My first memory is the World Cup 1982 in Spain. I must have seen him before that, as I lived football in those days, in a rematch of the 1978 World Cup final, sometime in 1979. Some Dutch player, I believe Johnny Rep, still has the number 10 jersey at home, knowing in advance that he had played against a truly great player. During that 1982 world cup Maradona was due to help the team to another title, in the same time proving that Menotti made a mistake to leave the 17 year old youngster out of the squad that did win the title at home, glorified by the military junta at the time.
It turned out to be a disaster. A red card and an early exit from the tournament and hardly any moment through which we Europeans could see what everyone in South America already knew. Barcelona decided to splash out anyway. What Cruijff did manage 10 years earlier, turned out to be too much for the young Maradona. It is rumoured that by then someone introduced him to cocaine. An injury through a murderous tackle by Goigochea didn’t really help his cause in Spain either.
Transferred to Napoli, Maradona finally showed his potential. In the poor city in the south of Italy he must have felt like in Buenos Aires. He helped restore the pride of the city. I’ve got a book with pictures taken after the Scudetto on my shelves; it is one of the treasures I own. I walked in Napoli in 1996, years after he had left, but I could still see his name or face in graffiti on several walls.
I became a fan in 1986. For the first time in history one player turned his country into world champions. The Argentine fighting machine that played there had only one tactic: give him the ball. 10 players and Maradona were on the pitch. I manage to name Burruchaga and Valdano, but even they were mere servants for the master. The match against England stands out in everyone’s memory. For the winners of the Falkland war because of the goal made by ‘the hand of God’, for the rest of the world for the best goal in World Cup history, when he scored with a solo from his own half.
For me the highlights of his career were the moments he just played with a ball. I could watch for hours to the stadium at half time, where Diego, a little ‘pibe’ of about 9 years is doing tricks with the ball. When the players entered the pitch for the second half, the crowd screamed ‘Let him play!’, because he was much more entertaining than the teams in the first half were. The warming up in Stuttgart for the Uefa Cup final is unforgettable as well. His shoes still loose on his feet, laces still dangling, he played with the ball. When he heard the music by Opus, he even managed to keep the ball in the air in accordance with the rhythm of the song. What we saw was a boy playing in the street. A boy having fun with his ball. Not someone about to play one of the most important matches of the year.
That is exactly why I like Maradona. He represents the little boy in us, who doesn’t want to grow up. He wants to play football, without that his life is useless. His retirement match brought tears to my eyes. The Bombonera completely full, 21 former and current stars and one big overweight genius who could hardly walk. Testimonials are never about football, but this one was even extreme in that category. Everyone did their best to make him the star of the evening, but fat and drugs had taken their toll. In the end he scored through a penalty kick. Higuita wasn’t going to do any effort to get the ball. I know I am wrong, but it felt like he could almost touch one pole to leave an open corner for the hero of the evening.
Maradona survived heart problems twice now. But he is still a drug addict. Treatment in Cuba or Switzerland won’t change that. He is going to become a bigger hero because he won’t live until 50. Garrincha became a better player after he died young as a broke alcoholic. Pele made the mistake to become a politician in the executive world of the FIFA.
I was in Buenos Aires last month. I visited Boca and the Bombonera. Again I felt why people love him so much. I read in the newspaper about his visit to President Kirchner. But I also read one of the best quotes of the last years. I never realised he really did have a sense of humour. His answering machine message where he answers with Diego Bin Maradona was a sick joke, trying to express his anti American feelings. But he was funny when he was referring to his current situation: “I am in a mental institution. I’ve got drugs problems, but I am not mad. There are people in there who think they are Napoleon. And when I tell them I am Maradona, they laugh at me.”