There is an unsettled debate between football fans regarding Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo and who should be considered the “G.O.A.T.” or greatest of all time. Both men have had incredible careers and are without doubt the two best players of their generation. But when you talk about being the greatest of all time, neither can hold a candle to Diego Armando Maradona who sadly passed on the 25th November, 2020 aged 60.
Maradona grew up in a shantytown on the outskirts of Buenos Aires but rose to become a cultural icon and a football god. Over a career that spanned over five decades including time as a player and later as a manager, Diego carved out a special place in the history of football. Despite an often-turbulent life off the pitch, it’s what he did on it that created his legacy. Not only was he an outstanding player but he was a colourful character as well often showing off his immense talents by juggling a golf ball on his thighs, playing keepie uppies with a pair of socks or simply doing things with a football that defied gravity. His genius with a ball appeared to have no limits. Messi is talented no doubt but Maradona was unique.
The regular comparisons between Messi and Maradona are understandable – both Argentines, both diminutive in stature, both possessing sublime left foots yet the key difference was that Messi is playable in that defenders could get close to him on occasions, rough him up from time to time and if lucky knock him off his stride. Maradona on the other hand was unplayable. There was no way to mark him. You couldn’t assign a marker as a man marker because he would simply turn him to easily and be gone. Playing zonally against him didn’t work either as England found out at the ’86 World Cup. That goal, more than any other showcased how remarkable a player he actually was. Picking up the ball just inside his own half, facing his own goal, he pirouettes beautifully to avoid not one, but two English challenges from Beardsley and Reid and is off running. Gliding over the halfway line, he glances up to see a sea of white England shirts ahead of him and two runners on his backheel. He takes a composing touch to bring the ball close before evading a lunge from Terry Butcher by side stepping inside him. Approaching the 18-yard box, he accelerates past Terry Fenwick and on towards Peter Shilton in goal. With the goalkeeper rushing out to meet him, he feints left before pulling the ball to his right leaving Shilton on the ground embarrassed. Finally, he holds of a last-ditch challenge from the new recovered Terry Butcher to cool slot the ball home and seal the win for Argentina. From start to finish was less than 10 seconds long but it is now one of the most iconic goals of all time.
What is often forgotten about that time was that Maradona was performing on pitches and surfaces less than ideal for a normal game of football, never mind the sublime trickery that he up his sleeve. The pitches during the height of Maradona’s career were not the perfectly groomed and maintained surfaces that Messi and Ronaldo nearly always play on. Quite the contrary. Indeed Gary Lineker, who played against Maradona in the 1986 World Cup quarter final described the pitch at the Azteca Stadium in Mexico as “awful” and “like newly relaid turf that hadn’t stitched together yet so would slip away under your feet as you ran”. So, to be able to play like he did and score that goal is amazing in itself.
Maradona simply infuriated opposition players due to his brilliance and their inability to stop him so much so that the only way to do so was to kick him and kick him hard as we saw in the ’82 World Cup and during his time at Barcelona including that infamous match against Atletico Bilbao in 1983 when Andoni Goikoetxea’s brutal late tackle broke Maradona’s ankle. But despite this rough treatment, Maradona inspired the teams he played for and pushed them towards glory winning countless trophies at the clubs he graced with his brilliance – a Primeria Division title with Boca Juniors in ’81, a cup treble with Barca in ’83 and two Serie A titles, one Coppa Italia, one UEFA Cup and a Super Cup with Napoli where he is held in icon status to this day, officially retiring the number 10 jersey after his departure.
But it’s his contributions to the Argentina national team that converted him from a legend to a god back in his homeland with his crowning moment of glory being the 1986 World cup where he single handedly won them the World Cup. Some may argue that this sounds over exaggerated, but the truth is that it’s not. Argentina would not have won that World Cup if it wasn’t for Maradona who produced one of the greatest individual tournament performances in World Cup history. He would have probably repeated the same feat four years later at Italia ‘90 if it wasn’t for a troublesome ankle injury but he still managed to guide Argentina to the final despite this. This, plus the raw passion he showed every time he pulled on that famous blue and white striped shirt sets him apart and placed him on that pedestal in the eyes of the Argentine fans. Messi may be revered but he has yet to deliver like Diego did on the international and until that happens, he will remain below Maradona in their eyes.
Maradona will be remembered for a lot of things including his off-field antics which included drug and alcohol issues and for that infamous “Hand of God” goal which the English press seems unable to get over. But luckily, he will also be remembered for the amazing player that he was and the passion he had for the game. He was the ultimately playmaker and free kick specialist, with immense skill and vision that could turn a game on its head within seconds. He was simply unplayable and will be missed by the world of football.