x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Maradona is an inspiration, but far from a role model

Diego Maradona is in great demand, not only because he was one of the greatest players, but because he is so outspoken.

The Argentina coach Diego Maradona is not doing one-on-one interviews at the moment. I know because an English newspaper asked me to fix an interview with him. "But if you come to Buenos Aires, we may be able to arrange something," said an official at the Argentinian FA. Let's see. Not that it matters to El Diego. He is frequently in Europe watching the various Argentina internationals and is not shy with his opinions. He is in great demand, not only because he was one of the greatest players, but because he is so outspoken.

While Pele - probably the only footballer alive with the status to match Maradona - smiles, praises and repeats the corporate mantra of whoever pays him, Maradona plays the barrio politician which wins him the adoration of working class Argentinians and makes his endorsement coveted by left-wing leaders such as Chavez of Venezuela or Castro of Cuba. Last weekend, Maradona was in Spain and England. In Manchester, he suggested that Carlos Tevez should leave United for Inter Milan. In Spain he implored his soon-to-be-son-in-law Sergio Aguero - star of Atletico Madrid - to leave and join? Inter.

"What advice would I give Aguero?" Maradona mused, unable to resist the bait of a tabloid question. "To come running to Inter. I can already imagine the extraordinary partnership he'd form with Zlatan Ibrahimovic." Aguero is seen as the saviour of Atletico, the striker who assuaged the pain of losing Fernando Torres to Liverpool. Encouraging him to leave made Diego deeply unpopular in the red and white half of Madrid.

Where Tevez would fit in at Inter only Maradona knows, though having quit Barcelona for Napoli in his early 20s, he's experienced how controversial moves can be incredibly successful. After El Diego joined the Catalans for a world record £4.5 million (Dh24m) transfer from Argentinos Juniors in 1982, he said: "I truly believed Barcelona was the club for me, the best club in the world. But I didn't anticipate the idiosyncrasies of the Catalans. I didn't imagine, either, that I would come up against an imbecile like the president, Nunez." Two unhappy years later, he was transferred to Napoli, a club he admitted he knew nothing about.

"My time at Barcelona was ill-fated," Maradona claimed. "Because of hepatitis, injury, the city and because I'm more? Real Madrid. Because of my bad relations with Nunez and because there my relationship with drugs began." Maradona may have blamed everyone but himself for his Catalan ills, but he admitted that he was "down to zero, 25 and without a penny", and needed a signing on fee to clear large debts. Barca were happy to sell him to a team they didn't consider rivals for £6.9m. Napoli was a perfect fit as they indulged Diego from the minute 80,000 Neapolitans saw him presented. A revelation, he stayed for seven years and won six trophies, including their first two scudettos.

As a player Maradona was peerless. As a person, Aguero should consider a better role model than a man whose career was blighted by drugs and thugs. Still, at least Maradona has the conviction to speak his mind. Albeit one which is more than a little crazy. Meanwhile, the clean-cut Pele travels the world telling people what they want to hear. If he's in Manchester then he'll say that George Best was the best player ever, in Munich it is Beckenbauer, Di Stefano if it's Madrid - one city Maradona would do best to omit from his itinerary for a while.