Memories of Maradona: Mile-high keepie-uppies at White Hart Lane against Liam Brady

Diego Maradona has died of a heart attack at the age of 60. Here, Gerry Cox remembers his encounters with the squat, muscular figure who bestrode the footballing world like a colossus
Memories of Maradona: Mile-high keepie-uppies at White Hart Lane against Liam Brady

Diego Maradona of Tottenham Hotspur in action during the Ossie Ardiles testimonial match at White Hart Lane in London in 1986. \ Mandatory Credit: Allsport UK /Allsport

I was transfixed with joy and wonder when I first saw Diego Maradona in the flesh, going through his unique warm-up routine wearing the white of Tottenham Hotspur in May 1986.

Seven weeks later, my reactions were anger and heartbreak when he knocked England out of the World Cup with two goals, one of pure skill, the other blatantly punched past Peter Shilton.

That was Maradona in a nutshell – enthralling in his brilliance, shameful in his cheating, and never has the epithet flawed genius fitted better than with the squat, muscular figure who bestrode the footballing world like a colossus.

 

I was a young fan in the crowd at White Hart Lane when he turned out for Tottenham in a testimonial for Ossie Ardiles, who was his great friend to the end. The debate raging at the time was who was the world's greatest footballer – Maradona or Michel Platini? 

The two were polar opposites – Platini the wiry playmaker who rarely put a foot wrong on or off the pitch (this was before he moved disastrously into football governance) versus Maradona, the ball of energy who seemed to thrive on his bad-boy reputation.

At the end of the evening, everyone squeezed into White Hart Lane came away with the same impression – we had witnessed a genius at his peak. Within weeks he was a World Cup winner, and although no trophy can be won through the efforts of one player, Maradona did more than most to make Mexico his own tournament.

This was in the days before the internet, social media, wall-to-wall coverage of football outside our own shores. In the 1980s you were lucky to see a few minutes of 'foreign' football on the weekend's preview programmes, so it was difficult to judge how good some of these players were. Spurs fans were lucky enough to enjoy the continental-style skills of Glenn Hoddle and Ossie Ardiles, great players in their own right. But Maradona was on another level, as he showed that night.

He walked out for the warm-up and made a bee-line for a ball on the centre spot. Jabbing the outside of his left boot sharply down, he generated enough spin to flick the ball six feet into the air. What followed was simply amazing. He volleyed the ball as high as he could, straight up into the night sky. When it eventually came down, he volleyed it straight back up. And again. And again.

Anyone who has ever fancied their chances as a 'baller' (as the kids say today) has tried a bit of 'keepy-uppy'.  But these are usually little flicks, simple to control. Maradona was launching the ball vertically as far as most of us can shoot, and then effortlessly doing it all over again. He looked like he could repeat it ad infinitum, and only stopped when he decided to have a cursory stretch and chat with his temporary team-mates. 

Soon it was into the semi-serious business of the match, where the great man was up against an Inter Milan side that had Ireland's own genius Liam Brady playing in midfield. It was a testimonial so nothing was done at full throttle, but you could not resist the notion that Argentinian wanted to show off his full repertoire in front of the English, who had been at war with his country only four years earlier. 

He won us over, of course, and so we were not surprised to see him win the World Cup too, though few England fans will ever get over the Hand of God goal, a punch as gut-wrenching as Thierry Henry's in Paris to Irish fans 23 years later.

My next encounter with Maradona was also at a World Cup, this time when I was a fledgling football reporter in the USA eight years later. For most of the 1994 tournament, I was stationed in Dallas, a city made famous by John F Kennedy's assassination in 1963. 

Three decades on, Dallas was to be the scene of Diego's descent into infamy, his expulsion from the World Cup for failing a drugs test. The benefit of being in a football wasteland was that I was one of the few English reporters in town when Argentina pitched up for what should have been a routine pre-match training session, only for the rumours of failed drugs tests to send the Argentinian press pack into a frenzy. 

The world's media was buzzing with speculation, but all the newspapers back home wanted some form of confirmation from a senior source before they could print anything. The squad arrived and when a moody-looking Maradona mooched out onto the pitch, it was clear something was not right. 

Instead of kicking a ball around he sat in his tracksuit against a goalpost, watched his team-mates kick about half-heartedly for half an hour and then they all started to troop back towards the team bus, separated from a baying press pack by the high chainlink fence encircling the pitch at the Cotton Bowl arena. 

Fortunately, one man responded to the shouted questions of reporters, some of whom were clinging high up on the fencing. Julio Grondona, head of Argentina's FA and a FIFA vice-president, turned back and answered succinctly. 

I heard the words Si, Diego and Ephedrine and asked a friendly Argentinian reporter to translate for me. Two paragraphs of quotes was all I had to give those newspapers I was freelancing for the confirmation they needed, but at close to midnight in London, I had to speak to newsdesks rather than the sportsdesks, who had gone home for the night. 

I had a handful of dimes and quarters and rather than head to a media centre where I knew dozens of reporters would be fighting over a handful of telephones (this was before mobiles were widespread), I made my way to the bowels of the stadium, where I had spotted a payphone earlier. While a couple of janitors looked on in surprise at my desperate dialling and machine-gun delivery to the copytakers, I managed to make it through to half-a-dozen national newspapers with the story that would make the front as well as the back pages the next morning. 

I stopped at a diner sometime later to ring my wife and tell her I had just broken, for the English press, the scoop of a lifetime – the world's greatest footballer had just been kicked out of the world's biggest sporting event for taking drugs. Her response – “You woke me at 2am just to tell me that?” - took the wind out of my sails, but I drove back knowing I would never top that moment as a journalist.

So it was intriguing to finally meet the great man, face to face, 21 years later, at the Soccerex football business conference in Jordan. He was scheduled to talk at the event and endorse Prince Ali of Jordan, who was challenging Sepp Blatter for the FIFA Presidency, running on an anti-corruption manifesto. 

Prince Ali's people suggested we could interview Maradona, and of course we leapt at the chance, with the scepticism borne of experience that it might never happen, especially as Maradona had such a volatile reputation. But when he hustled through the hotel's rear entrance and flanked by a huge entourage, he could not have been more charming. 

He stuck out a hand and introduced himself – as if he needed to. I asked a friend, the Spanish journalist Guillem Balague, to translate for me, and as our cameras rolled, Maradona did not disappoint, railing against Blatter, Fifa and their corruption of the beautiful game. “When I was a player, I chased the ball. Blatter chases champagne,” was one of his most memorable lines. It made headlines around the world.

I said goodbye with another warm handshake and wished him well, but my hopes that Maradona would get over his problems were dashed during the 2018 World Cup in Russia. I was covering Argentina's game against Nigeria for this newspaper when reports of Maradona's eccentric behaviour started to come through, and you could see the commotion around the area where he and his entourage were seated. We were told afterwards he'd been treated by medics for a suspected heart attack, not surprisingly since he'd appeared wired on his way to the game and throughout.

It was not clear how ill he was that night, but he clearly was not a well man. When the news came through on Wednesday afternoon that Maradona had died, it was not a surprise.

But that does not lighten the heavy heart many of us felt upon hearing about yet another legend of the game passing on. It was not just his sublime skill that we admired, but his tenacity to rise from the slums of Buenos Aires to the top of the world, to battle against adversity throughout his life, and to keep us entertained. Whether he was the greatest ever is a debate that will go on, but he will never be left out of that particular conversation.

There will never be another one like him.

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