x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

The mighty midget

Forget the drugs scandals, Maradona will be remembered for his World Cup heroics.

Diego Maradona believes he is at least the equal of his South American forerunner Pele and has argued vehemently that he is one step ahead of the great man.
Diego Maradona believes he is at least the equal of his South American forerunner Pele and has argued vehemently that he is one step ahead of the great man.

Who do you think is sport's all-time best? Each week, we will profile a candidate, inviting you to decide who should top our list of 50. All participants will be entered into a draw for the weekly adidas prize and an end-of-contest Etihad Holidays four-day trip for two, including business class flights and accommodation, to a mystery location. We will reveal the full 50 at the end, but this week William Johnson looks at football legend Diego Maradona. When the legendary Brazilian Pele hung up his football boots in 1977, the sporting world felt there would never be another player capable of standing alongside him in the sport's hall of fame. Diego Maradona believes he is at least the equal of his South American forerunner and has argued vehemently that he is one step ahead of the great man. Rivalry between Brazil and Argentina is fierce when there is nothing to fight about. The debate over which nation has produced the better footballer is a burning issue to this day.

Maradona, still adored by millions of Argentines 11 years after bringing the curtain down on an exceptional playing career that spanned more than two decades, maintains that he was cheated out of a significant victory over Pele by Fifa, the world governing body. To mark the dawn of the new millennium, Fifa conducted a worldwide poll on the internet asking football supporters to elect the "player of the century". Maradona, who was fresher in the memory of those who voted, won it with 53.6 per cent of the vote but was alarmed when Fifa then appointed a committee of football experts who nominated Pele for the title.

Maradona protested vehemently and Fifa eventually decided to make two separate awards at a glittering ceremony. Maradona duly accepted his accolade but left the function before Pele received his. The two superstars met again three years ago when Maradona made his debut as a television chat show host with Pele as his main guest. They had a friendly discussion but the producers of the show constructed a backdrop to the set showing a cartoon villain which bore a striking resemblance to Pele.

Both players took some wonderful memories into retirement and will be remembered for performances of the highest calibre on the biggest stage of all -- the World Cup finals. If the jury is still out on which of them was the player of the last century, Maradona can claim to have scored the goal of the century in what was a controversial World Cup quarter-final against England in 1986. The Argentina captain had infuriated his opponents by escaping unpunished when using his outstretched arm to divert the ball over advancing goalkeeper Peter Shilton for the opening goal in a 2-0 victory.

England were ready to argue long into the night over that injustice until Maradona transformed himself from villain to hero in one astonishing 70-yard run past seven would-be tacklers to stroke the ball past a helpless Shilton and score a wonderful individual goal. Maradona played in every minute of every one of Argentina's matches in Mexico that year. He scored five goals and set up five others on the way to fulfillment in the final against West Germany after which he held aloft not only the treasured World Cup but also the Golden Ball for being, by a considerable margin, the player of the tournament.

The mighty midget in the No 10 shirt -- his grateful country retired that number when he finished playing -- went on to lead Argentina to the World Cup final in Italy four years later, but on that occasion the West Germans were superior and emerged 1-0 winners. That Rome final took place 14 years after Maradona had become his country's youngest ever senior international when as a precocious 16-year-old he was selected to play against Hungary.

That call-up made him an obvious choice to lead Argentina to victory in the World Youth Cup two years later -- an accomplishment that brought a Dh6.5million transfer from his local club Los Cebollitos (The Little Onions) to the world famous Boca Juniors. South American player of the year honours were bestowed on the dazzling forward during his time in Buenos Aires and an even bigger transfer was inevitable. Barcelona paid what was then a world record Dh33m for his talents in 1982, just in time for him to make his World Cup debut on his new home ground of the Camp Nou. Unfortunately, a second round send off against arch rivals Brazil put paid to his and his country's hopes of making an impact in Spain that year.

He helped Barcelona win three trophies in his first season with them and a year after that he attracted another world record fee of Dh45m from the Italian club Napoli who at the time were going through a barren spell. That all changed with Maradona on their team and in 1987 they won the Italian League and Cup double, adding another domestic championship before making their mark on foreign fields by winning the Uefa Cup in 1990.

Sadly, Maradona had a dark side to his character that Pele never had. Two drug scandals will tarnish his memory forever. The first in 1991 brought a 15-month suspension, the latter coming three years later on the night he equalled Uwe Seeler's record of 21 appearances in matches at World Cup finals -- a mark later surpassed by another German, Lothar Matthaus. That conviction by Fifa marked the end of Maradona's international career but he was far from finished as a club player -- despite developing an embarrassingly large waistline and continuing his liking for cocaine.

His beloved Boca Juniors were happy to invite him back and he played for them from 1995-7 until announcing his retirement on his 37th birthday. Cast your vote and enter a draw for a weekly Dh500 adidas voucher and a dream trip with Etihad Holidays. If you think Maradona is the all-time best, text G21 to 2337 Texts cost Dh5 and voting will end at midnight on Thursday September 11.