x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Diegomania engulfs Scotland

These continue to be a momentous few days even for a frazzled football scene in Scotland that has become accustomed to some oddities in its lengthy and somewhat barmy history.

Maradona overseas Argentina training at Celtic Park in Glasgow on Monday night. The game against Scotland will usher in a new era for the South American nation.
Maradona overseas Argentina training at Celtic Park in Glasgow on Monday night. The game against Scotland will usher in a new era for the South American nation.

GLASGOW // These continue to be a momentous few days even for a frazzled football scene in Scotland that has become accustomed to some oddities in its lengthy and somewhat barmy history. The astonishing Diego Maradona waddled off a plane at Glasgow airport on Sunday and into scenes that made one wonder if we had suddenly come across a fifth Beatle.

There has been no time for even a lunchtime interlude in the media's voracious appetite to tail this small, portly, and at least this week, seemingly good-natured figure. The circus attaching itself to Maradona and his Argentina squad projected more fanaticism in and around a hotel yesterday morning before Maradona later spoke about the impending friendly match with Scotland at Hampden Park. He will manage his country for the first time tonight, and the jostling for position to be near an individual the Scotland manager George Burley yesterday described as among the "top three" players to have played the game, suggests Maradona maintains a level of interest as intense as the time when he was deemed the planet's finest.

"The whole of the world's press is going to be at Hampden," said Burley. Alexander Watson Hutton founded the Argentine Association Football League in 1891 and was born within walking distance of Hampden Park, but goodness knows what he would have made of Maradona and his entourage. It must be said that this World Cup winner of 1986 and champion of Barcelona, Napoli and Boca Juniors, now 48 but showing up well after several years of excess, has managed to turn this week into a grand event.

In the midst of a recession gripping these parts, a crowd approaching 35,000 is expected to look on. While the goings on in his private life, struggles with health and his enduring and addictive persona add to the allure and mystique of this once gun-toting South American, Maradona remains a true sporting icon for his brilliance as a player. Scotland entertained him in 1979, and he responded with his first goal for his country in a 3-1 win. A repeat scoreline in favour of Argentina seems likely tonight with the home squad hamstrung by injuries.

The visitors are overflowing with options despite the absence of Lionel Messi and Juan Roman Riquelme. "We must not stand there with our arms crossed just because we cannot count on Riquelme nor Messi," said Maradona. "We must search for variety, options, and we have them. Even without them, we will play for victory." Burley faced Maradona 29 years ago. Then a defender of some renown, he intends to offer Maradona a pie after tonight's game and the chance to reminisce. These days, Maradona appears to have eaten too many pies, but his once slender, taut and squat figure saw him toss aside opponents.

"I remember Maradona in 1979," said Burley. "He is probably the best player I've played against. He was 18 then, and quicker with the ball at his feet than without it. Once he had the ball, you couldn't catch him. He was truly world class." Maradona has to show that he can handle the demands of being a coach. He will also be helped by players such as the Atletico Madrid attacker Sergio Aguero. "In football, you have to prove yourself. He's a legend in Argentina," added Burley. "But he will be out to prove that he can be a world-class manager. I think the players will respond. Aguero is 20 and is already one of the best young players in the world. "

Maradona is a hero among many Scotland fans for the two goals that knocked England out of the World Cup at the quarter-final stage in 1986. Tonight, he will make for engrossing viewing for this country once more. The outcome of this game is already a sideshow. @Email:dkane@thenational.ae