Naturally, if Diego Maradona passes through the latest squall of the blood and tears that have accompanied all of his glory and his pain – a mere administrative dispute with his new employers, the Argentine Football Association – and appears at Hampden Park next week in the utterly improbable role of national team coach, he will receive absolute heroic status. After all, which nation on the football planet reveres doom-laden football genius – think of Slim Jim Baxter above all – more than the Scots?
Only Argentina, that land where football can be transformed into heaven or hell as quickly as the turn of a gaucho's pony. Of course, Maradona has another ultimate appeal for the Scots. No one ever cheated England so profoundly – or displayed to them a superiority which, on the most bitter of days in Mexico City, seemed to stretch beyond any previously known limit. So then, where better for Maradona to launch his latest re-incarnation than Hampden, where he scored his first international goal in 1979 and confirmed the belief in his destiny, and the birth of a cult, that required World Cup-winning coach Cesar Menotti to resist so much pressure to play him as a rampaging infant prodigy of 17 a year earlier.
That the chain-smoking Menotti had been wise enough was confirmed three years later on a humid day in Barcelona when Maradona lost his head against Brazil in a World Cup game, made crazed tackles and screamed at the referee who showed him the red card, that he was a "hijo de puta" – son of a whore. Eight years later, in Turin, there was a similar breakdown on a World Cup stage when Paul Gascoigne, in so many poignant ways the closest English football has ever come to producing a Maradona, melted into tears.
Yet perhaps the two incidents, so similar in some ways, perfectly define the difference between sporting lives of, on one hand, manic drama and, on the other, unbreakable tragedy.
It is so, surely, because even today, at the age of 48, Maradona displays a survival instinct that is beyond reason – and certainly could not have been anticipated by a man who knew both troubled players so well at formative stages of their careers.
When Gascoigne was entering a decline that would, until this day at least, never be truly checked, Terry Venables was haunted by the comparison. He said he saw in the face of Gazza, who was about to be transferred from Spurs to Lazio, the same troubled etchings that marked the expression of Maradona at that time before he moved from Barcelona to Napoli in 1984. As the new coach of Barça, Venables presided over a transfer that had been made inevitable by the course of Maradona's two-year stay in Catalonia.
Already in his early twenties, Maradona had a vast entourage, counted at one time into the twenties. Their number included a barber, surprisingly in that at the time his thick black hair sprouted into anarchic curls, and a confessor, a priest who it was widely fancied might be the most relentlessly employed of the young maestro's cuadrilla. Said Venables, "Sometimes when I look at Gazza I cannot helping thinking of Maradona. You see all that talent – and also some kind of agony, something that makes you worry that he will ever be comfortable in his ability – and in his own skin. Naturally, even though the move was inevitable, I was sorry to see Maradona go when I arrived at the Nou Camp. Who wants to part with genius? But you knew, instantly, that there would be many problems."
Immense problems of character, of appetite, and they would surface so quickly at the time of his greatest success as a club footballer, delivering the first scudetto to Naples and causing so much joy that on the night of triumph, pasta was served in blue and the club colours were flown by helicopter and draped on the peak of Vesuvius.
Naples embraced Maradona so passionately because amid the marvels of his football there was irresistible evidence that in many ways he mirrored the extremities of the city itself. Inevitably, he was embraced by the Camorra. They were happy to fuel those appetites which could not be easily assuaged on the football field, where already he could step only comfortably with the aid of painkillers to sustain himself against remorseless kicking from defenders driven to their wits' ends by all of his unplayable devices.
To be in Naples at that time was to revisit the extraordinary ground Maradona had achieved in Mexico City less than a year earlier.
For the 1978 World Cup he was rejected. In 1982 he was ejected. In 1986 he dominated the tournament as no one, including Pele, had ever done before – or would ever do again. When he ate dinner in Mexico City it was extraordinary to see the reaction when he walked into the restaurant, on the balls of his feet, a fighting cock of a man with blazing eyes and the most dramatic plumage. Everyone rose to their feet. Pele, the master of the timed and imperious entrance, would surely have been moved to envy.
In Naples Maradona supplied not only the adrenalin of unique success, but also lashings of what Jose Mourinho recently described as contorno – those accompaniments to the game so relished by all Italians, and especially the hedonistic Neapolitans. It seemed Maradona could produce a little scandal with every footstep.
When a local woman, Cristiana Sinagra, claimed that Maradona had fathered her son, christened emphatically Diego, he denied the charge but admitted that once he had a cup of coffee in her company. Gleefully, one Naples newspaper bannered the conclusion: "MARADONA DRINKS STRONG COFFEE".
Is Argentina mad to appoint Maradona at the first hint of solid evidence that he has stabilised a life that became progressively chaotic, even abandoned, in all the years that followed the denial of paternity that was eventually accepted? Not so crazy, maybe, if you consider his meaning, the sheer indefatigability of his presence at the heart of the nation's football dream. This was defined well enough recently by Maradona's team-mate and goalscorer, Jorge Valdano, in the World Cup triumph of 1986.
Valdano, who is seen as something of a philosopher, was recently asked to assess Maradona's impact not only on the nation's football but its life. "I have said that I could describe Diego's great goal against England much better than he could, but then I could never have scored it. I want to establish the difference between narrative intelligence and football intelligence. The first has more prestige but the second has more complexity. I have written various articles about that goal and I stand by what I have said. Great football for me is the art to improvise, to find solutions, and that goal was the perfect demonstration.
"Maradona was a genetic miracle, a man whom nature endowed with extraordinary abilities and who, moreover, grew up in the right place to achieve his potential. On the field he demonstrated an ability to be a generous man, both committed and brave. The people who say terrible things about Diego are the same people who forget it is necessary to judge a genius by his deeds and not his life."
Is he a genetic genius – or a bizarre and troubling mutation? In Hampden Park, no doubt, they will take the best and live, uproariously, with the best. But surely the Scots are not alone, even in England where dismay and anger at what happened at the Azteca Stadium, where Maradona produced his devilish Hand of God, still refuse to subside even against the memory of his stupendous second goal.
Certainly Sir Bobby Charlton, who interviewed him for the BBC beneath the shadow of the hand of God, never had any doubt about the significance of what he had seen in the Azteca. He says, "He was not the most popular man in England when I spoke with him but he was bright and alive, so much so that you could almost see sparks flying from him. No one ever attacked a defence with such concentrated, brilliant fury – not even Pele or Alfredo di Stefano, who would, overall, be my rivals for the title of the greatest footballer who ever lived."
Now, in the often dark kaleidoscope of his life, there is the remarkable picture of his arriving for last week's meetings with his key English-based troops Carlos Tevez and Javier Mascherano.
No doubt it is not a final image, there will be no conclusive evidence of a settled Maradona this side of the grave, but it was extraordinary to see him coming through the airport in his movie-star shades and with an old, aggressive stride.
It was indeed a triumph for some kind of survival for the man who once complained, "I was carried to the mountain top but no one explained how I should behave when I arrived there."
The consequences were seen horrifically enough in the days of madness, the bloated, lost days of debauch and a terrible failure to see beyond the drug-induced gratifications of the most perilous fragments of time. He should be dead, and many would say damned, but he isn't, he is alive and a symbol of what Argentina's football can be at both its best and its worst.
Is Argentina football-mad? No, it is merely as always, suspended between life and death, joy and grief, and who embodies this perilous but thrilling existence more deeply, more unshakeably, than the man who has, who knows, perhaps finally walked out of the dark?
Back to where it all began
George Wood was the Scotland goalkeeper who let a rookie teenager run rings around him to score the final goal in a 3-1 win for Argentina when they visited Hampden Park in June 1979. Under normal circumstances that might have meant ignominy. As things transpired, Wood can look back almost with distinction to being the person who conceded the first international goal of Diego Maradona's career. Wood, then Everton's goalkeeper, is now 56 and the goalkeeping coach at Hartlepool.
There was no television coverage of the game because of a strike but it's still clear in my memory. He picked the ball, it seemed like the edge of his own box, and went through everyone without stopping, leaving just him and me. First I forced him out wide, to my left. He shot anyway but overhit it. I thought, "I've got away with this", because the ball was heading away towards the flag. But then he chased it to the goal-line and I went with him.
I dived, to my right this time, thinking he was going to cut back another shot. But he just put his foot on the ball instead. That left a gap to my left, and I recovered to dive that way because he was shaping to shoot there. Except he didn't. As I dived left, he tucked it inside the near post.
It was unbelievable skill, executed with so much confidence. [Scotland's manager] Jock Stein said to me afterwards, "He's done you at the near post, George." And I said, "No, boss, he did me three times actually." There were some big players in the Scotland side that day – Alan Hansen, Kenny Dalglish, John Wark, Arthur Graham – and Maradona was just tying them in knots. He was only 18." George Wood
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