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Will Gore: Why brits dislike Maradona
June 28, 2018
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In the greatest of all great debates, there will be many who plump for Diego Maradona as the best footballer of all time. He certainly has a strong case, having turned Napoli from also-rans in Italian domestic football into a dominant force, and having lifted the World Cup with Argentina in 1986. Few tournaments have been as dominated by a single player as Mexico ‘86 was by Maradona.

His ability with the ball at his feet was remarkable; goals against England and Belgium in Argentina’s winning run that year remain among the most famous examples of their type, as he dribbled through the massed ranks of opposing defenders. He couldn’t quite repeat the trick in 1990, when Argentina were runners-up, but there can be doubt that Maradona was a footballing genius.

He was also, of course, an outrageous, appalling cheat. His first goal in that game against England transcended usual debates about the beautiful game, raising (for some) fundamental questions about ethics and morality. Putting aside the rank failure of the match officials to spot the most famous handball in history, Maradona’s explanation that it had been the “hand of God” at work was as outrageous as the incident itself. More than three decades on and he still refuses to apologise or express regret for his sporting swindle.

The handball wasn’t exactly an isolated incident in an otherwise uncontroversial career. In 1984, while playing for Barcelona in the Copa del Rey final, Maradona was involved in a mass brawl which led to 60 people being injured. Several of those were Sevilla players who had been head-butted, elbowed or kneed by Barca’s talisman. His move to Naples was hugely successful but ended in disgrace after a 15 month ban for cocaine use. His post-playing career has seen further battles with drugs and alcohol abuse, obesity and the taxman.

On Tuesday night, as Argentina made it through to the World Cup’s second round with a last-gasp win against Nigeria, a watching Maradona was once again at the centre of a storm, his middle finger gestures towards TV cameras leading Gary Lineker to describe him as a “laughing stock”. In a fairly typical footnote, the Argentinian was subsequently treated by paramedics after apparently collapsing.

All in all, there are as many good reasons to think badly of Diego Maradona as there are to think well of him. Yet it is notable that it is in England especially that he has the capacity to get under people’s skin.

True, that is in large part because of the hand of God incident. Yet it is also the case that Maradona embodies a vision of Argentina that provokes a residual antipathy which lingers in the minds of many who remember the Falklands War.

That conflict, such a peculiar throwback in many ways, was provoked by the nationalistic military regime in Buenos Aires; but stirred among many outraged Britons such a sense of indignant patriotism that Margaret Thatcher’s decision to send a battle fleet to the south Atlantic won full-hearted support. The ultimate victory of British forces transformed her leadership and brought an outpouring of national joy.

It is against the backdrop of the Falklands War that the match at the 1986 World Cup has to be seen. It was the first match between the two countries since the confrontation. The “Argies” were, for English fans, the baddies; for Argentina, the game offered a chance for revenge. That it was achieved through blatant cheating made the moment all the sweeter, or more bitter, depending on your perspective. In his subsequent autobiography, Maradona even admitted that he had enjoyed the handball more than his virtuoso second goal: “it was a bit like stealing the wallet of the English”.

In Britain, Maradona’s bad faith was proof of the dishonest Argentinian character; it was also an unanswerable counter-punch in a war that was thought to have been won.

The Falklands (or Malvinas if you prefer) and the hand of God have been the interlinked running sores in the relationship between the UK and Argentina for more than three decades. We might love Lionel Messi and his modern-day compatriots, but every time Maradona pops up with a dubious remark or obscene gesture, half-remembered, patriotic outrage from another age is provoked afresh.

If Argentina win the tournament this time round, no matter who scores the winning goal, all eyes will still be on Diego.

The Independent

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