The day I watched Diego Maradona - and the game kicked off when HE wanted it to

Sport has just lost the most famous sportsman of his day – Diego Armando Maradona – the villainous, but charismatic Elvis Presley of football, just 26 days after his 60th birthday. And, while working in South America, it was my privilege to see the great man play.

Football stadiums around the world have staged tributes to Diego Maradona since his death at the age of 60 last week / Picture: Getty
Football stadiums around the world have staged tributes to Diego Maradona since his death at the age of 60 last week / Picture: Getty

Maradona’s home stadium – La Bombonera (the Chocolate Box), nestling among the tango bars and brightly coloured houses by the river – was considered too dangerous a venue for the Boca Juniors match versus Racing (“Rassing”) that I was fortunate to attend. Football can be like war in the region, after all, a Colombian footballer, Andres Escobar, was shot dead following an own goal incident eliminating his team from the World Cup. So, a neutral ground was necessary and, for safety reasons, the instructions were to arrive early and leave well before the end.

At the ground our party was escorted to our seats, which were ceremoniously wiped down for us. There had been a dispute over the start time. The TV Channel wanted an earlier commencement than Maradona, who claimed it would be too hot to kick off at the broadcaster’s hour. Negotiations had ensued and a compromise agreement seemingly reached, but, at the appointed time, no Boca players were to be seen. Eventually they took the field, only for Maradona to run back into the stadium. And, after he had re-emerged and re-tied his bootlace, the clock had ticked round to the time he had nominated.

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Some awkward moments followed – it was the anniversary of the Falklands War and spectators stood to sing the national anthem, with me implored not to utter a word of English. The week before some Argentine colleagues had missed the first half of their match when someone in the front row seats had let off smoke bombs, ensuring that layers of thick fog obscured the pitch from those higher up in the stands.

But, this time there was a clear view of Maradona, who, although now much slower and carrying extra weight as the end of his career beckoned, still displayed magical touches as he fed his teammates.

Then came the bird – a multi-feathered fanatico installed on the edge of the roof of the highest stand, and, when Boca scored, he was lowered to flap his wings in mid air parallel to the guttering, amid much trumpeting and fireworks.

This wasn’t Maradona’s finest performance – nor was La Mano de Dios his finest testament. But, his stats do not lie - 21 consecutive World Cup games (16 times as Captain, a WC record) and 310 goals in a total of 590 appearances for Boca, and in Italy and Spain. Such was his dominance that so often opposition defenders’ only way of stopping him was by fouling – 23 times when Argentina played Italy in 1982 and on 50 occasions in the 1990 World Cup.

After leaving the game early to avoid trouble, there was plenty to reflect on as we sped through the suburbs of the still captivating Buenos Aires, listening to the final 10 minutes on the car radio. England had been eliminated from the World Cup in 1986 at Mexico City’s Azteca Stadium, when Maradona’s first ‘goal’ was handballed into the net. Blatant cheating, of course, but it should never have happened. England goalkeeper Peter Shilton should have got to the ball and, when he didn’t, the officials should have disallowed the goal.

Maradona went on to manage Argentina, including on a visit to Scotland’s Hampden Park. Financial problems, drug and alcohol abuse followed, but the flawed friend of presidents remained a much-loved film star figure in his homeland, with 34 time champions Boca estimated to have 16 million supporters. Compared with South Americans, we are only mildly interested in football

There was no burial in BA’s iconic Recoleta cemetery, where Eva Peron - Evita lays: Maradona was put to rest with his parents in more modest surroundings at the outskirts of the city. Amid tumultuous scenes at the Presidential Palace – the Casa Rosada, where Evita had made impassioned speeches from the balcony, below which the Madres de Plaza de Mayo had later pleaded for information about their sons, disappeared in Argentina’s dirty war – Maradona had lain in state.

Previously rich, Argentina is ravaged by economic disaster. Governmental mismanagement, corruption, brutal regimes and Covid have led to poverty and insecurity. Football and hero worship is a great release.