Hand of God had me in tears aged 12 – but Maradona's magnificent menace turned even grown men into awestruck schoolboys

Hand of God had me in tears aged 12 – but Maradona's magnificent menace turned even grown men into awestruck schoolboys

November 26, 2020

I WAS twelve, and it was a World Cup quarter-final, and so he was the devil incarnate. The evil weeble.

To some extent, we’re all twelve when our team is cheated in a World Cup quarter-final – whether we’re spilling tears before bedtime or crying into our beer.

It sounds as if Peter Shilton still feels 12 when he thinks about Diego Maradona in the Azteca Stadium in 1986.

Even on news of Maradona’s death, there was only grudging respect from England’s most-capped player – and still no desire to forgive and forget the Hand of God goal.

Once a keeper, always a keeper. Shilton holds on to grudges as he once held crosses.

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Reading Shilton’s bitter words made me remember being 12 and that little troll trip-trapping across my dreams.

When you’re 12 you don’t want to marvel at great art, you just want your team to win.

Just four years after the Falklands War, with hatred and injustice simmering, this match was billed as good versus evil on both sides.

Yet it was never as black-and-white as all that.

I can distinctly remember cheering as Terry Fenwick repeatedly kicked the dinner out of Maradona, before he punched Argentina into the lead.

Of England’s defeated team, Gary Lineker is the grown-up in the room, having offered a fine eulogy to Maradona on BT Sport just hours after his passing.

Lineker spoke of being awestruck by Maradona’s ball-juggling in a warm-up before an exhibition match.

The 1986 Golden Boot winner said: “I’ve never seen anyone have such a beautiful affection for a football."

Lineker recalled how bad the Azteca pitch was, giving precious context to the majesty of Maradona’s second goal.

He said it was the closest he had ever been to applauding when the opposition scored.

Thirty-four years on, most of us would rather appreciate the artistry of the second rather than fume over the skulduggery of the first.

The English weren’t fully able to enjoy Maradona’s genius as his career unfolded because that was a different age.

There were no social-media memes of his goals, precious little to read about overseas football, and only four television stations to watch.

Channel 4 would not start broadcasting live Serie A matches until 1992- two years after Maradona’s second Scudetto with Napoli.

And Naples, rather than Mexico City, was Maradona’s greatest stage.

Even his achievement in winning a World Cup almost single-handed does not compare to the impact he had on this great rebel city of the Italian south.

Neapolitans are outsiders, so too was Maradona, from the violent slums north of Buenos Aires.

They claimed him. He enraptured them, leading Napoli to their only two Italian titles, as well as the UEFA Cup.

Yet that tells only a scintilla of his story. If you haven’t watched last year’s Diego Maradona movie, by the British filmmaker Asif Kapadia, I highly recommend that you do.

Perhaps the greatest sporting movie ever made, it allows you to experience the sheer chaos of his life in Naples – the mafia, the cocaine, the womanising, the hysteria and, oh, the football.

I never saw Maradona play in the flesh so I can’t properly compare him to the greats I have witnessed.

Lionel Messi, who makes you laugh out loud as he turns world-class defenders into training-ground cones.

Cristiano Ronaldo, far more effective than his great rival at lifting ordinary teams into the stratosphere, as Maradona once did.

And my personal favourite, Zinedine Zidane.

I once spent an hour watching him train with Real Madrid’s Galacticos in a Chinese monsoon and he did things with a football which made you want to rewind time to check on your eyesight.

But none of them meant as much as Maradona, to the people of Argentina, Naples and the world.

Young boys want to be great footballers. Teenagers want to live like rock stars. Maradona did both.

You encounter a lot of very famous people in this job, yet few have the kind of weapons-grade charisma which you can feel when they walk into a room.

Jose Mourinho has that, Brian Clough did too.

I once sat next to Sachin Tendulkar on an internal flight in India and the air hostess buckled at the knees and fainted when she realised who she was serving.

Yet Tendulkar is a quiet, unassuming man. Maradona crackled.

I was only in the same room as him once, for a press conference in Pretoria when he managed Argentina at the 2010 World Cup and it was manic.

I remember him demanding respect for his players, demanding apologies from journalists who had doubted them, and breaking off mid-sentence to offer a bear hug to a former Napoli team-mate working for television.

He was menacing, malevolent and magnificent. His audience were enthralled, giggling like children – even the Argentinian critics he was insulting.

He reminded me of when I was 12. Maradona seemed to make everyone feel like that.

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