Diego Maradona stands alone in football’s glorious outlaw age

Comparisons with Lionel Messi are futile – Maradona belonged to a wild, violent game unrecognisable to modern players, as his new book shows

‘If it had been up to the Argentines, each of the players would have gone out there with a machine gun and killed Shilton, Stevens, Butcher, Fenwick, Sansom, Steven, Hodge, Reid, Hoddle, Beardsley and Lineker.” At first glance it seems fair to say Diego Maradona hasn’t really mellowed much. So begins one of the key chapters of his brilliant new – rehashed, repeated, elegantly toddled off – autobiography Touched By God, which is out in the UK next month.

Certainly, the proposed machine-gunning of England’s entire satin-shorted first XI makes for an arresting mental image. Otherwise Maradona is conciliatory, playful and entirely unapologetic on the subject of that 1986 World Cup quarter-final, staged four years after the Falklands War that saw the British army overwhelm a callow Argentinian invasion force, “sent out in Flecha tennis shoes” to fight the world’s third-biggest military power.

This is the meat of his new book, the fevered machinations before, during and after the 1986 World Cup – a period in the life of Maradona that still throbs with an extraordinary sense of destiny. Touched By God even appeared at a quietly opportune moment this week, review copies clonking through letterboxes the day after Peter Crouch had scored his own sneaky tribute handball-header for Stoke City against Arsenal, to no great fanfare or outrage. Then again, Crouch is essentially a humorous player, a 6ft 7in centre forward made of elastic bands and old deckchair parts who resembles less a real-life Premier League all-star than a satirical cartoon of an English footballer produced by some particularly acerbic French caricaturist.

The ghost of peak El Diego has been flickering in the background for more significant reasons too. It is 30 years this week since Maradona’s career apex, his first Serie A title victory with Napoli the season after Mexico 86. It was a triumph crowned with strangely primitive celebrations in Naples, where effigies were dragged through the streets, fireworks popped all summer and Maradona himself, gorged on success and idolatry, began to drift for the first time into the arena of the unwell.

Fast forward three decades and by an odd coincidence, both Jürgen Klinsmann and Carles Puyol have been quoted this week repeating the same flawed truism about Lionel Messi – the idea that to be considered truly great Messi, who plays in a team sport, must win the World Cup. Never mind that this reasoning suggests Messi would already be the greatest if only Gonzalo Higuaín, king of the big-stage miss, was better at finishing. The point is, as ever, that this is precisely what Diego did, his unbeatable trump in this game of all-time greats, a World Cup won in the most urgently personal way.

Diego Maradona clears the challenges of West Germany goalkeeper Harald Schumacher and defender Karlheinz Förster in the 1986 World Cup final.
Diego Maradona clears the challenges of West Germany goalkeeper Harald Schumacher and defender Karlheinz Förster in the 1986 World Cup final. Photograph: Bob Thomas/Getty Images

That feat naturally dominates Touched By God, and yet the striking part of the book is not so much the old glories and grudges, but its startlingly vivid textural contrast. The extreme physicality of Maradona’s era, the sense that football back then was an outlaw world and a place of wild human possibilities, not to mention a genuinely violent sport – most obviously on the pitch.

Maradona still holds the record for most fouls suffered in a World Cup (Mexico 86) and most fouls in a single World Cup game (23 against Italy at Spain 82). And let’s be clear. We’re not talking dainty little tactical tumbles. These were often staged assaults.

Against South Korea in Mexico City, Maradona is punched in the face and left “screaming in pain” after “one of them spiked me so hard it went through my sock and my bandages”. Playing Peru, he is marked so brutally by Luis Reyna that as Maradona leaves the pitch to have his wounds tended, Reyna goes over to the touchline and just waits there for him to come out again, ignoring the rest of the game going on behind him.

Later, Maradona puts off having surgery on his injured knee, which swells up and “bursts” during a game. As he writhes in agony, team doctor ‘El Loco’ Oliviera marches on to the pitch with an enormous syringe and injects its mysterious liquid directly into his knee. Numbed, Maradona plays on. He is at this time the most expensive footballer in the world. It is this air of slightly wild, unstyled amateurishness that shines through Diego’s reminiscences.

At Mexico 86, Argentina’s players wash and shave outside in the fresh air, living in what was basically a jerry-built campsite. After his ankle is snapped by an infamous Andoni Goikoetxea lunge in 1983 (“it sounded just like a piece of wood splitting”), Maradona is carried off on a blanket and driven to hospital in a small borrowed van. Before one qualifier he’s kicked in the knee by a random passer-by as he gets off the team bus, and stays up until 5am before the game trying to ice it in his bedroom. Imagine if this happened to Messi now. Someone would be shot. North Korea would launch a missile at the moon. The internet would break.

Plus, of course, there’s that ludicrously effective con-job of a World Cup goal against England, recalled here in a vivid, celebratory passage, the best bit of which comes at the end as Maradona runs off punching the air. It turns out that in the moment he was also hissing frantically under his breath, pleading with his team-mates to come and mob him before the goal is ruled out. Carlos Bilardo had forbidden his midfielders to celebrate goals in order to save energy. On the TV pictures you can still see them looking awkward and confused as Maradona screams behind his hand to get over there and hug him like it’s all normal and fine.

Back to reality: even as Maradona scored his unforgettable second goal he got a kick from Terry Butcher that left his ankle swollen to twice its size after the game.This is still the lasting imprint of Touched By God, the feeling of something entirely other. Not to mention another example of the basic pointlessness of comparisons, of that endless, formalised quest for an all-time champion, for one of these giants to be named definitively as the greatest.

There is no real point of comparison here. Maradona’s world is all pain and ragged edges, a game of blood and courage that feels utterly removed from the sealed edges, endless scrutiny and managed spaces of modern football.

It is simply another sport, another life entirely. Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo are at least present in the same timeline, pressed against the same surfaces, subject to the same pressures, a consumer choice between competing forms of greatness. Maradona, meanwhile, stands alone, giant of a lost world that was neither better nor worse. But which remains – even peering back down that grainy, fond lens – gloriously ragged and gloriously undimmed.

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