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I have never seen anyone like Maradona in my lifetime

27 November, 2020 13:16:31
I have never seen anyone like Maradona in my lifetime

Veteran Maidan star Gautam Sarkar, nicknamed ‘Indian Beckenbauer’, is a former international footballer who captained both East Bengal and Mohun Bagan

During the 1986 FIFA World Cup, Jugantar, then a leading Kolkata daily, sent me to Mexico as a special correspondent to cover the tournament. And that was how I ended up watching him up close through four matches – one league game, a quarterfinal, a semifinal, and the final. And yes, I did see the ‘hand of God’ goal, too.

In every profession, there are several people who excel, and yet only a few names remain forever etched in memory. Diego Maradona is obviously one such. The world describes him as a left-footed player, I say his left foot was the equivalent of four feet, which made him a four-footed player! His strength, skill, variety, subtle dribbling, passing, and feinting, goal-scoring ability, and above all, his ability to completely outwit defenders – I have not seen the likes of it in my lifetime, neither as a player, nor as a spectator. And I have seen a few. 

In every profession, there are several people who excel, and yet only a few names remain forever etched in memory. Diego Maradona is obviously one such. The world describes him as a left-footed player, I say his left foot was the equivalent of four feet, which made him a four-footed player!

The other great thing about Maradona was his presence of mind, and ability to innovate on the spot. In one moment, he could think up a move that would wrong-foot defenders, making them look foolish, to put it politely. And he did it not by pushing or shoving or punching, but by the sheer magic that his left foot produced. His sole turn alone was a thing of breath-taking beauty. 

Everyone says football is a team game, but at the 1986 World Cup, Maradona reinforced his individual abilities to the point where his team became an add-on, almost single-handedly winning his country the cup, establishing Argentina as a football powerhouse.

When it comes to individual brilliance, the only other player he has been compared to is Pele, which ought to give us an idea of his position. Pele never played in a European league, while Maradona led a second-division Italian club like Napoli to two Serie A championships; Pele never really had to pull the weight of an entire team as Maradona did in 1986; at his peak, Pele had the support of such stars as Garrincha, Tostão, Rivellino, Jairzinho, take your pick. Maradona, quite often, forged ahead without adequate support. 

Does that make Maradona the greater player? I choose not to see it that way. Think of what Pele achieved as a 17-year-old, playing the World Cup; think back to some of his goals, think of his volleys, and some of the techniques he introduced into modern football, particularly in training, such as ‘stop turn’ or ‘sole turn’, or ‘rolling the ball’. I would call them both ‘the greatest’ if I could!

For much of his career, Maradona would become the subject of vicious and deliberate physical assaults on the field, in match after match, which went beyond mere fouls. But nobody embodied one of my favourite sayings better – ‘failures prepare us for future success’.

For much of his career, Maradona would become the subject of vicious and deliberate physical assaults on the field, in match after match, which went beyond mere fouls. But nobody embodied one of my favourite sayings better – ‘failures prepare us for future success’. At the 1982 World Cup, which for him ended with a red card after he had finally retaliated with a foul of his own, he was the tragic hero. But the way he came back in 1986, fitter, stronger both physically and mentally, and grimly determined to succeed no matter what the odds, shouldering his team past every hurdle, proved a point to the world. I consider myself fortunate to have been able to even write about it. 

His physique post-1986 had attained the perfect center of gravity, his upper torso exactly balanced by his lower half. So great was his sheer physical power by then, that those who attempted a repeat of the tactics seen in 1982 often found themselves injured instead, without Maradona lifting a finger. They kept trying, though, but Maradona simply dribbled some more, feinted again, miraculously kept his balance when a fall seemed certain, and kept going. Such were his innovations that it became almost impossible to police him, ‘man marking’ just didn’t work. He toyed with some of the world’s best defenders as though they were children. 

The one area where his brilliance didn’t shine through was coaching, which was unusual for a team leader of his stature. The best players do not always make the best coaches, though there have been exceptions like Franz Beckenbauer, or our very own PK Banerjee. Who knows why Maradona never made the grade, but let that take nothing away from his greatness. A Diego Maradona comes along once in a century, if that. I don’t know how much longer I will inhabit this world, but the Maradona I saw in 1986 will never be surpassed in a century, of that I am confident.

Story Tag:
  • Maradona

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