First Person – Diego Maradona was standing next to me and I was speechless.
It shouldn’t have been a surprise – what exactly do you say when you meet your greatest childhood sporting hero?
But considering I had spent the best part of a day trying to track him down, then had to bluff my way past three layers of officious Chinese security to get close to him, my verbal reticence was a disappointment.
I had been to Argentina on four occasions, always hopeful of somehow encountering my idol in Buenos Aires, though knowing it was completely fanciful.
But at the 2008 Olympic Games an Argentine journalist had casually mentioned that the famed No10 was attending as a fan, after noticing my Maradona t-shirt.
She had heard he might attend a hockey match the next night, though “with Diego it all depends on how he feels when he wakes up”.
They told me I should try to meet him, but emphasised it was an unlikely quest.
The untimely death of Maradona on Thursday (NZT) took me back to that night in Beijing, and briefly meeting the man who changed football forever.
It also took me back to the 1980s, when he captivated the world with his play.
Diego Armando Maradona was the main reason I fell in love with football.
Like millions of others, I was transfixed by his deeds at the 1986 World Cup, when he inspired Argentina to the ultimate glory.
In the days before the internet, YouTube and cable television, there was precious little football on our screens, aside from the F.A. Cup final, a few All Whites matches and the occasional local footage.
I had read all about ‘El Diego’ in Shoot! magazine, but had never seen him play, until that World Cup in Mexico. What an introduction!
He was a magician, seemingly capable of anything with the ball, due to incredible technical skills, a low centre of gravity and blinding acceleration.
Stars like Michel Platini and Zico were also there but nobody could compare to this 1.65m genius, urged on by thousands of crazy fans in sky blue and white.
The apex was that never to be forgotten quarter final against England, in front of 115,000 people at the Azteca Stadium.
As a kid you were ignorant of the wider context around the Falklands War, but still knew it was a big deal.
Probably nothing will ever top that game, with the ‘Hand of God’ in the second half, followed by the ‘Goal of the Century’ a few minutes later.
Around that time I ran upstairs to get Dad to come down, but that suggestion – at 8am on a Sunday – was unsuccessful.
At Avondale Intermediate School in Auckland we watched the semi-final against Belgium together in a large hall, but were sent back to class at halftime, thus missing two more spectacular Maradona goals in the second half.
The final is still the greatest FIFA World Cup decider I’ve witnessed; Argentina seemingly wrapping up the game with a 2-0 advantage late in the second half, before a remarkable comeback by the Teutonic Germans. Then with four minutes to play Maradona had the final say, producing a defence splitting pass to set up the winning goal.
That tournament sparked a fascination with the sport, and El Pibe de Oro (‘the golden kid’), that has never really gone away.
In the mid-1990s it took me to Naples, during my O.E. where Maradona’s impact was everywhere. There were posters, banners, murals, souvenirs and street art celebrating the era in the late 1980s when he took Napoli from obscurity to national champions.
Not everybody still loved him, but almost all had a story about him. A pizza parlour owner explained that, “he made us believe” adding that “for us, Maradona changed everything.”
Maradona’s achievements in Italy defined his career. The Serie A was the biggest, richest football league in the world at that time, attracting all the best players.
It was also highly defensive, and referees in the 1980s offered little protection for playmakers. He was cynically fouled, hacked, kicked and battered on a weekly basis but never relented, lifting Napoli to the Scudetto (twice) after decades of struggle, toppling the northern giants Juventus and AC Milan in the process.
It was also a time that Maradona’s drug habits began to escalate, starting a downward spiral that he never really bounced out of.
That was one topic that was generally off limits in Argentina, whenever discussions turned to the great man. Opinions might have been divided on Maradona, especially after his rollercoaster period as national coach between 2008 and 2010, but everybody still loved him.
He reminded them of a different time, when Buenos Aires was the ‘Paris of the South’ and Argentina were world champions.
And they loved his passion, on show whenever he was watching his beloved Boca Juniors, or any national teams, from Davis Cup tennis to the Pumas.
That’s what had taken him to Beijing in 2008. Maradona was there in an unofficial capacity – as Argentina’s Olympic media officer had stressed when I inquired about his possible plans – but was going to as many events as possible, wherever La Albiceleste of Argentina could be seen.
And there he was, applauding generously as Argentina took on Holland in the women’s hockey semi-finals.
He was seated in the ‘Olympic family’ section, among all the VIPs, and just across from the area in the grandstand reserved for athletes. I didn’t have access to either area and it was nowhere near the media section.
I got past the first checkpoint – using the ‘look like you belong technique’ before a negotiation with another security guard. She was then abruptly called away and I edged up towards the aisle.
Maradona, who was with four or five friends, didn’t look vastly different from the star of Mexico86, aside from the extra pounds. He cheered wildly when Argentina scored, and politely waved for some photos (these were pre-selfie times) taken by fans down in the lower grandstand.
I didn’t expect to go much further, but enjoyed a stroke of luck as the volunteer monitoring that particular row had previously lived in New Zealand for two years, working for a North Shore phone company. He had loved his experience and let me edge past, towards a vacant seat on Maradona’s right.
After a few minutes of silence, I used rudimentary Spanish to casually explain who I was.
Diego wasn’t that interested, and who could blame him, though he noted “muy lejos” (far away) when I mentioned “Nueva Zealandia”.
But he was polite enough to explain how good it felt to be at an Olympics, supporting his beloved Argentina and seeing all the fans.
Was there any athlete he would particularly like to meet in Beijing?
“Yes, everybody” was the simple reply, before his attention was snatched away, as some people chanted his name in the stand below.
Despite all of his faults, his problems and his dramas, Maradona leaves an incredible legacy. His death will be mourned around the sporting world and in football terms he is often seen as second only to Pele.
Sure, there were so many issues, and the drug and alcohol abuse, but no one will forget his innate genius, which was celebrated from Budapest to Bogota, Bangkok to Burkina Faso.
“Do you have any idea the player I would have been if it weren’t for the drugs?” he asked ruefully in a 2017 autobiography. “I would have been that player you saw in Mexico, for years on end. That was the happiest I have ever been on a football field.”
Critics unpick his many character flaws, often without seeing the context of his life; growing up in abject poverty, without running water or electricity and then supporting his entire extended family from the time he signed his first professional contract as a 15-year-old. He made a series of bad choices, and wasn’t quite strong enough to shed himself of the bad influences that were often part of his circle.
But the world has never seen a football player quite like him, and it’s unlikely we ever will again. Gracias Diego. RIP.
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