Touched by the hand of God

Dave Woodhall pays tribute to Diego Maradona.

Such as they were, the celebrations for the Football League centenary of 1988 have largely been forgotten, so it’s no surprise that one story has never been widely told. As is often the case with such tales, the peripheral figures vary but the man at its centre never alters.

At the beginning of the 1987-88 season a Rest of the World team rolled up at Wembley to play the Football League representative side. I’ve heard he incident took place during a training session the day before the match, or during the pre-match warm-up. It might have been Chris Waddle, or possibly Clive Allen, both then with Spurs, or even Barcelona’s Gary Lineker.

Whoever it was, they were watching as Diego Maradona got hold of a ball and kicked it high into the air, only for it to fall back to his feet, without him having to move an inch. He repeated this trick time after time, until he finally, after seven successful attempts, had to move a couple of feet to keep possession. After the match the witness to this incredible feat of skill went back to his club and told his team-mates what he’d witnessed. They weren’t particularly impressed, so he challenged them to try, and after a few tries a couple of them managed it, once. That wasn’t the only time Maradona proved that he was, perhaps, the most skilful footballer who ever lived.

Everything that could have been said about him has been, many times over, and then repeated a few more times in the past few hours. How much is true and how much fiction only he ever knew, although whatever was said, he never bothered to deny any of it. However good he was as a footballer, Maradona was never anything other than his own man off the field, and whether you loved or loathed him, you can’t but admit a sneaking admiration for an icon who never, ever gave the slightest thought about what anyone might think of him, his life and his actions.

Whether it was the drug taking, hanging out with Fidel Castro, best buddie with Mike Tyson, firing on reporters or arguing in person with the Pope, Diego did just whatever he liked, and he was idolised for it. The great achievements of his playing career, winning the World Cup and Serie A virtually single-handed, were typical Maradona – he would never have fitted into any team where he had to subject himself to anything like a plan. Admittedly he never played at Villa Park, but that was because he was ill with hepatitis (best not to enquire too deeply) when his Barcelona side arrived to play the European Super Cup second leg in 1983. If you didn’t like him, your loss. If he’d been English we’d have said he scored the two greatest goals in World Cup history instead of just the best.

In trouble with the Italian authorities and owing €37 million, Maradona ended up paying €42,000 plus two watches and a set of earrings. You can argue whether he was the best player of all time with those who would put forward Pele, Puskas, Cruyff and Messi for the honour. But even their more fervent supporters would agree than he enjoyed himself more than the lot of them put together. Never again will we see the like of Diego Armando Maradona.