Tuesday, June 06, 2006

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 eddie@shinyshelf.com 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.


Anonymous said...
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Eddie Robson said...

Does anybody downplay the second Maradona goal? Not that I've noticed: it's twice been voted the greatest goal of all time in British polls. English fans talk about how great that goal is all the time, which I think is a compensation tactic for all the moaning about the handball.

I'm sure criticism of Maradona is prevalent in some English fan circles, but in others the opposite is true: people are desperate to show how objective they are about the whole thing, praise his skill and downplay the cheating. As soon as an English fan criticises Maradona, they say "Aah, you're just bitter."

I wasn't interested in football when I was seven (in 1986) and was completely unaware of the incident until after the fact. I don't think we was robbed of anything, because that England side wasn't really good enough to win a World Cup - even if we'd gone through, we probably wouldn't have won it. I try to look at it objectively, and I think that it's deeply sad that a player who was so talented, who didn't need to cheat, did so anyway, and the attempts to justify his behaviour ring hollow. I often wish there were less bitter, whingeing England fans around so that I could say that without being presumed to be a bitter, whingeing England fan myself.

I think Gazza's reputation is marred too - a great player tarnished by his flaws, his career-hampering injuries caused by his own reckless actions. Beckham got crucified by England fans for his actions: he made the effort to change his ways and claw his reputation back. The captaincy was a reward for the change, not for his petulant kick.

Jim is not saying the England players are perfect, nobody's defending the crass war-related triumphalism of many English fans. In fact, Jim describes this as "always wrong" - so his stance on the issue is hardly ambiguous.

Anonymous said...

I appreciate Jim's not saying the England players are perfect. My point is that criticising one player's moral code is shaky ground - for any nation. Sheesh, Scotland's had more than its fair share of drunken, brawling, jailbird ne'er do wells, and that's just Duncan Ferguson.

I think the key to a lot of the resentment that people feel over England fans moaning on about Maradona is that it happens. Cheating has happened since the first time a ball was kicked. Steven Gerrard dived - blatantly dived - to earn a penalty last week, and was congratulated for it by Ian Wright. Given Gerrard's own tirade about diving players recently, and how if anyone at Liverpool did so he'd sort them out on the training field, what does this say about HIS moral code?

I think the Gascoigne comparison is a key one, here. There's a tendancy in England to either think of him as a wasted talent or a flawed genius - a jack the lad who got himself into trouble and paid the price. But Gascoigne had a mean, nasty streak in him that was beyond reckless. The tackles in the Italia 90 semi and the FA Cup both spring to mind, but during his time at Ibrox I vividly remember him turning and ramming his head into the chest of an Aberdeen player who was skinning him for fun during a Scottish Premier Division game. And the repeated occasions when he pretended to play the flute in front of Celtic fans during Old Firm clashes.

As for Beckham - again, there's a man with an alledgedly dubious moral code. Jim talked about defining images of Maradona. Mine will always be that kick on Simeone when it comes to Beckham.

The obsession with Maradona and THAT goal does England fans no favours. In many ways it's worse than the harping on about '66. At least they won something that day.

James said...

Ian, I did go out of my way to incorporate everything you raise in your response as part of the entry. The sport = war tactic is nauseating in any context and I said so. I don't downplay the skill invovled in the other goal either in the piece or in person - and neither does anyone else, come to that. It's the 'Citizen Kane' of goals, when it comes to the No 1 spot it doesn't get a look in and pretty much rightly so.

It doesn't alter the fact that he shouldn't still have been on the pitch.

I certainly don't take a one sided view of these things and I could be found bitching about Gerrard's dive last week to anyone who'd listen. I was glad to see arch-diver Andy Johnson and spinning rough-house nonce Robbie Savage leave Birmingham City because of their very loose understanding of the rules of the game. If you don't play a game by the rules then there's no point in playing it, and that goes across the board and at every level of the game.

Your mentioning of problems and figures within the England camps is just goal-post moving nonsense. At no point did I, or would I, defend homophobia or wifebeating. Or drink driving come to that.

Yes, Gazza is a pathetic figure and I'd apply much of what I said here to him to, but no one pretends he's not a pathetic figure do they? And even he's never gone quite as far as advocating fascism - something which surely puts anyone beyond the pale?

As I said, it's not that the 'hand of God' is a reason to dislike Diego, it's that it, and his later reactions to it, exemplifies everything that's bad about the man.

Maradona, unlike Gazza, is someone they try to put on the same pedestal as Cruyff and Pele, and he just doesn't belong there.

'Outsmarted'? No, that's like claiming you've won an argument because your opponent can't reply as you've kicked him in the groin and he can no longer speak through the pain.

Anonymous said...

It's Iain with two I's, James. :)

A few quick points - I don't want to harp on about this, there's a World Cup starting in less than four hours after all.

I'd dispute it was the worst example of cheating. Harald Schumacher's assault of Patrick Battiston hospitalised the latter. I'd have called that far worse than someone handballing. Actually, the blatant playacting of Romario at the 2002 World Cup to get someone sent off was worse than the handball. Schumacher at least apologised for his actions afterwards, I suppose, but that doesn't avoid the fact he deliberately injured someone. Neither of those men were sent off and their actions had a major part in the game that followed.

All Maradona's goal did was show he had a lot of front and show that an fat Argentine midget could, with a bit of a stretch, beat Peter Shilton to a ball in the air.

Gazza - advocating fascism no. Irish sectarianism, yes. The first time, in his debut, could be just about excused as daftness (Arch hun Ian Durrant supposedly put him up to it without knowing the consequences.) But the second time, in an Old Firm game in front of the Celtic fans while Rangers were ahead... that's dangerous and highly inflammatory.

Among the things you malign him for are "his championing of rule by military dictatorship and his very public financial misdemeanours". If these are things which should be used to judge a man's footballing reputation - which is what Maradona is judged on, above all else - then the great Hibs defender Jackie McNamara Snr, who was a senior Communist party member in Scotland, comes into that category. Or Andy Goram, who wore a black armband for a murdered UVF leader while playing for Rangers - giving his support to terrorists.

As, of course, does young Wayne Rooney and his gambling activites.

None of this was meant to be a personal attack, Jim. Just amused to hear the same complaints as staggering across London arguing with you about him a few years back, and I apologise otherwise.

I suppose I should make clear, after all that: I don't like Maradona as a person. He's a bam. Simple as that. But I do think he was one of the greatest footballers every to have played, and nothing will take that away. And having lived down here for so long, a lot of the criticism aimed at him does seem to go beyond the footballing when other players, managers and coaches are just as guilty of seriously bad behaviour, yet are given a far easier ride because they didn't outjump Shilts.

Anyway, I'm just a grumpy bitter Jock. Where's that Paraguay shirt...?