Maradona, simply great (part one)

Maradona, Simply Great (part one)

When I first started watching football back in 1977 and the time that led up to the World Cup played in 1978 in Argentina, I apart from becoming a great fan of the sport learnt the basics as to what was the game of football. By the «basics» I mean not just learning what the object of the game was but the rules that included knowing the meaning of words such as off sides, a direct free kick, an indirect free kick, penalty, foul and many others. I however did not limit myself to learning the rules but also the strategies used in the game of football as it was during this time that I saw many a match. World Cup qualifiers, repeats of the 74 World Cup and international friendlies that included teams like Italy (above all), Argentina, Germany, Brazil, Peru, Spain, France, The Netherlands, Poland and many others.

In this which I considered a learning experience I was very careful in observing the differences between how the game of football was played by different countries. Brazil went forward in attack though I was told were going through a period in their football in which they had become more defensive minded than usual. This making me wonder by how many more goals they would have beaten Bolivia, whom they beat 8 to 0 in a qualifier had they been playing with their standard offense orientated football? Argentina looked impressive going in to the world cup beating Poland 2 to 0 in Buenos Aires with their nice South American touches though different than the Brazilians, perhaps with a flair of their own. Italy seemed very defensive minded which I was told by my father had always been their style while they seemed to concentrate more on playing as a team. Germany played a similar system, one of precision passing that did not go for brilliance at any particular moment but was consistent. Naturally with so many players lost to them such as Beckenbaur, Mueller and Breitner they were not really expected to win the world cup in 78 but they would be interesting to watch.

I had noticed that there were differences between the European styles and the South American styles, with the South Americans such as Argentina, Brazil and Peru who would representing South America in the world cup putting more emphasis on technique and ball control and individual playing while their European counter parts were of another mind set. European football was also about technique and speed but in a different manner that perhaps had more power with less finance though this explanation to a large extent is an over simplification. Of course there were teams in Europe such as France which played a system that took from both the South American and the European.

I however in this do not wish those who should read this article to get the impression that when it came to football I limited myself to being a spectator for I also took to this sport as a player. It was in my time in Argentina that I did play the game of football and though it did take me some time to get the hang of the game since I had never even kicked a football till the age of 10. I did eventually learn the basic skills to play the game in a way that was at least passable. However in learning about the game both from playing and watching it; I got the impression that football was a game which for the most part was all about simple yet at times complicated things; such as scoring goals while preventing one’s opponent from doing the same.

Scoring goals for the most part in the games I had seen came either via being at the right place at the right time such as I had seen players like Pele and Muller do an many occasions when the ball came to them at a moment in which they found themselves in the right position in the box with defenders having lost their mark.

Of course many were the methods of scoring; for instance one could kick the ball in from a distance but this basically meant hitting the ball just right. This being with a certain part of one’s foot which struck the ball just were it ought to; making the ball fly in the right direction and with a goal keeper who might have been slightly slow to react or out of place the ball would go in. Naturally there were certain shots which would do the incredible like Nelinho’s goal against Italy in the match for third place in Argentina 78 but for the most part such long distance goals could be blamed on the goal keeper.

I for my part came to think of such goals from long distance, like the one scored by Haan against Italy in Argentina 78 as not so much luck but of the result of taking many shots and having one go in, meaning that just as easily as the ball went one way it could have gone out. If perhaps the ball had been struck on another part or while spinning differently, a ball which just as easily might have gone in; might not have. Naturally there were players who practiced probably all day and would take most of their team’s free kicks and from time to time out of 10 would score one. Making all forget about the ones that did not even come close and such was the case with Platini or today’s Beckham; players who are like the field goal kicker in American football.

Speed was another factor which also led to goals, where a player would simply go around a defender by being faster or by taking advantage of a hole in the defense and being quick enough to be able to get through the gap before the defenders could close. This was the case with Kempes’s 1st and 2nd goals for Argentina against the Netherlands in the 78 World Cup final or Lato’s goal for Poland against Brazil in their match for 3rd place in the 74 World Cup. This basically meaning that it could be done by running fast with few skills required as was the case with Spanish international and Real Madrid striker Gento; who granted was fast but little else.

Passing the ball around in an effort to catch the other team of their guard or a defender who had lost his mark was also another way I had seen scoring could be done. For instance Brazil, Germany and Italy used this tactic of short passes that would try to find the open man though Brazil did it more by waiting for that forward run by one of their speedy mid fielders such as Zico. Italy by relying mostly on the counter attack, and waiting for the opposing team to loose the ball or make a bad pass to strike quickly as was the case with Paolo Rossi’s second goal against Brazil in Spain 82.

Ball controlling was important too, I had noticed but this was limited to one or two moves that would give one an opening for the shot on goal or a simple faint toward one side which the defender would fall for. This giving the attacking player a chance to pass his marker. Ball handling skills (not to be taken literally with one’s hand) or dribbling also meant avoiding defenders and not necessarily taking them on in a way that was astute.

This was how I perceived football or at least it was up until one day after my birthday (on a the day of Richard Wagner’s) in the year 1979. It was on that day in order to celebrate the anniversary of FIFA that a game would be played between the two teams that had reached the final in the last world cup. It would Argentina vs. The Netherlands once more.

It was actually my father who told me to look out for this new sensation in world football whose name was no other than Diego Armando Maradona and though in all truth I saw nothing spectacular from him on that day. Him playing neither particularly well or badly for that matter; I did see him play for the 1st time in a match that would end with a blank score which would be settled in penalty kicks. Maradona converting his spot kick in a shoot out that would need almost 20 penalties from each side before Argentina came out on top. I can not say that I had been overly impressed that day but I did see him play and got an idea of his skills with the ball though not to the full extent which they were.

That summer Argentina would take their newly found talent on a tour of Europe that would see him do wonders though I did not watch any of these matches that included a three goal performance against Austria and their outstanding goal keeper, Koncilia. However before this performance; on the same tour I got a chance to see Maradona playing live in Giant’s Stadium in New Jersey against the New York Cosmos in a game that ended with a 1 to 0 victory for Argentina. Goal being scored by a Daniel Passarella header during the second half which was most fortunate for myself as well as those who were with me as we missed the first half completely due to heavy traffic. Regarding Maradona’s performance that day I can not say much about it other than a few good runs and passes and that it was the first and last time I saw him play live.

I had heard much about Maradona’s greatness but I had yet to see it with my own eyes however it would not take long till I saw him in all his abilities and it came in that summer of 79 when he played against a combined team of stars from the rest of the world.

It was Argentina (who had not lost since their defeat to Italy during the world cup) vs. a team that included the best players the world had to offer at that time such as Tardelli from Italy Nelinho, Zico and Roberto from Brazil, Rummenigge from Germany, Platini from France and many others. This was a game in which Maradona, (only 18 at the time) really showed what he was capable of; outdoing everybody on the field. In the opening half came the first goal I had ever seen Maradona score; a shot he took while standing with his back to the goal and at an angle with Nelinho on him. The ball took a curve in the air and some how managed to go over the head of Brazilian goal keeper Leo in an amazing shot.

The second half would see Maradona become the whole team of Argentina surpassing those players who had won the world cup the previous year and though he did not score again and Argentina would go on to lose that match there are two plays by Maradona which I will never forget. The first being one in which after having made a move past Tardelli, he was so viciously fouled that the referee would show Tardelli, a red card for his challenge however the play he did that impressed me the most was yet to come.

Argentina was trailing to 2 to 1 when Maradona got the ball in midfield and off he went. It was as if seeing an American football player running through defenders; such was his ball control. Making it seem that those who were the best at the time were standing still, even managing to get around goal keeper Koncilia with the greatest of ease; after which from an angle he shot at the ball and just as the ball was about to go in. What should happen but Nelinho; on the very goal line denying Maradona of what would have been a spectacular goal to rival his effort in against England.

I can say this was the first time I had even been truly impressed by a player and though Argentina, lost not that this meant anything to me personally as I supported and still do only Italy; I had seen what Maradona was capable of. He was capable of more than just scoring goals, not that this meant nothing but sometimes a goal can come because of a penalty and ultimately if a player stays around the box long enough one or two balls are bound to go in the net but Maradona was something else. He had a mastery over the ball that went beyond simply being able to pass his marker thanks to one or two moves or faints. With Maradona it seemed that he had a whole catalogue of moves that he could apply at any given moment which would almost leave the defender with no choice but to have to foul, which unfortunately for him was what happened most of the time. For instance Garrincha had been a great player but he for the most part limited himself to one move which was a step in one direction which granted was well timed but nothing more. Maradona on the other hand with all he had at his disposal made it even look unfair.

Once an American sports commentator said that the great ones are loved at the beginning of their career, hated in the middle and once again loved at the end. This probably being because at the start they are young and as we see them improve we take enthusiasm as we see them grow in their talent. They naturally are not fully developed and make mistakes along the way but this can be overlooked given their youth and yet when they manage something spectacular this we praise all the more for the reason that we also forgive their faults. Maradona was at that stage of his career and because he was not over 20 was allowed to play for Argentina in the Youth World Cup of 1979 in Japan.

It was the second of such tournaments to be played and Argentina would be present coached by Cesar Luis Menotti, the man who had led Argentina to victory in the previous world cup. All while leaving Maradona out of the squad in the believe that his 17 years of age would not let him deal with the pressure. However that had been the year before and now all was different. Maradona, not only would be on the team; he would even be the star attraction along best chance of winning the trophy.

Maradona shined in this tournament from start to finish and though I did not see any of their games till they reached the semifinal I read about how Argentina won every one of their games. This in no small part due to Maradona who scored four goals of his own while assisting his teammates specially Ramon Angel Diaz, who scored six. Argentina was in the semi-final and it was after this game that I started to fear him specially since he did not play for Italy. Argentina played the semifinal against Uruguay.

The first half of this match was dominated almost in its entirety by Argentina; who spent most of the match in Uruguay’s half of the field but despite this were not able to score. Maradona had made many an incursion through that tight defense of Uruguay only to be stopped usually by a foul which today would have meant almost an automatic red card for the player but in those days only meant a warning and rarely a yellow card. In one occasion I even recall a Uruguayan player brutally pulling Maradona down from behind by his shirt.

The second half would see Uruguay go forward more and even play slightly better though this did mean more space in the back for Maradona; who took advantage in creating more opportunities not only for Diaz who scored at the 52 minute mark but himself. Maradona scoring at the 74 minute mark what could be considered the one that put the game out of Uruguay’s reach, who despite their famous «Garra Charruga» were not really going to bounce back.

Next was the final and the Soviet Union and I must confess as I watched the game at my sister’s house I would have preferred to see the Soviets take it but this was not the case. The first half ended with a blank score but only because the Soviet Union and their goal keeper some how managed to keep it such. Argentina and Maradona had dominated and should have been wining but what mattered was they were not. I even recall in incident were Maradona passed three players in the mid field. Not that this was rare for him as when he got in to a run with the ball and his short legs plus his short stocky frame; which made it very hard to knock him off the ball but on that occasion the 3rd Soviet player tried to stop him by grabbing on to his arm. It was then that while his arm was being held by this Soviet player Maradona broke his arm free, all while not only not falling down but keeping control of the ball.

The second half started with Ponomarov scoring for the Soviet Union at the 52 minute mark; much to my surprise and even delight as I was rooting for the underdog but this only served to motivate Argentina even more. Argentina went forward at that point with Maradona just about dominating everything, at that moment I saw what all the talk had been about as it seemed he moved at will. With this kind of pressure even a great defense like the Soviet Union was bound to crack as it did when Alves scored on a Maradona assist which came 68 minutes in to the match. With the score now tied Maradona continue controlling the midfield and the game and long it did not take for the lead to come to Argentina; as again Maradona made it possible and though he could have scored he passed it on. Diaz did the honors 71 minutes in to the match. Argentina was now winning and with the way they were controlling the match almost not allowing the Soviets out of their own half, it was clear to see that there were more chances of Argentina scoring a third goal than the Soviet tying it at two but I still hoped the Soviets would pull it out despite strong pressure from Argentina. Naturally the Soviet’s defense was tenacious but this would not be enough as from a free kick Maradona with 76 minutes gone put the game out of reach and the title in Argentina’s hands.

Maradona had shown the world what he could do, playing not so much as a goal scorer not that he was incapable of scoring but as selfless playmaker. This being due to his incredible vision that allowed him to always stay one jump ahead not only of the defender but the team’s defensive scheme and his lighting instincts of being able to execute a move as fast as it came to mind. This making thought and plays take place at the same time while most had to think first then act.

Maradona’s statistics were good though not outstanding if one considered that he had played six games and scored six goals which was not bad but then again Diaz from his team had scored 8 goals in the same six games. Assists he also had had but there was more to it than just numbers. I once heard Howard Cossell; (American sports broadcaster) say that statistics do not always tell us the whole story and in Maradona’s case nothing could have been more true. During that world cup he had been unstoppable in the midfield, making it that Argentina had dominated every game from the midfield. A supremacy that did not always lead to goals but to danger for the other team.

As for myself I considered him to be almost too good to playing in a youth world cup but then again why shouldn’t he? After all it was a tournament for those under 20 and he was 18 still. I even started to think how it would be if he could be as dominating in the up coming world cup in Spain as he had been in this youth world cup in Japan? Argentina would surely win the world cup was what my mind guided me to think, this naturally being a horrible prospective being that it would have meant them winning two in a row and Italy going since 1938 with out a title. Fortunately then Maradona would be playing against stronger and more experienced competition.

This tournament was an important point in Maradona’s career as he was no longer a novelty but one to take in series consideration as perhaps the world’s best in the same category as the greats of that time that included Rummenigge, Keegan, Zico, Platini, Rossi and a few others though none of them in their teens like he was. However with praise also came fear of what he could do on the field, this meaning that from that tournament on every time he stepped on to the field he was literally a marked man! After all, fully exposed his talent had been. This meaning defenses worked harder and many times dirtier just to stop him, very often committing fouls against him that today would give a referee no reason why not to show the red card. In those days the rules of the game being slightly different as tackling from behind was not so much punished as it is now a days.

Life became hard for Maradona at that time, as greatness was expected of him and anything else was considered a bad game for his standards. Clubs also started a bidding war for him in an attempt to make him leave «Argentinos Juniors» (his club at the time) and eventually an offer would come from Spain’s Barcelona for what then was an astronomical 6 million dollars. This was a figure unimaginable at the time but in a strange twist of events a group of Spaniards living in Argentina offered Argentinos Juniors the same amount not to sell Maradona. Barcelona however would not be denied by any such efforts and raised their bid to 12 million making the sum even more amazing. Maradona’s club in this bidding war opted to sell Maradona to Boca Juniors who did not waver to transfer him to Barcelona for the sum already mentioned of 12 million, however this transfer would not take place till after the world cup.

Maradona was now in the middle of his career in spite of not even being out of his teen years and this is when he started to in a sense be hated by some, myself being one of them as his strengths had been exposed all too clearly now it was a question of those who faced him to find his weakness. These however were hard to find but they did exist, first one was that though his left foot was capable of the impossible; his right was average. He though capable of extreme greatness on his day could be even less than average on his off days which fortunately for the rest he did have from time to time. The truth being when he was having his day and doing to the maximum what he and only he was capable, the other team was simply done for. Yes, one could always resort to double or even triple marking, dirty fouls and other such tactics which would keep him at bay for a part of the game but eventually it would be like trying to stop a tornado.

My resentment came mostly that Maradona did not play for Italy though it is often debated weather or not his ancestral roots might have been Italian. His last name not being Italian though it might have been taken from. Many Argentineans after all are of Italian descent but it is unsure weather Maradona is. As a personal note I will say that in all my time in South America I have never heard of anybody other than him having Maradona as a last name. It is during the time after the youth world cup that some started asking is Maradona better than Pele and other greats of the past but I felt perhaps this was a little too early to tell.

After 79 the next two years went by with Maradona not really playing any internationals other than friendlies since Argentina was already qualified for the world cup and a small tournament in Uruguay. It was in this mini tournament that neither Argentina nor Maradona played particularly well in. First beating Germany 2 to 1 and then drawing against Brazil zero zero. In this group that included Germany it was Brazil who would go on to the final by virtue of beating West Germany 4 to 1 and having a better goal ratio than Argentina. The final would be won by Uruguay.

By then the year was 1982 and football fans through out the world had their eyes set on the world cup in Spain. Argentina was going in as one of the favorites to win the world cup after all they had Maradona and most of the players who had won it for them four years earlier. Mario Kempes being one those players who had also had some great years playing for Valencia and Menotti was still coaching them. Brazil as always was seen as one of the favorites and with the likes of Zico, Falcao (played for Roma), and Socrates on their team it is not strange that they would be. Germany many felt could take top honors with the team they had managed to rebuild after what for their standards was a mediocre effort in the Argentina World Cup but that was the past. Now Rumminigge was playing in his best moment accompanied by mostly young players and Breitner who was back from the 74 squad.

I can say without even the slightest hesitation that there had never been nor has there ever been a player to start a world cup with so much pressure on him as Maradona started the 82 World Cup. First on the home front; it meant a lot to his government, specially after loosing Falklands to do well in the world cup and hopefully repeat as champions. Second he would be playing his first match against Belgium in Barcelona’s Neu Camp Stadium, the team that had signed him up for the following season. Also by then every defense that played him had created a strategy that for the most part concentrated on stopping only him even if it meant losing a player or two to do it. His game had been studied by coaches through out the world and they were waiting for him.

Some will say that Pele excelled in the world cup in 58 at the age of 17 but then again let us not forget that Pele was not a starter on that team and only got to play because «Mazola» failed to live up to expectations making it necessary for him to be replaced. Much in the same way Greaves’ poor playing made it necessary for England in 66 to have to put in Hurst. Pele contrary to Maradona at the start of the 58 world cup was not well known, not even in Brazil making expectations of him low specially given his age. Maradona on the other hand had all the pressure one could imagine as those who now hated him and even envied him were looking for any weak game from him while his great games were being seeing as typical. Added to this was the fact that Menotti though a good trainer had a strong weakness and that being his being sentimental over his players, specially those who had won the world cup with him in 78. Four years had passed and players like Ardiles, Bertoni, and Gallego were no longer the same, now slower, less motivated and there style of play too well known. Specially since Menotti’s tactics were the same as they had been in the previous world cup.

Argentina started off with a 0-1 defeat to Belgium but in all frankness it was not Maradona who did not play well but his teammates who could not manage to score. As for Maradona he was surrounded all through out the game by Belgium defenders who followed him where ever he went and despite of this his teammates were unable to take advantage of the free space this allowed them. In looking back I would have to say that Maradona did not play as badly as the critics claimed, even hitting the post off a free kick. The rebound of which Kempes missed despite being only two meters from the Belgium goal.

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