Maradona – Fouled Not Foul
“There is none of thy kindred that is called by this name” Luke 2:61b
Certain countries do have their naming laws that limits the nomenclature that parents can validly attach to their offspring. Notwithstanding that the name Maradona is traceable to Argentines, it did not stop 515 babies in Naples being christened or baptized as Diego, Armando, Maradona or any combination of it between 1984 to 1991 when the Argentine legend, Diego Armando Maradona lived in the southern Italian city that also produced Fabio Cannavaro the captain of the 2006 Italian male national team world champions. Nigerians also affixed the moniker to the then military ruler, General Ibrahim Babangida infamous for his endless political-economic maneuvering, a replica seen at Estadio Azteca, the first stadium to host two World Cup finals with the fringe benefit of featuring FIFA Player of the Century award joint winners (Pele - 1970 and Maradona - 1986) and also the most talented youth international in the 80s – Etim ‘Maradona’ Esin.
In 2002, I attended an interview, when my interviewer (who later became a Deputy Governor) as a parting question, asked who my role model was, perhaps he was expecting a Nelson Mandela, Nnamdi Azikwe or Obafemi Awolowo answer, but was taken aback when I countered my late Dad as my inspirational role model and the reasons are not far fetched, aside from his extra-large heart he was also my teacher, instructor and navigator. As a very chatty child I remembered asking him why an outfield Argentine player instead of the goalkeeper was adorning the no. 1 jersey, and as usual he took his time to explain that the numbering system was done alphabetically with the exception of the no. 10 worn by Diego Maradona, and that was my first contact with Diego in 1982. Though my abiding memory of Espana 82 was about the outfield no 1 wearing player, Zico, Rossi and the trophy lifting Zoff, but certainly not Diego Maradona who exited the tournament not in glory but gory via dismissal.
Before Mexico 86 was the bitter sweet experience in 1985 as the Nigeria emerged the inaugural winners of the FIFA U-16 World Championship while the Cup and the 3rd placed team at the 1985 FIFA World Youth Championship (WYC) in Russia after the trauma in the qualifiers against Cameroon. 1985 remains my football Annus horribilis as my most precious country and club teams lost by 1-2 aggregate scorelines. Green Eagles losing to the Tunisian Eagles thereby aborting the nation's Mexican 86 mundial hope and Leventis United's Cup Winners Cup final lost to the now 9 African Champions, Egyptian Al Ahly. For reasons I cannot explain till date, I had missed the 1986 AFCON finals, so Mexico 86 was all I had pending the FA Cup grudge match in 1986 which was as tensed as the 1977 African Cup Winners Cup semi final between the two Nigerian teams, eventual winners Enugu Rangers and defending Champions IICC. From the ashes of these most painful defeats emerged Diego Maradona in 1986, a tournaments reserved for the revival of Zico, domination of Francescoli and the coronation of Platini who had European country and club football at his feet with the Euro 84 triumph as the Top scorer, best player and the title winning captain (a feat unmatched till date) and the Champions Cup winning exploit with Juventus.
In 1986, something was certain in the country, the care free attitude of the elderly ones during Espana 82 matches that was always accompanied with assorted drinks had disappeared in 1986 as the crunching national economic under the military regime later dovetailed into the worst recession of 1987 and the subsequent SAP crisis in 1989, hence my generation without economic worries enjoyed Mexico 1986 without inhibitions, though the main restriction had to do with the timing which at times could be late in the night but that was not an issue to the aficionados as the electricity company undeniably helped matters with uninterrupted power supply during matches. I soaked Mexico 86 with all I had after all I was in my prime age of 10 as a football devotee with no other responsibility than enjoying football matches in details and other sporting events in general. Still smarting from the unexplainable shock waves from Estadio Jalisco 24 hours earlier, where the Brazilians lost on penalties to France, and as a parting tribute the ULA ground facility in Oshodi (where the Local Government secretariat is) was unwittingly renamed Jalisco Stadium, a name that has stuck till date. Inside the magnificent Estadio Olimpico Universitario (yes, the same stadium Maradona started the 1986 World Cup campaign with the 3 – 1 defeat of South Korea), Bob Beamon in what is now known as the Beamonesque shattered the long jump record by 55cm at the Mexico 68 Olympics with the perfect 8.90m that still stands as the Olympic records till date and only second to Powell’s 1991 8.95m, Beamon jumped further than any human soul as on Mexican soil whilst Maradona jumped high enough to register his proclaimed ‘Hand of God’ that was validated with the ingenuity of the second goal that is simply Maradonic. Diego Maradona in the space of 5 minutes produced the bad and good with equal gusto leaving the kids thereafter struggling to bear that name, thousands currently goes by that name in Naples today. Shrewd to defy Bilardo's order that midfielders should never join goals celebration in order to conserve energy in the sweltering Mexican scorching sun. He proved in the semi-finals that it was not a flash in the pan as Maradona’s conjured lightening surely struck twice. And behold, my generation beheld Maradona in flesh unlike Pele, Thunder Balogun and to a large extent Haruna Ilerika who only existed in the realm of myth and fable but I saw Diego ply his God handed trade online real time, the same way I saw Henry Nwosu, Stephen Keshi and Vincent Enyeama representing the 3 generations of the continent conquering Nigerian side.
If there was any controversy in respect to Argentina’s triumph on home soil in 1978 as typified by the Perugate, Maradona’s sublime performance in 86 wiped away the doubt. Diego was the fulcrum of the anti 'aesthetics' football ditched out by Bilardo missing the active service of the 78 winning captain, Daniel Passarella reputed to be the best defender from America and Ramon Diaz, Maradona's partner in attack who emerged the Top scorer when Maradona was the best player at the 1979 WYC in Japan. It was to fulfil all righteousness when he lifted the trophy on that sunny Sunday at the Estadio Azteca after his assist for Burruchaga’s winning goal despite the near perfect policing by the Germans. Mexico 86 popularised the Mexican wave that originated from College football games as the South Africans brought Vuvuzela to the world’s consciousness in 2010. Badou Zaki, the Moroccan goalie 1986 African footballer of the year had a baby named by the Morrocan monarch king Hassan after himself as Hassanah as the team became the continent’s first team to reach the knock out stages, the Rats goal against Bats, but the abiding image of that edition was all about Diego Maradona who started with the assist ‘hattrick’ in his first match sandwiching 5 quality goals and closing the tournament with the final assist. It was simply Maradona’s tournament and no player from 1986 till date has yet to impact the World Cup the way Maradona did. Immediately after the Mexico 86 triumph, he repaid the faith of the Neapolitans with the first ever scudetto for a southern team enroute 1986/1987 double, the UEFA Cup title in 1989 and an additional scudetto in 1990 just before the World Cup. Napoli dutifully retired his iconic numero dieci (10) shirt in admiration of the beloved son.
In his four World Cups, he scored in three except Italia 90 on ‘home soil’, but you cannot begrudge him as he produced that iconic assist with the ineffective right foot that knocked out the perennial pre tournaments favorites, Brazil a team a footy pal, Stuart Horsfield succinctly captured the Espana 82 disappointment in ‘The Glorious Failure’. Italia 90 started with the shock loss thanks to Omam- Biyik’s header in the opening match for the defending champions in a match Maradona was subjected to physical drills which deleted the confidence he exuded in his very intimidating pre match warm-up. In an era, where star players lacked the protection VAR and FIFA affords the current generation, Maradona has the unenviable record of the most fouled player in a World Cup match which is 23 times in Espana 82 against the Italians with Claudio Gentile as the culprit, most fouled in a World Cup in Mexico 86 on his way to the title and he single handedly secured 152 free kicks in his four World Cups, with the former Kaizer Chiefs star Jairzinho in a social distancing second position with 64 free kicks (possibly as a reprimand for holding the joint record with Just Fontaine as players with goals in more than six consecutive matches). It is instructive to state that he played in an era when defender deploy all brilliance, hook and crook methods in keeping opposition quiet, those tackles were as devasting as Anthony Joshua’s punches, which is a departure from the simulations from flyweight touches we see on TV now. Maradona survived the butchers of his time, metaphorically represented by Terry Butcher and the Butcher of Bilbao – Andoni Goikoetxea who reportedly kept the boot he used on Maradona as a prized artefact in a glass case at home. With the benefit of hindsight, I am glad I embarked on a 559 km trip over land and water to watch Maradona on TV knock out the Italians. The farthest distance I have covered to watch a match on TV! To the delight of the Northerners in Italy, Italia 90 ended in tears for Maradona and the defeat to the Cameroonians was the only World Cup match loss he never avenged, he had earlier beaten the Germans in Mexico, hence the loss in Italy was only a revenge. Without the inspirational Maradona, the Argentines suffered an embarrassing double header loss to the efficient Colombians with the 5 nil home loss on September 5, 1993 ending a 33-match unbeaten streak at home (an event still annually commemorated in Colombia) and the ignominy of a continental play off with the Australians necessitated the recall of Maradona who as usual led the Argentine through the valley to the United States where he scored a well worked team goal followed by a celebration more remembered than the goal and his streetwise double assists earned his team a 2-1 victory over the talented but naïve Nigerians in what was his last match in the La Albiceleste shirt for failing a dope test, hence exiting his last World Cup in disgrace just as it was in the beginning for him in Barcelona.
We can safely categorize Maradona’s World Cup odyssey into four – the bad of Espana 82, the good of Mexico 86, the tears of Italia 90 and the ugly of USA 94. Diego Armando Maradona’s last kick on the pitch of play was the penalty kick against Higuita in his testimonial, passed on at 60 on Wednesday 25th November, 2020 exactly 15 years after the exit of another great who never had the privilege of the World Cup platform - George Best. We are but pencils in the hand of God (no disrespect to the English). The equally legendary Nigerian Fuji musician, the late Sikiru Ayinde Barrister recognized his amazing feet in his Extravaganza LP ‘mo wa ni omode yi je ka rira, oloju Paolo Rossi, ele se Maradona je ka rira’, Adios Diego Armando Maradona (1960 – 2020).
Opeyemi Ajala FCA
Former Presenter – Eagle Sports Hour on Eagle Cable Television