Thursday, December 11, 2008

The miracle of Diego Maradona

It was the 1986 World Cup quarter-final match in Mexico where the two rival teams Argentina and England met for the first time since the 1982 Falklands war. There was a sizzling pre-match temperament amongst the Argentine team members and according to the Argentine defender José Luis Brown, “Everybody in that squad knew of someone who had been sent to fight for the country and each one of us had our own feelings”. The Argentine captain Diego Maradona scored two memorable goals in the match and permanently imprinted this famous encounter and himself into the folklore of world football. The first one was ‘scored’ in the 50th minute of the match by a punch of his hand - it was the infamous ‘Hand of God’ goal. If the Tunisian referee Ali Bin Nasser had properly noticed the action, he would have certainly penalized Maradona and disqualified the goal as a handball. Maradona however, symbolically attributed this goal as a sweet revenge to Argentina's Falklands war defeat in the hand of the British force and remained impenitent about the goal for twenty long years only to coyly admit later that the goal was “A little of the hand of God, and a little of the head of Maradona”. Also in his bestselling memoir Yo Soy El Diego he had confirmed that, “Now, yes, I can say what I could not say before….What hand of God? It was the hand of Diego!”

The second goal was the one cited today as the greatest goal in the history of World Cup and also the ‘Goal of the Century’. This is a goal worth describing. Six minutes after the infamous first, Maradona possessed the ball near the right sidelines in his own half. After gaining control of the ball in the fraction of a second, he masterfully dribbles out half of the England team with eleven virtuoso touches of his foot (he had a miraculous left foot and rarely touched the ball with his right) that apparently made the world-class English players look haplessly naïve. He finally dribbled past the English goalkeeper Peter Shilton to calmly roll the ball into the net. This marvel of 10 seconds was undoubtedly a piece of sheer magic. Gary Lineker, the English striker later recalled that he “…just stood there on the halfway line and thought, ‘Wow’. That could have meant we were out of the World Cup, but it was just breathtaking.” Argentina defeated England 2-1 to enter the semi-final. (See Chris Hunt: The Hand Of God)

In many ways, the 1986 FIFA World Cup will be everlastingly connected with Maradona’s name. Never in the history of the World Cup since 1930 did a single player seen to absolutely dominate the entire tournament as the Argentine jersey number 10 did it in 1986. Maradona was the captain of a relatively weak side, energetically played every Argentine matches in that tournament with a supreme presence on the ground, was the powerhouse behind the game strategy of his side and was singly responsible for converting Argentina from a good team to a great team. Following the quarter-final match against England he netted two more brilliant goals in the semi-final against Belgium. In the final match against the reasonably strong West German side, the German players were by and large successful to pin down Maradona in the entire match by double-marking him except once when Maradona made-up enough space for him to send a lethally accurate through pass to Jorge Burruchaga to score the match winning goal. Argentina lifted the cup beating Germany 3-2. Indisputably, Maradona won the Golden Ball award as the tournament's best player. It is widely accepted today that any participating team on that particular World Cup could have been the champion if they had Maradona on their side.

The legend of Maradona is the universal story of a genius with real hardship behind, a career dotted with momentous highs and lows. Diego Armando Maradona grew up in the working-class barrio of Villa Fiorito located on the southern outskirts of Buenos Aires. The place was poor and troubled; inhabited by paupers, drug addicts, drug peddlers, thieves and stray dogs. Describing the place Maradona once said that “If it was possible to eat, people ate. And if it wasn't, they didn't.” Though Maradona’s family was poor, their condition was not as terrible as some of the other neighboring families as his factory worker father had a job. He spent his childhood in a shack, shared a room with seven brothers and sisters. While rainfall, their beds had to be moved to keep away from the ceiling leakages and regularly walked down the street to fetch water from a community tap for the family’s daily use. (See Matt Dickinson: Maradona, a slum and the birth of a legend)

It is on the same potholed streets of Villa Fiorito where the gifted Maradona started kicking the football along with the local urchins. Lucky for him, his genius was spotted in his early age of 11 while he was playing in the local club Estrella Roja. From then onwards it was a straight rags-to-riches story. His professional career started ten days before his sixteenth birthday in 1976 with the Buenos Aires club Argentinos Juniors, where he played for the next three years and later joined the famous Boca Juniors. At the age of 16 he was selected in the Argentine national team as the youngest player ever. His first World Cup tournament was in 1982 and he continued to play in three consecutive World Cups. He captained his country in 1986 and 1990, winning the first and losing the second in the finals to West Germany. He played his last World Cup in 1994. After the second match against Nigeria he was tested positive for ephedrine doping and expelled from rest of the tournament. He was subsequently banned by a FIFA disciplinary panel from playing nationally or internationally for the next 15 months and was fined $15,400. The whole world was shell shocked by this startling news. The media which always had a love-hate relationship with him was particularly harsh. In response to the ongoing Maradona bashing by the press, Nicolas Michael in a letter to the sports editor of The New York Times wrote:

“Diego Maradona messed up. Diego Maradona is far from perfect. All of these facts have been covered in substantial detail and with much emphasis again and again. There is one other fact that also needs to be covered again and again, with the same amount of emphasis. Diego Maradona was not just a very good soccer player. Diego Maradona was the best player to play this game, with perhaps one exception, that of the great Brazilian player Pele.”

Maradona also had a phenomenal club career. After his initial stint with Argentinos Juniors, from 1981-84 he played for Boca Juniors and FC Barcelona and from 1984-92 for SSC Napoli. It is at Napoli were his professional career reached its zenith and also elevated the Italy club to the most successful era of its history. His Napoli years ended disgracefully in 1992 after he served a 15-month ban for failing a drug test.

It is widely believed that Maradona got addicted to cocaine in the mid 80s during his Barcelona days due to his failure to cope with the pressures of success and his roller-coaster lifestyle. His addiction aggravated while he was with Napoli. In 1991, Maradona was tested positive for cocaine use after an Italian league match and was suspended from professional football for 15 month. Few months later he was arrested for possessing half-kg of cocaine and was slapped with another suspension for 14 months. After the 1994 World Cup disaster, Maradona gradually retired from professional football. Following his retirement, his health condition worsened. He became overweight and suffered increasingly from obesity. In 2000, Maradona went to Cuba for treating his heart problems and cocaine addiction. Wearing a Che Guevara T-shirt and a huge Che tattoo on his right arm he commented after arriving at Havana that he ‘chose Cuba because of the dignity of its people.’ He had also donated the Cuban royalties of his memoir to ‘the Cuban people and Fidel’. Maradona returned to Argentina in 2001 after staying for nearly two years in Cuba only to go back again in 2004, after a major heart attack that almost took his life. However, in 2007 he announced that he was finally been able to quit drug and drinking. In 2008, Maradona was handed over the job to coach Argentina’s national team for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.

In the recent years, Maradona has openly displayed his leftist sympathies and anti-imperialist stand. He became a friend of Fidel Castro and Evo Morales, supported Hugo Chávez, declared Che Guevara as his hero and grew more and more anti-American. He posed for the famous photograph wearing a T-shirt labeled ‘STOP BUSH’ and called George Bush ‘human garbage’. In 2007, he stated that he ‘hate everything that comes from the United States’.

During his recent visit at Kolkata, the public was seen to turn almost crazy. Was it due to this leftist anti-American stand of Maradona? Certainly not. What was then the reason? Why the crowd was seen to patiently wait for the entire night at the airport to have a glimpse of him? Was it just because he was a living legend? Why many of their eyes got moistened with joy when they finally saw him? Why were they so emotionally aroused when they touched the famous ‘Hand of God’? A recent article by Nirmal Shekar in The Hindu has incisively described it:

"For a good part of the 1980s and well into the 1990s, no single sportsperson captured the imagination of a greater number of sportslovers all over the world than did Maradona. From the dusty maidans of Kolkata to the village greens of middle England, from the shanty towns of sub-Saharan Africa to the football-crazy Italian cities of Naples and Milan, his was the most readily recognisable name in sport, his was the face that stirred emotions like no other, his were the feet that at once brought back memories of transcendental magic."

Watching Maradona on the field was like looking at a delicate piece of oriental artwork. Every bit and piece of his game was decorated with glittering artistry. Diego Armando Maradona was the artist par excellence who could create extraordinary moments of splendor on the football ground at ease. His outstanding technical mastery with the ball, his marvelous sense of timing, his ability to find out amazing openings between the huddle of players in a very limited space, his high-speed short and long sprints, his incredible dribbling power, his ability to take deadly free-kicks and reverse-cross pass shot behind the leg, his amiable skill of holding the ball for a longer time amid fierce challenges from opponent defenders and intelligently releasing sudden but accurate passes en route for his fellow players to finish – all this has made him the greatest creator of football magic in recent times and an extremely delightful player to watch.

It is heartbreaking to see that most of India hardly recognizes Maradona. It is also a pity that today’s kids do not feel the similar goose bumps their fathers and grandfathers still experience while recalling this miraculous footballer in their minds. But they cannot be blamed for it. They have not seen Maradona playing the 1986 World Cup.

Photo courtesy: Natacha Pisarenko - AP