Watching Diego Was a Privilege, Hearing Him Speak a Bonus

AT the 2010 World Cup finals, the City of Gold was our base and, from our ring-side seats, we had the privilege to watch the game’s ultimate golden guy up-close and personal.

He was just three months short of his 50th birthday.

About a quarter-of-a-century had passed, since his heroics at the ’86 World Cup finals in Mexico, which ultimately defined his legacy but, even then, there was no questioning we were in the presence of greatness.

Diego Armando Maradona was in town, not as the unstoppable football genius whose brilliance took the game into another planet, but now as a coach of his beloved Argentina.

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

The World Cup still represented the ultimate prize, to be won at all cost, even if it meant using what he termed the “Hand of God,” as he guided the ball past England goalkeeper Peter Shilton in the Mexican sunshine in ’86.

Or using drugs, as happened at the ’94 World Cup finals in the United States where his international career ended under a cloud of disgrace when he was sent home for testing positive to a banned substance.

Now, even though he couldn’t influence his country’s fortunes on the pitch were, he left a lasting impression as one of the greatest, if not the finest, footballer to ever play the game, Maradona remained trapped in a ball of passion on the bench.

No one could dare suggest his burning desire, to deliver the World Cup to Argentina, had diminished over the years.

It was under those circumstances that we met, while I was covering the 2010 World Cup, and, somehow, those who had planned the fixtures had made sure Maradona and his Argentina side would play the majority of their matches in Johannesburg.

The first one was at Ellis Park and a fiery contest in which Maradona provided as much a show on the bench as the players did on the pitch, was decided by a single goal.

The South Americans won, beating a battling Nigeria 1-0, with left-back Gabriel Heinz scoring the only goal in the sixth minute of the contest.

But if the first one was a tight affair and had tested Maradona’s emotions to the limit, the next one at Soccer City was a straight forward affair.

This was the Argentina that Diego wanted to see and his men swept away the South Koreans 4-1 with Gonzalo Higuain scoring a hat-trick while an own goal completed the rout.

Maradona and his men left town for the third game, travelling to Polokwane for a date against Greece at the Peter Mokaba Stadium where defender Martin Demichelis and forward Martin Parlemo scored late goals for them in a 2-0 win.

The true Maradona we had been waiting for to really give us the drama that we really wanted with his animated performances in the media conference, came in the Round of 16 match against Mexico.

And, again, the match was brought to Soccer City, our base.

Carlos Tevez scored twice and Higuain once to give Argentina a 3-1 win with Chicharito on target for the Mexicans.

Tevez was clearly offside when he was played through on goal by Lionel Messi in the 26th minute to score the first goal but the match officials, as they had done when Maradona scored his “Head of God” goal against England, they chose to look elsewhere.

Mexico manager, Javier Aguirre, was furious, and so were many of his players but the best, for us, came from Maradona during his post-match media conference.

“Aguirre must have felt the same as we have felt when Messi gets kicked around and the referee does not act,” said Maradona.

“I have lived that myself, when I was a player when you had three players on you 20 years ago.

“Whenever Messi has the ball everyone is trying to kick his legs. What is being done to him is a scandal — they don’t even look for the ball, they try to kick him.

“I understand the Mexicans’ feelings but there is a limit to everything.”

Hearing him talk, with the passion he had always demonstrated on the bench and on the pitch, gave you a feeling that you were in the presence of greatness.

This was football royalty, not as pure as it should be, but greatness all the same.

Maybe, former England captain Gary Lineker,who played in that quarter-final match against Maradona, in Mexico, summed it up perfectly yesterday.

“Reports from Argentina that Diego Armando Maradona has died. By some distance the best player of my generation and arguably the greatest of all time.

“After a blessed but troubled life, hopefully he’ll finally find some comfort in the hands of God,” said Lineker.

That Lineker should talk about Maradona being in the hands of God was, itself, ironic.

Diego was more than just a footballer, he became a cultural icon and a national hero for his people in Argentina.

“Today is a bad day, a very sad day for all Argentines, said Argentina president Alberto Fernández in a TV interview yesterday.

“I doubt that we will ever see another player like Maradona.

“The best thing about Diego is that he was an absolutely genuine man, he was not a fake man, he was a genuine man who expressed everything with the force with which he played football, he defended what he wanted, mistreated what he hated.

“That was Maradona in his purest state.

“You took us to the highest of the world. You made us immensely happy. You were the greatest of all. Thanks for having existed, Diego. We will miss you all our lives.”

The fans always have the best views.

“Today, football died”, a Napoli fan told Sky News. “On a day like this I wanted to thank my parents who named me after him.”

It was a privilege just to watch him, 10 years ago, hearing him talk — once again demonstrating his unquestionable love for his country — was a bonus.

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