In this series, a twenty-something raised on Lionel Messi, Ronaldinho and Juan Roman Riquelme sits down and watches players from a bygone era for the first time. Episode one features a 28-year-old Diego Maradona.
What do I know about Diego Maradona? For a player touted by some boomers as possessing a greater left foot than Lionel Messi, not a lot.
There’s the time he out-jumped a 6ft Peter Shilton. Then the slightly less impressive feat of beating every member of England’s 1986 World Cup squad twice to score the greatest goal of his career. And the cocaine. But what about Diego the player, rather than Diego the ripsnorting highlight reel?
To take in Maradona’s broader brush strokes, I’ve chosen to watch Napoli’s encounter with AC Milan on 27th November 1988. I’ve chosen that particular Serie A fixture for several reasons.
The first is that Milan’s side contained Franco Baresi, Alessandro Costacurta, Paolo Maldini, Frank Rijkaard and Marco van Basten- icons who were either before my time or limited to the odd appearance on British TV via the ancient monolith that was ITV’s Champions League coverage. Six birds, one stone.
The second is that I’m feeling lazy and it’s the third hit on YouTube when you search ‘Diego Maradona full game’. So if, like me, you also missed out on Generation Maradona, feel free to lose your Diego virginity below. Let’s dive in.
At first, it’s hard to get past the shorts. I’ve been watching Maradona for thirty seconds and I’ve already been introduced to Little Diego.
There’s a lawless nature to it all, with photographers strolling around pointing cameras in players’ faces seconds before kick off. If Geoff Shreeves tried that today he’d be force-fed a Sky Sports mic by Virgil van Dijk.
Maradona’s shoulders are twice the width of the rest of his body, jutting off at right angles from the base of his mullet. Is he wearing shoulders pads? Maybe he’s just got his dinner jacket on underneath his shirt. Win, lose or draw, there will be drinks to be had in Naples that evening.
It’s heartwarming to see that the quirk of world-class footballers not being able to beat the first man from a set piece (CC: Christian Eriksen) is alive and well in the eighties, with Maradona’s first free-kick harmlessly headed clear.
As for Baresi, my first experience of the bastion of all things defensively great is woefully underwhelming. Receiving the ball from Maldini, Baresi dribbles a cross-field pass straight to Napoli, simultaneously breaking the two golden rules of ‘never pass across your own box’ and ‘if you’re going to attempt a 50-yard ping make sure it’s not shit’.
Defending in general is an eye-opener. Whenever you think someone is in the clear a sweeper emerges from the side of the stage to clean up. Defensive shapes are mental. Nobody presses together, and when they do it’s to play a 10-man offside trap.
The lack of collective press means attackers are able to break the line and build up speed, only to be scythed down in full flight, as both Maradona and Baresi experience early doors. The bravery required just to get on the ball is viciously evident.
Much has been made of the way in which Messi wanders around the pitch hiding from the ball for the first five minutes of a game, but Maradona takes the polar opposite approach. He’s actively looking for contact with every dart and dribble, as if to harden his shins for the kickings inbound.
Although he’s still warming up, a back-heel pass nearly brings the stadium down, as doe his corners, which are a spectacle in themselves. Each one rises to a height of 30 foot before wobbling out of the sky.
Maradona’s ability with his back to goal is not something I’d previously given too much thought to, but every time he receives the ball he showcases Eden Hazard levels of gluteus maximus bludgeoning to maintain possession.
At this stage we’re stumbling towards a goalless 45 minutes and I’m wondering what all the fuss is about. Baresi can’t tie his own shoelaces, Van Basten hasn’t had a sniff and Maradona has toiled away up front like a prime Jonathan Walters.
But then it happens. Milan spring one of their legendary offside traps- legendary in the sense that they’d be front and centre on one of those [insert obscure celebrity’s] Football Funnies videos you got every Christmas.
Maradona has read the situation and sprints on to the bouncing through ball, while Giovanni Galli in the Milan goal is stranded in no-man’s land. The ball decides to make things interesting by kicking up in an attempt to make Maradona look stupid, but he simply leaps up and loops a 30-yard header into the back of the net. There’s a loud thud as jaws simultaneously hit the floor.
The second goal is another blot on Baresi’s already soiled copybook. Napoli goalkeeper Giuliano Giuliani picks up a backpass, as was the done thing in those days, and hammers the ball with the grace and guile of a sledgehammer. Baresi misjudges the initial header under no pressure, then attempts to make up for his shortcomings with a bicycle kick.
Maradona is on him in a flash, heading the ball towards Careca who’s left with a simple finish. Half of the stadium comes down to celebrate with him.
My first 45 minutes of Maradona have left me with the impression that he’s an aerial battering ram with hold-up play to make Kevin Davies blush. There’s no need to make snap judgments solely off one half of football, but from this day forward I’ll be convinced that Baresi is the espresso Titus Bramble.
The second half starts in familiar fashion. Again Milan spring their offside trap and again Napoli walk the ball into the back of the net. That Arrigo Sacchi won the Champions League twice using this tactic has me questioning what forwards were doing back then. Jermain Defoe would have netted Pele numbers.
I’d come into the game expecting a free-flowing Maradona to dazzle, but it’s quickly apparent that this wasn’t the environment in which to do so. For all the space in behind, Maradona is rarely allowed a second thinking time on the ball, with Milan brutally man-marking him throughout.
There are flashes of genius, like when he toys with Maldini on the touchline by putting the ball behind his heels before snapping it back, or when he gets a cross into the box with his back to goal using a karate kick, but what really stands out is how much he has to fight for every blade of grass.
This is a once-in-a-lifetime talent who requires the street smarts of Mike Tyson to make the most of his ability.
It’s too simplistic to say that Messi’s frailty would result in him being kicked out of the game back then, or that Maradona would thrive with the protection provided today.
Even something as simple as the offside laws, or lack of backpass rule, completely changes the landscape, to the extent that comparing Messi and Maradona is futile (as well as boring).
Napoli score a fourth as- and stop me if I’m sounding like a broken record here- Baresi tries to play an offside trap 20 yards inside the opposition’s half, seconds after legendary centre-back Alessandro Costacurta leaves the pitch wearing the no.7 shirt.
Watching Maradona for the first time has, on occasion, been an experience more akin to watching a boxing match, interspersed with offside traps, than a game of football.
But there’s a vibrancy and danger to it all that makes Maradona so alluring. He dances with the tackles as if feeding the crocodiles after a delayed meat delivery. The game is grimy and awful but the moments are captivating.
Watching Maradona is nearly as tiring as being Maradona but, just like the Argentine’s thirst for nose beers, at the end of it you’re left wanting more.
I’m off for a lie down.
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