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How good was Diego Maradona? A clue lies in this photograph.

Byline: Darren Fullerton

YOU know you're getting on a bit when you can live without sex, but not your glasses.

So the quip goes.

Me? I knew I was a little older last week when I had to explain to a 25-year-old just how good Diego Armando Maradona was in his prime.

I never thought the day would come. But it has. It has sneaked up on me following Maradona's appointment as Argentina boss this week.

I've listened to my father and a posse of craggy-faced relatives eulogising about Best, Pele and their football heyday for years.

"Was George Best really that good?"

I'd ask. Innocently.

The reaction?

Well, it was akin to a litre of unleaded being thrown on a barbecue.

"Whaaaaaaaat?!!" would come the exasperated reply as the elder in question wrestled with sofa cushions and a brimful tea-cup to sit bolt upright in his chair.

"Listen son, you've no idea.

George Best was a player.

What a player he was..."

Older people, eh?

High as a kite on nostalgia and surveying the past through a pair of rose-tinted reading glasses.

And yet here I am in 2008, confronted by younger men who never witnessed Maradona's mesmerising exploits in the 1980s.

Here I am staring into the eyes of 20-somethings who place Kaka, Ronaldo, Messi and Gerrard on pedestals; football enthusiasts who weren't born or glued to a TV set when a 5'5" genius inspired Argentina to the 1986 World Cup in Mexico.

And here I am bidding to explain how Maradona was a heaven-sent talent who tortured lesser souls in the name of sporting drama.

Sure, modern fans, fully armed with the encyclopedic immediacy of the Internet, are more than aware of the narrative of his life.

They will be fully briefed on his place in the pantheon of football greats.

And they will know the darker shades of his tale - his addictions, fight for life four years ago and positive drugs test which saw him sent home from USA '94 in disgrace.

They may have read that the son of a factory worker in Buenos Aires made his Argentinian debut in 1977 as a 16-year-old.

That he went on to play for Barcelona, that he inspired lowly Napoli to their first ever Serie A titles in 1987 and 1990.

That he scored 34 goals in 91 international appearances and that he played in four successive World Cup finals in 1982, 1986, 1990 and '94.

True. They will know the biographical facts, but he remains before their time.

They didn't see the best player of my generation run amok against England and Belgium at the 1986 World Cup finals. They didn't see his barrel-chested pomp, piston thighs and mop of curly, raven black hair weaving moments of gilded glory on football's greatest stage.

Maradona in the 1980s had the explosive power of a young Ali, the jack-knife sidesteps of a hunted hare and balletic balance of Nureyev at his peak.

There is a photo of Maradona at the 1982 World Cup in Spain where he appears to have the Belgian defence in a state of trance.

He strikes a pose of poise, dancing before six opponents like a leopard toying with cornered deer. The agitated body language and fearful fixation in Belgian eyes tells us all we need to know of his threat.

He was an audacious talent.

Given the erratic nature of his past and personal life, it seems unlikely his reign as Argentinian boss will be an uncomplicated success.

But I hope Maradona the middle-aged manager (he turned 48 last week) doesn't degenerate into a freak show, a macabre soap opera for the 20-somethings of today to debate and pick over.

I hope the reckless leap of faith to appoint a man with threadbare coaching experience doesn't risk his legend. I hope his past feats on the pitch aren't clouded by the present.

An iconic figure of Diego Maradona's talent, the best player of my youth, and arguably all time, doesn't merit the ridicule.

How good was he?

Just look at the photo.


1986 Maradona lifts World Cup; Maradona had the muscular, explosive power of a young Ali, the jack-knife side steps of a hunted hare and the balletic balance of a Nureyev
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Title Annotation:Sport
Publication:The Mirror (London, England)
Date:Nov 4, 2008
Next Article:A COUPLE of weeks ago.

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