BOOK OF THE WEEK: Wart-filled tale of a sad superstar

Hand of God - The Life of Diego Maradona by Jimmy Burns (Bloomsbury, paperback, pounds 6.99)
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The Independent Online
Imagine. You've just done a job on Diego Maradona. Hard but fair, you feel, but less Boswell to his Johnson than Goldman to his Lennon. It's all there: the drugs, the whores, the troupe of illicit little Diegos round the world, the parties where he played lapdog to the Camorra, the ego the size of Argentina. And you want to give him a copy. In person. "Bravado" is one word for it. "Plain" and "stupid" are two others.

But Jimmy Burns, whose Hand of God first came out last year and is now out in paperback, did deliver a copy to the object of his attentions, in an Italian restaurant in London. Maradona was "unsure whether to thank me or break my nose," he reports in a postscript entitled, just in case there's any confusion,"The Slow Death Of Diego Maradona". A few days after the London meeting, the wee man vented his spleen on Spanish radio, telling the world: "Burns has pissed all over me". That night, after a drinking spree, he was stranded in his hotel lift by a power failure, kicked the lift door until his foot bled and on his release by firemen spent the rest of the night kicking the hotel furniture and screaming.

The story Burns tells is of a man who could never have been just a footballer. He has always been commandeered for more sinister purposes, from the early days when the Argentine regime used him as a distraction from their vicious despotism (and he narrowly avoided being sold to Sheffield United), through to USA '94, when Fifa, needing his presence to help sell the tournament to the Americans, assigned its general secretary Sepp Blatter to make sure his transfer negotiations from Napoli to Seville went smoothly and that he was not lost to the game.

Football matches were arenas for other battles; his single-handed victory over England in 1986, for example, was less a World Cup quarter-final, more a nation's revenge for humiliation in the Malvinas. Burns, a financial investigative journalist, has worked hard and the book is crammed with detail. It's easy to overdo the tragic-hero imagery and Burns steers well clear of pretension, though there could be a little more attempt at explanation to go with all the exposition. And at times it jars stylistically, like a bad translation.

But the facts do the work as we see the 10-year-old Diego thrilling to the crowd's roar as he performs his half-time tricks at Argentinos Juniors, through to that brutal image of the Buenos Aires police bursting in on a former genius lying wasted on a bed next to his coke stash. And on to the final scene in the book's first edition, Diego lecturing the Oxford Union on how football has sold its soul for money - this from a man determined to live the superstar lifestyle to its most extravagant and opulent extent. The truth is that despite his World Cup-winner's medal, despite all the wonder goals, Maradona's story, as ruthlessly exposed by Burns, is desperately sad. Of course, where he went wrong is obvious. He should have gone to Bramall Lane.

Chris Maume