Football is, probably, the most powerful and most followed human activity on earth.
For many of its adherents to jointly conclude that one person is probably the greatest football player of all time cannot be considered flimsy or a mean feat, or taken lightly. It is not surprising, therefore, that the outpouring of emotions over the death of Diego Armando Maradona has been overwhelming.
In the past four days since he died and has been buried, every media in the world has made his story its headline news. An entire television channel has been dedicated to running various documentaries, 24/7, on his chequered life. Tributes have been pouring in like rain from all corners of the planet and from people across all spheres of life. It has been a season to mourn his death as well as to celebrate his life. It is a privilege to have been alive to watch this diminutive ‘football magician’ put up his unique acts.
So, four days after he embarked on his return journey to his Creator, I find myself without encomiums to add to the tons and volumes of tributes that have poured like rain on this god of the game of football. So, permit me to pay my own humble tribute in my own little way, by recalling what could have been, not what was, my experiences with the great Diego Maradona.
He came along and joined the football planet at 15 when I was at the peak of my career in the late 1970s. We could possibly have met in Argentina during the 1978 World Cup hosted by that country, but fate robbed us both of the opportunity. A year before, at the very last hurdle, I was part of the national team of Nigeria that needed to cross it in order to qualify and head for Argentina. We lost the very last match we should easily have won in Nigeria against Tunisia. That’s how I missed out on the trip to Argentina.
Diego, on the other hand, an 18-year-old prodigious talent who had had his international debut at 17, was not invited to that Argentine national squad by coach Cesar Menotti, who considered him too young and not experienced enough to replace the great Mario Kempis. So, like me, Maradona sat at home and watched in frustration at not participating in the 1978 World Cup. So, our paths did not cross.
4 years later, whilst I was going through another frustrating and agonizing repeat of the failure to cross the last hurdle to what would have been my first World Cup in Spain in 1982, Diego had garnered plenty of experience and shown the world glimpses of his genius when he led Argentina’s Under 20 to win the World Youth Championship in 1979, declared best young player in the world, and created a world transfer fee record by moving to the great FC Barcelona in Spain shortly before the World Cup. Expectations were very high and the imagination of the world had been ignited about the possible successor to Pele of Brazil.
Nigeria failed to defeat Algeria at the finish line of the African qualifiers for the 1982 World Cup. Maradona with Argentina succeeded. So, once again, the elements did not make our meeting possible on the hallowed ground of Camp Nou.
Now 22 years old, Diego was ready to take on the world, but did not reckon with the crucible of fire he needed to pass through to become genius. He was in the Argentine team, his play oscillating between greatness and ordinary, until they met Italy and Maradona came face to face with the angel from hell – Claudio Gentile. Gentile man marked him for 90 minutes, he hardly kicked the ball throughout that match.
Against Brazil who were less brutal but more brilliant in the next match, Diego was frustrated again until he lost his cool, lashed out at a Brazilian defender, with his team losing by 2-1 at the time, he was sent out of the match and the World Cup. The pressures to succeed overwhelmed and got the better of him.
The world was the loser. It had to wait another 4 years to see the complete article, the true genius, once again on that grandest stage. This time, he had moved to SSC Napoli, one of the smaller clubs in the Italian Serie A, where his ‘transfiguration’ from human to a god took place.
In 1986, I had retired from football for 2 years. There was no chance of playing on the same turf again. So, I was a lucky spectator. From the comfort of my home I watched Diego unleashed on the world and how in one World Cup he became the brightest Star in the football universe.
The story of the 1986 World Cup has been told and retold, and will be told forever. 1986 is the story of how he singlehandedly led his club and country to the pinnacle of football, not just in trophies but in performances that are the material of dreams.
Some of us that ‘pretended’ to be football stars could only look on at his magic, and saw things we could only dream of, and never performed on the football field. The sum total of Maradona’s artistry is that he was so comfortable with the ball at his left foot that he was capable of doing anything with it. Indeed, it was like the ball was glued to his foot always ready and willing to do his bidding on the football field. From 1986, he earned the title ‘god of the beautiful game’.
He was the central figure in the next two World Cups. Nigeria did not qualify for them and Argentina did not win the trophies. In 1994 World Cup, for the first time, Nigeria crossed their jinxed finishing line, qualified for the World Cup for the first time and joined a Maradona-led Argentina to the USA ’94 Championship. This time, I was not a player. I was not destined to share the stage with Maradona. But I was a member of the Nigerian team, the ‘ceremonial’ Team Manager of an absolutely brilliant assembly of some of the greatest players in Nigerian football history.
So, there was a chance to finally meet Diego Armando Maradona. It happened at the Foxborough Stadium, Boston, on the fateful day when Nigeria and Argentina met for one of the group matches. Nigeria lost that encounter and Diego was the difference on the night with a virtuoso performance. Incidentally that match turned out to be the nightmare that ended his own international career and sent him to the gallows of football. In that match, Maradona was tested and found to have used some banned drugs. He was banned for 15 months. He never played at that level again until he retired from the game, the brightness of him dimmed by an ugly scandal from which he never recovered.
At half time, as the teams returned to the dressing room, our paths crossed in the dugout and for few strides we walked side by side towards the dressing rooms. He was so small in stature compared to my 6-footer frame it was unbelievable. We did not exchange anything, not even a whisper of a greeting.
Looking back now, rather than the anger and hate that I felt for him on that day as a result of his tormenting my team, I could very easily have seized the moment to touch the hand of a ‘god’, to probably get a handshake to the bargain, to exchange a word or two, and to be able to now claim to have actually met and exchange some pleasantries with one of the greatest football players of my generation – the great Diego Armando Maradona during his life time. My tribute today would have been much fuller and richer.
His life after his football career was not a model. One writer described him thus (I don’t have the exact quote): at certain times, he looked like one descended from Heaven; at other times, like one ascended from hell. There is nothing more to add, as I join millions around the world to mourn and also to celebrate this divine gift to football.