I think I’ve worked out what the narrative for this World Cup is going to be and it involves the most charismatic individual in football history - Diego Armando Maradona.
Think about it for a minute. This is a guy who played a part in World Cups in 1978 (bear with me), 1982, 1986, 1990 and 1994. In fact, his World Cup exploits easily eclipse his less than stellar club career and his triumphs and travails since then have been the stuff of any Latin American telenovela. Frankly, the rules of great drama dictate that Maradona must still be on the stage during the final act, hence Argentina must beat Germany tomorrow morning.
I first saw Maradona in 1978 when he was among the talented Argentinian schoolboys trotted out as half time entertainment during their successful campaign as host and eventual winner. Displaying mesmerising tricks, flicks and these kids showed us how the game was supposed to be played, while tired and conservative old England didn’t even qualify. Maradona had already made his first full international appearance (at the age of 16) but wasn’t required for the 78 World Cup. A year later he announced himself as the star player of the World Youth Cup which Argentina won decisively.
Since Pelé retired to play Major League Soccer in the States, playground debate had raged about who was the best player in the world. Many said it was Dutchman Johann Cruyff but we didn’t see enough of him on English tv but there were certainly no English contenders.
Then along came the nuggety little Maradona. By the time he arrived at the 82 World Cup in Spain, his reputation as the greatest player in the world preceded him. Unfortunately (as we would come to expect) it was drama that followed him.
He spent a great deal of the tournament being kicked around and in Argentina’s final game against Brazil (which eliminated them), Maradona’s lack of discipline saw him sent off for a frustrated attempt at retaliation. His temper got the better of him, not for the last time.
86 was the World Cup that featured the “Hand of God” (offside as well as handball) and the “Greatest World Cup Goal in History”. What makes Maradona’s second against England (as well as a remarkably similar goal against Belgium in the next round) so exquisite is his change of pace. Maradona didn’t need raw speed (although he had it in those days) or sharp changes of direction. Maradona could bamboozle defenders by subtly slowing down and then taking off again - very hard to do with the ball at your feet. In 1986 Maradona really was the greatest player in the world and he raised the trophy as Argentina’s captain.
Weakened by injury (and who knows what else), Maradona had a poor 1990 tournament. Argentina were still finalists although beaten by West Germany in a drab game. In USA 1994 Maradona turned up looking heavy, scored a cracker of a goal in the early rounds against Greece, and was then sent home in disgrace after testing positive for a banned stimulant. Another World Cup - another drama.
He retired as a player in 1997 and managed not to go quietly. His substance abuse and weight problems saw him disappear to Cuba and Colombia for various miracle cures. Heart attacks, gastric bypass surgery, cocaine and alcohol abuse - Maradona saw it all. In 2007 it was even reported that he had died.
So, it was a bit of a surprise when a desperate Argentinian Football Association in 2008 appointed him as Head Coach of the national team, despite no appreciable qualifications or experience. A 6-1 defeat to Bolivia made the team a world laughing stock and for a while it looked like they might not even qualify for this World Cup.
But qualify they did, and they’ve looked the business all the way through. Maradona has been a talisman on the sidelines, his passion and joy evident every second of every game. Despite a two month ban from FIFA earlier this year for abusing the media at press conference (“Suck it and keep on sucking it”) he has continued to goad the media, the officials and the “greatest player the world has ever seen” and is easily the most entertaining figure at the tournament - more so than any of the players we’ve seen at any rate.
Maradona simply must be there at the end of this World Cup. This is a guy who has interviewed Fidel Castro on his own tv chat show, for pete’s sake. He’s donated an autographed shirt to Ahmedinajad to support the people of Iran. He owes 37 million euros to the Italian government in back taxes and has given them a pair of earrings to cover it. He has his own church and comic book.
In my lifetime, the World Cup story is the Maradona story and I can’t wait to see the next chapter tonight.