Today is a day when anyone who watched the game of soccer in the 1980s and admired the genius of Diego Maradona will feel a tinge of sadness. The great man has died at the age of 60, after suffering a heart attack in his Buenos Aires home.
There is shock, but given the lifestyle Maradona chose for many years, unfortunately not great surprise.
Certainly, as far as Americans are concerned it was a shame that we didn’t get to see the maestro on our home soil until the 1994 World Cup.
By then, although he was still a handful for defenses, he was comfortably past his prime. A shadow of his former self.
Nonetheless, for most who witnessed Diego Maradona during his golden years in the 1980s he was simply a magician without equal. He crowned those times with the unforgettable performance at the Mexico 1986 World Cup, which single handedly dragged an otherwise mediocre Argentine outfit to the winners’ podium.
True, Lionel Messi may have the better stats in terms of goals and assists across both international and club football. The younger man has a more consistent record over the longer term, and – aside from a few tax issues – a personal life with considerably less blemishes.
However, for real soccer aficionados Maradona’s raw talent trumps that of the modern day Barca player. At international level, both Messi and the great Brazilian Pelé were fortunate to play with much better players than Maradona.
Maradona scored fewer goals for Argentina than Messi but he scored them when they mattered most.
Perhaps none did matter more than the second goal in the epic quarter final against a decent England side in that 1986 World Cup.
The Argentine had used his hand to steer the ball past England goalkeeper Peter Shilton for the opening goal but executed the move so deftly that the Tunisian referee did not spot the transgression. Maradona later admitted that the “hand of God” had helped him beat Shilton.
What followed next is considered by many soccer fans as the finest goal ever scored at a World Cup.
Maradona picked up the ball on his own halfway line and simply walked it through the English defense and Shilton to roll it into the net.
The moment was immortalized by English radio commentator Bryon Butler:
“Maradona, turns like a little eel, he comes away from trouble, little squat man, comes inside Butcher and leaves him for dead, outside Fenwick and leaves him for dead, and puts the ball away. And that is why Maradona is the greatest player in the world.
“He buried the English defence, he picked up that ball 40 yards out, first he left one man for dead, then we went past Sansom, it’s a goal of great quality by a player of the greatest quality. It’s England 0, Argentina 2.”
A plucky England later pulled a goal back and threatened parity so that goal was crucial.
It was, without question, Maradona’s finest moment.
RIP flawed genius.