x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Maradona - a brilliant player who never grew up

I can not claim to be bosom buddies with the man but I have bumped into Diego Maradona from time to time over the years

I can not claim to be bosom buddies with the man but I have bumped into Diego Maradona from time to time over the years. We first met during the 1982 World Cup finals in Spain where Argentina were preparing for an encounter with their age-old rivals, Brazil. Having been hailed 'The Greatest Footballer in the World' by Pele when still only 17, did such praise carry any special responsibilities?

"For Pele to say such a thing was a great honour but, yes, it is a burden. I am only young myself [21 at the time] but I know millions of children expect me to be special - on the football pitch and in everyday life. It was also Pele who described football as 'the beautiful game'. It is my responsibility not to let anyone down by trying to perform beautifully every time I play." Forty-eight hours later, Maradona was sent off for booting Brazilian substitute Batista in a very tender part of the anatomy during the 3-1 defeat that ended Argentina's World Cup campaign; it will not be the last occasion that Maradona lets us down. For years on, we met again in the outskirts of Puebla before Argentina's second round defeat of Uruguay during Mexico'86. At the peak of his powers with Napoli, he was also making headline news in Italy amid rumours of cocaine abuse. "Is it possible to be too famous?"

Maradona duly found a new way to get famous by scoring the two most famous goals in history in the 2-1 quarter-final victory over England. Replays showed that his opening 'goal' was an illegal affair - "A little with the head of Maradona and a little with the hand..." he confessed later - but there was no questioning the beauty of his decisive second; collecting the ball in his own half, with 11 touches Maradona slalomed around Glenn Hoddle, Peter Reid, Kenny Sansom, Terry Butcher and Terry Fenwick before rounding Peter Shilton to score what would later be deemed the Goal of the Century in a poll conducted by Fifa. An inspired Maradona went on the skipper Argentina to World Cup triumph.

To Sydney 1993 and Argentina's play-off against Australia for a place at USA '94. And after a 15-month worldwide ban for using cocaine, how did Maradona spend the night before his return to international football? At the Ashton Brothers' Circus. "You must never forget," said his legal counsellor, Vincenzo Sinicalchi, "that ever since the first day he gave himself over to the game of football, Diego has never had time to grow up. However he might look physically [a well-worn 33], he still has the mind and spirit of a 14-year-old boy."

Our final meeting occurred on the ivory sands of Nantucket Island where Maradona enjoyed the feel of the warm waves swirling across his bare toes. "Football gave me everything. It took a small child born into poverty and made him a king. Then they took away the king's crown and now he has very little. I love football with all my heart and would give everything I have to turn back the clock." A few days later, Maradona was sent home from USA '94 in disgrace after failing a drugs test.

I will have the opportunity to renew acquaintance when Maradona arrives in my native Glasgow for his first game as Argentina's national coach against Scotland. Knowing how much he loves steak, I have left a message at his hotel reminding him of our previous meetings and inviting him to sample an Aberdeen Angus T-bone. @Email:rphilip@thenational.ae