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NON-FICTION: MARADONA’S MEA CULPA

December 03, 2017
Diego Maradona, the 25-year-old captain of the 1986 Argentinean team, with the FIFA World Cup trophy | AFP
Diego Maradona, the 25-year-old captain of the 1986 Argentinean team, with the FIFA World Cup trophy | AFP

The story behind how legendary footballer Diego Maradona became the “only [Argentinean] who knows how much the trophy weighs” is as interesting as the career of the World Cup-winning captain of Argentina’s national football team. Maradona pens his memories of the event in Touched by God: How We Won the Mexico ’86 World Cup in collaboration with sports journalist Daniel Arcucci, and in his story he is candid about everything — the good, the bad and the ugly. The book covers the years before the 1986 FIFA World Cup and ends with Argentina’s shock loss in the 1990 FIFA World Cup in Italy. In Maradona’s recap there is plenty of action, drama and betrayal, which makes readers live the book instead of just reading it.

As Argentina’s finest tells his fans that the World Cup win 31 years ago was a result of team effort — had the team not put their foot down against practice matches in another continent, they might have exited the tournament even before the knockout stage — he also recounts the poor coaching tactics of Carlos Bilardo, the players’ decision to practice at high altitude, the bad living conditions at the training camp and why he was so pumped up during the final against England.

One incentive for fans to read this book will be the maestro’s explanation of the “Hand of God” goal. Maradona explains that since soccer today is rushed, the camera wasn’t able to pick his first goal against the English team. He admits that he hit the ball with his fist and not his foot, but he isn’t sorry about it as the Argentineans were not on the best of terms with the opponents owing to the Falklands War. Maradona writes that his team wanted to eliminate England in the quarter finals and that’s why the then 25-year-old didn’t feel bad about doing something that wasn’t according to the rules. He also adds that, because of the second goal, people didn’t care about the first, especially since the second one came through a technique told by his 7-year-old brother in 1981. According to Maradona, the victory was akin to making the English armed forces surrender, which was more than the Argentineans expected from their team.

The legendary Argentinean footballer speaks from the heart about his career, his challenges and that infamous ‘Hand of God’ goal

It is evident from reading Touched by God that the words have been dictated by the heart instead of the mind. What Maradona believes is what Maradona writes. He is truthful in his narration, telling readers what he thought of a particular Brazilian legend who sided with the management instead of the players, how they barely managed to win their first match of the event as there were no tactics in place, which legendary coach asked Bilardo to give him Maradona if he wasn’t playing for Argentina and who advised him to grow a beard during his career.

In a narrative that reads like a film or a short story, Maradona tells us about the unrest he felt for not playing for the national team in 1983 — first he was out for three months, ill with hepatitis, then down with a broken leg that could have cost him his career. Most of the doctors consulted advised him to take it easy and rest, but the star asked his friend, Dr Ruben Dario Olivia, who had “magic in his hands” for help. Under his treatment the cast on Maradona’s leg was removed in 15 days and the footballer was back on the field in 106 days.

Maradona also explains that although he was playing well in the Italian league, his compatriots needed him more. To keep him from “escaping”, the Italians put a travel ban on him, but Maradona defied the instructions and flew to join the national team. He scored goals in the qualifiers, then returned to Italy to fulfil his league commitments. It is an emotional narration; the way he describes wearing his national jersey after almost three years, and how the captain’s armband gave him strength, will bring tears to a reader’s eyes.

Anger replaces tears when one goes on to read about the former World Cup-winning captain Daniel Passarella who was in the team, but — according to Maradona — pursuing a different agenda. On the one hand, Passarella berated the players for arriving 15 minutes late to practice; on the other he was making international calls at the team’s expense, hoping no one would catch him in the act. Maradona believes that Passarella’s “Too bad you didn’t score, Diego!” act, his affair with another player’s wife and his sudden decision to quit the team on the eve of the World Cup were meant to demoralise the team. In the end, however, it only served to bring the players closer together.

Maradona also discloses that his team was the first to arrive in Mexico and wanted to be the last to leave — a huge statement considering that no one expected them to last that long. How the team was forced to spend the entire tournament in makeshift quarters is a big motivating story and he claims the players slept so close to each other that most of them had the same dream. He also tells readers that one thing that made him strong, especially when the whole world — including the referees — was against the Argentinean team, was the theme from the film Rocky. That, and the endurance developed from arriving early and becoming acclimatised to the conditions. What Maradona writes about the goings on in his mind during the grand finale against the Germans also makes for an interesting read.

The book then takes a leap forward to Italia 1990. Maradona claims he played the final match with a torn muscle and ending as runners-up didn’t sit well with either him or his daughter, who threw the silver medal at him. He also criticises the treatment from the management of the Ballon d’Or for presenting him with an honorary award in 1995 instead of in the ’80s when he was in the best shape of his life. Maradona ends the book with clarifications, that being banned in 1994 for drug use wasn’t his doing, but unlike other players’ doctors, his refused to accept their mistake and he had to take the fall. He also clarifies that he has no competition with Lionel Messi and the “Messi or Maradona” comparison must be replaced with “Messi and Maradona” for the benefit of Argentinean soccer.

The reviewer writes about film, television and popular culture

Touched by God: How We Won the Mexico
’86 World Cup
By Diego Maradona and Daniel Arcucci
Penguin, US
ISBN: 978-0143129769
256pp.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, December 3rd, 2017