Diego Maradona's retelling of Argentina's 1986 World Cup victory is a quixotic joy, writes Noel Baker
If we didn't know if before, thanks to Diego Armando Maradona, we do now - the unlikely influence of Bonnie Tyler's 'Total Eclipse of the Heart' on Argentina's memorable World Cup triumph in 1986.
Maybe it's no surprise that the definitive power ballad was an Argentine team bus favourite in Mexico 86, its over-the-top sentiment and chest-rattling delivery chiming with the extraordinary life of Maradona, a man never far removed from drama, much of it of his own making.
In 'Touched By God', a retelling of his country's win in 1986 written in collaboration with journalist Daniel Arcucci, Diego tells us: "I've been a Peronist my whole life and I'll die a Peronist, because of my mother and because of Evita." Elsewhere, this nugget: "The truth is, I want the Pope to be more famous than Maradona. But I have an edge, which is that I played soccer pretty well." Histrionics, history - it's all one and the same.
In his 2004 autobiography, 'El Diego' - a glorious potboiler that also involved Arcucci - the events of 1986 are crammed into a little more than 30 pages. In 'Touched By God', we get the widescreen version, delivered in classic Diego stream-of-consciousness in what reads like a faithful transcript of meandering but perpetually emotive conversations.
There was certainly plenty to talk about. Within the first few pages a self-aware Diego tells us that he now sees things differently 30 years on, that he's changed, that he still carries inner contradictions. Yet anyone expecting extended passages of self-reflection can forget it. Diego's scorn for the higher-ups, and some of his own playing contemporaries, hasn't eased; in fact, in some cases, it's escalated. He jabs early and often at Argentina's manager in 1986, Carlos Bilardo, a man he feels subsequently betrayed him and who is portrayed here as less a master tactician and more a sideline prop, with Maradona and company organising everything on the field. Daniel Passarella, over whom Maradona secures the captaincy, also gets a roasting ("I want to thank all my teammates for their sacrifices ... all of them except Passarella, that is"). He has his customary pop at Pele, but some of the more choice vitriol is directed at Michel Platini, then a world great, now an empty blazer, banished amid FIFA's recent scandals. Maradona duly puts the boot in. At one point Platini, a multiple winner of the Ballon d'Or, is derided as "a heartless French turkey".
Conversely, Maradona's love for his team mates holds no bounds. Everyone's nickname is in constant use, the fondness ever-present. Maradona effectively ditched his club, Napoli, before the end of the season to dedicate himself almost entirely to preparations for Mexico 86, but while the Argentine FA's arrangements are decidedly Saipan-esque, this cackhandedness was overcome by a blossoming squad camaraderie and sheer will on the part of the team's star player. Maradona sets the scene as one of destiny calling. Everything, even his earlier rehabilitation from a shocking leg break inflicted by Basque hitman Andoni Goikoetxea in a La Liga game, is merely a prelude to this, his greatest moment. In truth, there was more than one.
Of course, in addition to his bewitching talent on the pitch, one of the joys of Maradona is his unique way with language, and specifically his delightful use of needle. In 2004 he wrote of "vaccinating" both opponents and enemies. Who can forget his brilliant exhortation as Argentina manager prior to the 2010 tournament - "I want you to bring all your meat to the grill." Or the faux-German accent used during a TV interview when he openly asked German captain Bastian Schweinsteiger, in English, if he was "scared" ahead of their clash in South Africa. The only downside to that exchange? Germany won four nil.
There's more of it here. In one section he seems to punctuate every other sentence with the words "check it out", before dropping it. The swearing is as earthy as ever - "my ass" this, "bollocks" that. Maradona has been accurately described as an outlaw footballer, a genuine rebel blessed with startling ability and serious cajones. His language is a blend of the poetic and the profane, something occasionally reflected on the pitch and never more so than in the quarter-final against England, when he scored two unforgettable goals. The first was the 'Hand of God' punched effort, a brazen piece of cheating in which he still clearly revels. As he wheels away he is crafty enough to prolong the celebrations to dampen any prospect of it being disallowed. A teammate asks him if he punched it in. "And I answered, 'shut the fuck up and keep on celebrating'."
Maradona seldom, if ever, concedes he might have been at fault, for anything, ever. In the later chapters he breezes through his career following the '86 victory, from twice leading Napoli to the scudetto in Italy to his odd interlude at Seville and his crash-and-burn at USA '94, when he was sent home after testing positive for ephedrine. He writes that he didn't know he had taken it and that he got to the '94 World Cup "clean as a whistle", noting, with comical effect: "Everyone in soccer knows that ephedrine doesn't help you run: everyone knows that!"
You could argue he's bordering on self-deception, and you could ask why he gets away with it - the shameless populism, the post-truth approach to life, the diabolical genius of that first goal against England. But in response all you have to do is recall the other shimmering moments captured here, past the pickpocket's delight and "viveza" of 'the Hand of God' goal to the eternal majesty of his second, that improbable slalom through most of Bobby Robson's side that sparked equally memorable commentary from his fellow Argentine Victor Hugo Morales. "Goal!!! Goal!!! I want to cry! Lord Almighty! Long live soccer!" Morales screams, before descending into sobs. "You cosmic kite, what planet did you come from?" he goes on. "Thank you God, for soccer, for Maradona ... for these tears, for ... this.... Argentina two, England zero."
Those words were also referenced in what is still the best piece of writing on Maradona, by journalist John Carlin in 2000 for the English Independent, back when Diego was a bloated, drug-addled wreck, living in Cuba and close to death. The expectation was that he would fully self-destruct, and Carlin imagined that Maradona's passing could be Argentina's Princess Diana moment, the greatest drama in a country which specialises in them. But it never happened. Here he is, and that ability to confound us keeps us enthralled, in the same way that those passages of play from '86 and beyond, when he had the ball at his feet and the world on a string, remind us what it was to fall in love with football. Maradona, faced by the entire Belgian backline, a fox trying to get at the henhouse. El Diego, jackknifing through the English defence. The world's greatest player, hoisting the cup aloft, his wrists wobbling under its golden weight.
As he did in his autobiography, Maradona writes that at the homecoming he felt a curious combination of sadness and elation. "All I won was a World Cup, nothing more than that." But as we know, it eclipses everything else.
*Touched By God - How We Won The Mexico '86 World Cup' by Diego Armando Maradona and Daniel Arcucci is published by Little Brown and costs €25
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