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The hand of God

Matt Barlow Of Daily Mail
Saturday, January 11, 2014

It was April 2004 and Argentina was at a standstill. Diego Armando Maradona was fighting for his life and the nation where he is God was gripped by dread as the television news slowly rolled.

Hundreds joined a vigil outside the hospital in Buenos Aires, clutching prayer beads and holy icons and one man vowed to keep juggling his football in the street as a respirator ensured his hero did not drop dead at 43.

There were magical goals amid grim health bulletins, famous-faced agreement that he was indeed a very fine player and lingering shots of an ordinary-looking window high on the side of the hospital building.

Somewhat inevitably, it seemed it would be a sad and sorry end for the greatest footballer of his generation; arguably the greatest who ever lived.

Glorious and tragic, gifted and flawed, he once scored a goal with his hand and he splits opinion but he really should not. As the World Cup carnival prepares for a return to Latin America for the first time since 1986, it is a good time to rejoice in what made him so special.

Maradona the footballer personifies the game's spirit of joy and adventure; a master of its ultimate skills to dribble past opponents with the ball and score goals. He dared and he had trickery, mischief and unpredictably.

Search out the famous photograph taken at the World Cup in 1982: Six Belgians with panic and fear on their faces, unsure where to run as Argentina's young No 10 controls the ball with the inside of his left foot. Somehow they stopped him, it was a game Belgium won 1-0.

Not only did he thrill but Maradona inspired. He proved how the little guy can beat the privileged and established elite, a notion cherished by football supporters who traditionally hail from the working classes.

This appeal he shares with others. How we adore Paul Gascoigne for his approach to the game but Maradona was Gazza with medals.

Imagine Gascoigne had led England to World Cup triumph in 1990, rather than getting booked and crying en route to losing in a semi-final. Or if he had dragged himself back from that career-threatening injury to succeed in Italy, winning Serie A with Lazio, rather than simply adding a couple more SPL titles to the vast haul at Rangers.

Maradona sparkled from afar during the gloomy years when English clubs were banned from Europe. Clips of his heavy mop of dark hair bouncing and hurdling through a slalom course of bloodthirsty slide tackles by the Butcher of Bilbao and his like were beamed in like images from a different planet.

His supreme balance and chunky frame helped him bounce off challenges. His speed of thought, awareness and vision, protected the ball as he caressed it with his left foot. When they fouled him, he would spring to his feet and curl the free-kick into the top corner.

Incredible career

This was football from the streets fuelled by desire and it connected with the fans. From his shanty-town upbringing (much has been made of his symbolic scrape with death when as a child he was saved from drowning in a cesspit by an uncle) he had emerged to beat the world.

This resonated in Italy where he joined a team from a downtrodden city and propelled Napoli to their first ever Scudetto, in 1987. It was a victory for the impoverished south against the northern clubs like Juvenuts, Inter and Milan. He did it again three years later and threw in a UEFA Cup.

His rebellious nature was embraced in Naples as it had been during his various incarnations at Boca Juniors, the working man's club of Buenos Aires locked in its eternal rivalry with the millionaires of River Plate.

He did, of course, also restore national pride to Argentina with a World Cup triumph in 1986, beating England in a quarter-final infused by emotion from the Falklands War.

It may have suited his guerrilla spirit to score the first with his hand but his second goal, four minutes later, is burned onto the retina of every English eye that ever did watch Maradona glide past half the team over the space of half a pitch at the Aztec Stadium in Mexico City.

Despite his individual brilliance he committed to the team and was a popular captain who played through pain, shouldered the burden of expectation, led by example and he created for others as the 1986 World Cup final proved.

West Germany obsessed about Maradona to the point where he simply played along and released space for his team-mates to shine. The showpiece was denied another wonder goal but the tournament its iconic champion.

Glory in Mexico completed a personal journey from 1978 when at the age of 17 he was heartbroken to be left out of the Argentina squad for the World Cup they hosted. Instead, a year later, he was the player of the tournament as they won the Youth World Cup in Japan.

In 1990, playing virtually on one leg and full of painkillers, his will and personality helped drag an unexceptional Argentina team to the final of another World Cup.

This may have been his most impressive achievement of all in international football, although the star was falling. Maradona was well into his voyage of self-destruction and indiscretions readily overlooked earlier in this career could no longer be ignored.

The responsibility of being a God had taken its toll.

His life a circus with his talent and fame exploited and his body battered by drugs, both those taken professionally to numb the pain from hatchet men charged with quashing his brilliance and those taken socially to cope with the spiralling problems of being Maradona in a city run by the mob.

He was banned for 15 months after testing positive for cocaine in Italy in 1991 and was expelled from his fourth World Cup, in 1994, after testing positive for ephedrine.

"He played, he won, he peed, he lost," to quote Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano from his book Football in Sun and Shadow.

Maradona was a genius of the flawed variety but his mistakes were not calculated acts of sporting evil.

He achieved all he did in football despite his fallibility and social distractions, and was eventually overwhelmed by them but his brilliance remains.

He did, of course, survive his massive cocaine-induced heart attack nearly a decade ago. After 11 days in intensive care in the Buenos Aires hospital, the faith of a nation, the healing skills of the ball-juggler in the street and the wonders of private medicine, El Diego breathed again.

His health, it must be said, remains erratic, like his judgment. As a coach he has never been close to equalling what he achieved as a footballer. How can he? Where do you go when you have been the best footballer on the planet?

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