982 he was put out of the game for four months by a particularly vicious tackle from Andoni Goicoechea, the ‘Butcher of Bilbao”. A bout of hepatitis also hampered his time in Spain.

At Napoli, he shone when he was not being hacked down. A point was reached where, filled with cortisone, he took to wearing a second pair of shinpads to protect his achilles tendons. Happily, the cynicism of the calcio had not eroded his talent by the time Argentina went to the 1986 World Cup.

In Mexico he received better protection from referees than he had enjoyed in Spain four years earlier, when Italy’s Claudio Gentile practically turned the incessant mugging of him into an art form.

Maradona dominated the 1986 tournament much as Pele had ruled the 1970 World Cup in Mexico. When Argentina met Uruguay in the second round, a thunderstorm swamped the pitch after half-time but his skills shone through the elements.

He began the quarterfinal against England quietly. Then, five minutes into the second half, he ran at their defence only to lose possession. Steve Hodge lifted the ball back over his head hoping that Shilton would gather it, as indeed he should have done. But Maradona reached it a fraction ahead of the goalkeeper and appeared to have nodded it past him. But Shilton’s reaction, and TV replays, showed quite clearly that the goal had been scored with a punch, not a header.

The expression on the Argentine’s face when the ball went into the net gave the game away: it was the look of a pickpocket who could not believe he had got away with it. Maybe Maradona’s street-urchin background did influence his infamous sleight of hand, but it was the footballer in him which demanded that he score within the laws of the game.

From a position near the halfway line on the right he outpaced and outwitted four defenders before beating Shilton a second time with a goal that brooked no argument. In a matter of minutes, the world had witnessed the worst and best of Diego Maradona. And it is surely better to remember the best.

Against Belgium in the semifinals he provided a reprise in miniature. Having given Argentina the lead with a slick finish, he gathered the ball near the edge of the penalty area and with less space to work in still managed to bamboozle four defenders before scoring their second.

In the final against West Germany he was marked by Lothar Matthäus and showed his unselfish side. Declining to embark on solo runs, he concentrated on bringing others into the game.

The Germans, having gone two behind, typically recovered to draw level with eight minutes remaining. Maradona kept his cool and within two minutes had found the perfect pace and weight of through-pass to send Jorge Burruchaga in for the winner.

When Argentina defended the World Cup in Italy in 1990 his career was on the wane. Yet he was still a sporadic influence and, in the second round, set up Claudio Caniggia’s winner against Brazil with a typically audacious run.

The wretched foul-ridden final, in which the Germans avenged 1986 against a Argentina side lacking four suspended players, is best forgotten. So is Maradona’s part in the 1994 World Cup in the United States when, having performed well in Argentina’s 2-1 win over Nigeria in the group stage, he failed a dope test which revealed traces of ephedrine.

Yet, if he left the world stage in disgrace, the game would have been infinitely poorer without his presence on it. Never mind the Hand of God, Maradona was Faust in football boots. —

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