I’m posting today for two reasons: firstly, to invite all readers to join the official MCFF Fantasy World Cup league at http://fantasyfootball.metro.co.uk. I’ve picked the Metro one, in spite of it being linked to a tawdry, pathetic rag of a newspaper, because (a) it’s free and (b) it has fairly sensible rules (unlike the ones which take all the skill out of it by putting no value on each player, so you can pick whoever you like, and one absurd league which allows three transfers PER DAY). Once you’ve created your team – or if you’ve already joined the Metro’s game – e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll give you the code for the MCFF league. But you’ll need to get a move on and get your team in before the tournament starts.
Apart from that, Jim Smith has sent me another guest column, which saves me putting one up for a few days.
For an Englishman to express a dislike of Diego Maradona is, I'm sure, far from uncommon. It is also far from uncommon for people to attempt to claim that it is an overreaction to despise Maradona for his infamous ‘Hand of God’ goal twenty years ago and that it is, frankly, just another example of English football supporters whinging and moaning about a decision that didn't go their way and that they (we) should just shut up and get over it.
Well, no, it isn't and no we shouldn't. The implications of the 'Hand of God' incident should be discussed more often than they are. They should be picked over until the lessons of the that game have been fully absorbed, not into the festering and often tedious resentment culture of ‘England was robbed’ but into football's perceptions of someone still perceived as one of the greats of the game.
The ‘Hand of God’ is an action in a wholly different class to your average footballing decision gone awry. This is not any mere example of rough and tumble or of the referee getting it wrong. (Although only the criminally stupid could believe that Maradona could out-jump Shilton; given their respective heights, it is actually impossible while both are within Earth's gravitational pull.) This is not only the single most blatant bit of cheating ever seen in the World Cup finals, it is also the most successful (Shilton has stated that the England players were so shocked that the goal had stood, they found it hard to concentrate on the game afterwards). So successful, in fact, that the simple fact that it comprehensively undermines the idea of Maradona as polymath player who effectively led his team to World Cup glory is conveniently ignored.
Far more than Maradona’s other given goal in that game (often mentioned as amongst the finest ever scored) the 'Hand of God' presents us with an action that gives a broad understanding of the man responsible for it. It speaks (unlike the other, actual goal) not of his abilities, but of his selfishness, his corruption and his obvious contempt for the spirit, tone and rules of the game that the World Cup is meant to celebrate.
It speaks of a need to win which, in so far as anything in sport can have a moral context, drifted into the amoral. Only a man with no regard for football could have done that. What it demonstrates that whilst Maradona was physically very, very good at football, he was personally not good enough for football. It is, despite his abilities, his moral and personal shortcomings, his absolute failure to reach even the fairly low level of human decency expected of competitive sportsmen, that should brought to the fore by any contemplation of that match. Instead they are excused. To me this is, in and of itself, absolutely inexcusable.
It's not that I dislike Maradona because of that incident but that incident is the epitome of why I find the man quite so unpleasant. Maradona's ‘goal’ and his subsequent attempts to both label it a divine intervention and then to justify it within the political context of a then recently finished war are surely both objectively wrong and morally indefensible? Or is it only wrong to equate football and war when the English press do it? (I would argue that it's always wrong myself.)
The ‘goal’ and its aftermath are indications of the man's monstrous self-regard (a not entirely disproportionate reaction to his extraordinary talent it has to be said) and like his later convictions for drug-related cheating, his public disowning by his own son, his championing of rule by military dictatorship and his very public financial misdemeanours they say nothing good about the man responsible for them.
Are the records of Pele, Cruyff or Puskas marred by such moments? No. In fact, the polar opposite is true. Cruyff’s noble refusal to play in the 1978 World Cup because he could not morally contemplate playing a tournament in a country ruled by a corrupt military dictatorship is one of the crowning glories of his career. Like Ali’s refusal to be drafted into the Vietnam war it places him on an inspirational moral plane above mere games and competitions. Cruyff’s actions speak volumes about the true calibre of the man. As do Maradona’s.
Of course it is not necessary, or even common, for an artist (and the best footballers are artists) to demonstrate a flawless moral character. That Eric Gill sexually preyed upon his own family does not mean that the typographical fonts he designed are of no use but it does comprehensively destroy the effectiveness and validity of his sculptures that attempts to portray a divine, paternal love to the extent that even an atheist like myself can find the continued use of his work in churches offensive. This is because there are occasions when when the essential nature of someone's work collides with their actions with such force that the work is damaged beyond repair. While it would be crassly inappropriate beyond anything even a British tabloid would do to equate Gill's actions with Maradona’s in anything other than a purely analogical sense, surely both are examples of occasions where someone’s moral shortcomings impact upon any reasonable appreciation of their art?
Maradona is not one of the greats of football for the simple reason that he was personally incapable of playing the game with even a miniscule percentage of the sportsmanship required to make any arbitrary team game functional; to make it worthwhile. Unlike other men who have imprinted themselves indelibly on the World Cup, like Viera, Pele or Ronaldo, Maradona couldn't do it within even the very broadest conceivable interpretation of the rules of the game he was meant to be playing. That, surely, doesn't simply ameliorate the achievement, but actually renders it worthless?
The bloated, ranting, hysterical, drug-crazed Maradona seen weeping uncontrollably on television after England comprehensively outplayed and outwitted Argentina in 2002 will always remain, to me, the single most enduring image of the man. I would go further. That, rather than the spectacular, magnificent other goal from that 1986 quarter-final, should be his visual epitaph. It's a far more accurate and appropriate representation of the man's venal, broken and ugly soul.