It was thanks to World Soccer that I heard about the striker Paolo Rossi years before I saw his goals that won Italy the 1982 World Cup. In the same magazine I read effusive words about a young Argentine phenomenon called Diego Maradona. Without having seen a second's evidence of his ability to swerve, dribble and score, I began to imitate him in the school yard during lunch breaks, while loudly commentating any successful strikes between my opponent's improvised goalposts. In South America, a journalist had been impressed enough by the young playmaker to write about him in a way that prompted boundless idolatry on a muddy school playing field several thousand miles away.
Pelé had just retired, so Maradona's emergence as the next sensation made it seem like a natural process was at play. The first time I saw him in action was at the 1982 World Cup in Spain. The stats show that he didn't have a particularly impressive tournament, ending up with a red card in Argentina's final match. Yet I remember already being mesmerised by his touch, balance and effortless control of the ball. You couldn't see players like this at Lincoln City or Grimsby Town. You couldn't even see players like this at Liverpool or Nottingham Forest, the two dominant English clubs at the time. Those teams played good soccer, but they rarely looked super-human.
In England, there's a widespread notion of Maradona as a cheat and a drug addict. On the latter score, there's no debate -- the star himself wondered later how much more he might have achieved if he hadn't succumbed to cocaine. The charge of cheating is much more problematic. It stems, of course, from a single famous incident in the 1986 World Cup quarterfinal in Mexico City, when Maradona scored against England by using his hand. The Tunisian referee Ali Bin Nasser and his Bulgarian linesman somehow failed to see Maradona out-jump Peter Shilton, and then punch the ball in to give Argentina a 1-0 lead.
I watched that game in its entirety this past weekend (it definitely beat watching live games with no spectators). It took me right back to that wonderful summer in the throes of my youth, when I was far from the only person watching who wanted Maradona to receive the ball, all the time, 90 minutes long. You can hear the hum of excitement in the Azteca Stadium every time he's involved in play. The first half is dire, except for Maradona's touches (England's top scorer Gary Lineker barely comes close to the ball for the entire 45 minutes). England deals with his skill by flattening him. They use their feet, elbows and full body checks. Whatever it takes to slow down his game and crush his creativity. But that's not cheating, right? That's just part of the English game.
The worst player on the England team, center back Terry Fenwick, is booked for up-ending Maradona in the ninth minute. The theatrical bin Nasser is clearly trying to stamp his authority on the game. Fenwick had already been suspended from the previous round's game against Paraguay for two yellow cards during group play. Yet none of this stops him from continuing to foul Maradona for the rest of the game, with impunity. It's almost as if the first yellow card is protecting him from a second. (Fenwick's yellow remained England's only caution of the game.)
Maradona is elbowed in the face, clobbered around the head, shoved to the ground, and repeatedly tripped with intent to injure. Only twice do the English players successfully dispossess him. Maradona's sole significant infringement of the rules is a single handball offense in the 51st. minute. Bad luck for England that the officials fail to spot it, and that it ends up in the net. So who were the biggest cheats that afternoon? Maradona, for a piece of crafty, illegal play that endangered no one's health? Or the leaden-footed English, who frequently take the moral high ground claiming to be the historical progenitors of Fair Play, but who on this day set out to cynically kick the world's greatest player off the park?
We all know what followed Maradona's handball goal just four minutes later -- a run so dazzling and dangerous that five successive flailing English players could not lay a finger, let alone a foot, on the darting, golden-toed genius. Let's put aside the issues of insidious nationalism and phoney religious claims. Maradona's second goal was a victory of flair, improvisation and beauty over sullen, deliberate brutality. It was so good that it deserved to count twice, rendering the handball goal irrelevant.
I am not from Buenos Aires or Napoli, so Maradona's death did not make me cry. It did, though, prompt me to ravage the archives and determine that there's never been a footballer close to his class. It's not just the passing of players and time that renders you melancholy. It's the feeling that when Maradona's career was over -- unlike with Pelé -- there was no successor. Then again, how could there be?