Football/Soccer

Forget the madness, remember the magic: thanks for the memories Diego

The greatest who ever played the game? That's a matter of opinion. But for Neil Loughran, the memories of Maradona will never be replaced...

Diego Maradona shone brightest beneath the Mexican sun when he guided Argentina to the World Cup 34 years ago. Picture by PA

THE smell of over-ripe fruit still sticks with me all these years on. Every day we would pile into a rented four-berth half car/half bike contraption, driver and front seat passenger doing the pedalling as we powered into town.

The sides and roof weren’t covered with any kind of metal, rather a light nylon material. Never mind the actual cars you shared the road with, this stuff would protect you from the sun. Way more important.

Seatbelts? Dead on. This was 1986, Alcudia, and the first foreign holiday I can recall. The combination of the stifling heat and the packed markets, fresh watermelon and local oranges on display until they were nothing resembling fresh, made for an aroma you don’t easily forget.

Then there was the beach, the appallingly decorated apartment and the swimming pool with the island in the middle, a plastic palm tree surrounded by similarly tropical looking but also fake bushes. Thom Yorke would’ve loved it.

Above all, though, there was Maradona. Everywhere. Every-where. His face on t-shirts, on knock-off Argentina and Barcelona tops (even though he had left Catalunya two years earlier). You didn’t share a single word with most of the other kids with whom your days were spent, other than his name.

It was weeks earlier that Maradona had ascended into superstardom, sparkling beneath Mexican skies as he led an otherwise fairly ordinary Albiceleste to World Cup glory. I was only five at the time and while I think I have some kind of recollection of the quarter-final win over England, I’m pretty sure it’s just because I have watched all of that footage over, and over, again.

My brother Glenn was entranced. At 13, he was the perfect age to have fully taken stock of what unfolded that summer. I always envied him that. Regardless, his love for Maradona was passed on to me, whether I liked it or not.

Every day after school, rain, hail or shine, he and I would go out into the back garden and play football for hours – him the majestic Diego, me… in nets.

When we weren’t doing that, we were micro-analysing videos.

Maradona: The greatest player in the world?

Maradona: Hero or villain?

Hero: The official film of the 1986 World Cup, narrated by Michael Caine.

Napoli Corner told the story of Maradona's journey from disappointment to demi-God, leaving Barcelona a failure only to drag a team and a city viewed as the shit on Italy’s shoe to Lo Scudetto. That connection with the people, the fervour of the fans crammed into the San Paolo, the explosion of noise as soon as the ball rippled the net - it was incredible.

On Monday nights we’d tune into RTE’s hour-long highlights programme, straining our eyes against the never-ending snow afforded by our horrific reception. If we got even a glimpse of the great man, we’d be happy.

Bizarrely, for all the glorious images that Maradona’s career spawned, the one which resonates most is of his wide-eyed, snarling face celebrating scoring the fourth goal in Argentina’s opening day rout of Greece at the 1994 World Cup.

Everything about his performance that day was magnificent. Unlike the tortured soul who cut a shadow of his former self at Italia ’90, here was something different.

The slaloming runs, the sudden bursts of pace, they were long gone. What remained though was a mesmerising generalship and control, each pass perfect, every manoeuvre executed with utmost precision.

When he sidestepped to the left on the edge of the Greek box before rifling into the top corner, it was like a bomb going off. The manic joy that followed, I have never wanted to believe something to be true so much.

I remember writing a letter to Glenn that night. He and another brother, Aaron, had gone to live in America a couple of years earlier and in an age long before mobiles phones or email, once, maybe twice yearly letters and the occasional reverse charges call were all you had to look forward to.

Probably by the time it reached him, though, Maradona was on his way back to Argentina in disgrace, having failed a drugs test after their victory over Nigeria.

A team that should have won the whole thing bowed out to Romania five days later, Maradona’s playing days now behind him as life lurched from one sorry soap opera to another, drug addiction and fast living placing his life under threat many times before, yesterday, his heart could take no more.

The figure of parody that social media made of Maradona - that he made of himself, really - throughout the last World Cup in Russia was an unfortunate sign of the times, yet I feel genuinely saddened for anybody whose recollections of him are those rather than the remarkable grace and beauty he brought to the pitch.

And for all the ills of Twitter, it has proved an occasional treasure trove with new, previously unseen footage emerging, such as that of a Napoli training session where Maradona tormented the life out of some poor goalkeeper on the kind of pitch that was only fit for cattle.

The Live is Life pre-match warm-up video, the innocence – despite all his indulgences – of a boy and a ball, playing about, making it talk. Those pictures never fail to warm the soul.

In the Messi-Ronaldo era, the endless debate about who is the greatest grows ever more tiresome and, the older you get, the more you realise it’s not how brilliant that player or person was but what they meant to you at a particular point in time and the memories you associate with them.

I was sitting at my desk at around 4pm yesterday when the phone started to light up, texts and screenshots sent from different people as word spread.

Just in front of the printer sits a tiny figure, Maradona in his Napoli jersey, Mars the shirt sponsor so it must have been around 1989 or so. I remember the day I got it in Leisureworld; it was about three years before I even took it out of the packaging. Still, it sits there now, slightly worse for wear, but my kids know not to touch it.

They’ve wreaked havoc on plenty of other prized possessions, but ‘the wee man’ stays in that spot, no need for argument.

The odd time they’ll even ask me who he is, and I never tire of telling them.

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Football/Soccer