James Lawton: Raise a glass to football's most astonishing survivor: Happy 50th birthday, Diego

Chelsea, reasonably enough, were somewhat underwhelmed this week by Diego Maradona's offer to take over from Carlo Ancelotti just as soon as he could barrel his way to the airport.

However, if it is a huge leap from acknowledging that he remains arguably the most vital, moving spirit of football to putting him in charge of anything more regulated than a wild night out, no one should find much hardship in celebrating today when Maradona, the astonishing survivor of a surreal obstacle course set by himself and a large army of devoted demons, reaches his 50th birthday.

Deep down, some of us even suspended reality sufficiently to nurse the guilty hope that today's party in Buenos Aires might just have been a mere extension of one riotously kicked off in Johannesburg in July on the night of the World Cup final.

It was always an improbable scenario, Argentina winning the trophy for a third time and Maradona reliving the kind of glory he produced, to a degree literally single-handedly, in Mexico in 1986. It didn't happen and maybe it couldn't have happened, but there were days in that tournament which, in a football sense, mostly failed to catch light when you prayed that it might.

Why? Because there was an old genius on the touchline, and just maybe, a young one on the field and if the odds proved insuperable for Lionel Messi, there was, until the day the Argentina midfield and defence collapsed so horribly against Germany in Cape Town, a defiant belief that we all might just be in the hands of the destiny of a giant of 20th-century football.

In the end it was almost wall-to-wall anguish. The spirit which had been infused so fiercely into the Argentina players, and notably Carlos Tevez, was consumed by the speed and the confidence of the German counter-attack. Maradona, the man who seemed to offer the possibility that all the theories and stratagems of modern international football might dwindle against the force of meaning and personality, was stripped down mercilessly.

Still, we should fill our glasses on behalf of Diego today. Long after his glory on the field had ebbed – and his life made any claim to restraint – he did most of his 50th year with an improbable but compelling ambition.

Those of us permitted more than a few glimpses of Maradona's failed Last Hurrah were entitled to feel again at least a little of the privilege of being in the Azteca Stadium in Mexico City 24 years earlier. Undoubtedly there were hints of the old mystique and not least on the sunny afternoon in Pretoria when he was besieged by young township footballers responding, bright-eyed, to his huge cry, "Hola, muchacos" – hello, boys. He said they were all going to have a party and he would host it.

If it wasn't for the fact that Maradona owes the Italian tax authorities £32m, and is stripped of anything resembling a valuable jewel whenever he sets foot in the country, today's party might well have been staged in Naples.

This is because, even though it is 19 years now since Maradona helped win Napoli the second of two scudettos he is adored in the city more than anywhere but his native land, which is something when you remember the declaration of one of Argentina's leading writers and psychologists, "Argentina is Maradona, Maradona is Argentina."

When he was part of the first triumph, in 1987, it was extraordinary to be in the city when the streets were so packed, the pasta was served blue and a helicopter trailed the club colours to the peak of Mount Vesuvius.

Maradona got on with everyone, and not least the Camorra, the local version of the Mafia. He was the anarchist hero of an ungovernable city and when, in 1990, he led Argentina back to the World Cup final with a semi-final victory over the host nation in Naples the crowd was in a fever of divided loyalty. A local newspaper explained, "Italy is our country but Maradona will always be in our hearts." There is hardly the time or space to list the profanities and the madness and the waywardness of Maradona, who left his beloved Naples with tears in his eyes after testing positive for cocaine.

Many in England agree with former captain Terry Butcher that Maradona can never forgiven for his "Hand of God" goal in the Mexican quarter-final. They are also not inclined to forget that he left another World Cup, eight years later, under a new cloud of cheating after failing a drug test in the wake of a goal against Greece – and manic posturing before a television camera.

Others will go along with the sour response of the great Pele when he was voted, with Maradona, the joint player of the century. Pele said, "If he thinks he is the player of the century, that's his problem."

So why is the aura of Maradona so durable against all the imperfections and the self-abuse? Why is his birthday today for so many indeed a matter for celebration?

Maybe it is because no one, not even the superb Pele, the master of time and space and a perfect understanding that the greatest of players are those who remember that football is a team game, ever quite so passionately expressed the appeal of the world's most popular game in the course of its most significant tournament.

Anyone who was in a restaurant in Mexico City back in 1986 when Maradona swept in so triumphantly will surely raise his glass to the memory of that moment when every diner rose from his table to applaud the hero of the World Cup. Maradona's eyes blazed with pride and self awareness. He stood like a great tenor or fighter or matador bathed and glowing from the acclaim.

Later, when so much of his life had become an agony, Maradona's old team-mate Jorge Valdano declared, "He has no peers inside the pitch but he has turned his life into a show and is living a personal ordeal that should not be imitated."

No one, not even Maradona, could argue with that. Perhaps, though, it can also be said that if the worst of the hero is to be deplored, the best of him surely will live beyond all of his birthdays. It will be enshrined, like the colours of Napoli and the longings of Argentina, at the top of the mountain.

Strauss must resort to stealth if he is to retain the Ashes

The bullish noises being made by England captain Andrew Strauss are no doubt a lot less alarming if you didn't happen to be in Brisbane when the team last went there to defend the Ashes.

By their own admission, they froze on the way to the Gabba for the first morning's action, a state of mind confirmed when Steve Harmison fired his opening delivery to second slip.

Strauss, no doubt, will bring rather more mature reflection to the job than exhibited by his predecessor Andrew Flintoff on that first crucial occasion. It is also true that Australia no longer have men like McGrath and Warne and Gilchrist.

However, they still have Ricky Ponting, who said in Brisbane four years ago, "I only had to look into the eyes of my players on the flight home from England to know they would be pretty much up for this one – and the next four." Of course, England may well avert another whitewash. They might even win. But they should try to do it as stealthily as possible. Nowhere, after all, are the natives in less need of stirring up.

England’s 2018 bid is anything but home free

It is the prettiest of thoughts that the current intense scrutiny of the manoeuvrings for the hosting of the 2018 World Cup will result in voting so squeakily clean that the moment of decision should be announced by puffs of white smoke.

Unfortunately, reality is likely to be somewhat different.

The Fifa president, Sepp Blatter, hasn't survived so long because of any fastidious regard for the cleanliness of his operation. He is where he is for being a master of voting manipulation, of distributing just enough power in just enough places to ensure continued control of the profits.

A little exercise in sanitisation is inevitable in the light of recent revelations of potential corruption, but is this any reason to believe that the strenuously worthy English bid is suddenly home free? Er, no.

Comments