BOOK OF THE WEEK: Understanding the little monster

Hand of God: The Life of Diego Maradona by Jimmy Burns (Bloomsbury, pounds 16.99)
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In 1993, Argentina played Australia in the World Under-17 Championship in Nagoya. I watched the game with Gary Lineker, who pointed out early how the Argentinian No 10 strutted, dived, and berated the referee. "Well," Lineker said, "we know where he's got that from."

With Australia 2-0 up, Argentina got a free-kick outside the Australian area. Making as if to push the wall back, this peacock 10 stood before them and, when the referee was not looking, jabbed stiff fingers into the eyes of an opponent. As the player reeled away, Lineker shook his head and said, "He's 16. And that," he sighed, "is why you have to set a good example."

Maradona's example, diligently chronicled in this perceptive and fair- minded book, is one of grotesque farce, a bilious sequence of operatic catastrophes. Gazza's career, compared with this, looks like Emmerdale set next to the Borgias; by the time we get to Naples we are knee-deep in whores, coke, and the Camorra. Amid the subterranean murk of criminality and paranoia, I was particularly taken with Norma Moro, the stripper with the leopardskin underwear at the Circus Sexy - while Fergie and David Mellor will, I'm sure, be glad to hear that the sucking of toes is practised in circles so much more glamorous than their own.

This is not, however, mere sensationalist sleaze; Burns knows Argentina well, and his charting of the shanty boy's trajectory towards moral and pharmaceutical meltdown is detailed and scrupulous. His childhood is well described; as the career develops, there are good accounts of every transfer. The move to Barcelona involved "more negotiators than a European summit", while the deal with Seville was overseen by Sepp Blatter at Fifa, the general secretary of football's governing body. Burns also brings us a vivid catalogue of dodgy minders and medicine men lurking in every shadow along the way.

Milked by business and politicians, Maradona, barely in his twenties, was already "the teat on which everyone sucked". Impelled through a vortex of greed, nationalism and mounting neurosis, he becomes a monstrous creature convinced he has divine rights, if not divinity itself. As the chaos accelerates, there is an aching sadness in the comment of his Barca room-mate "Lobo" Carrasco. He looks back and remembers: "A kid full of dreams, terribly innocent and hungry. His eyes were like two big plates. He wanted to eat the world, and that scared me."

And I'll bet you didn't know Sheffield United tried to buy him in 1978, either.

Pete Davies