Fri, 22 Jan 2021

How Maradona helped me find my footballing love

26 Nov 2020, 06:30 GMT+10

By Paul Giblin

MADRID, Nov. 25 (Xinhua) -- Diego Armando Maradona was universal, as flawed as a human being as his addictions and doping bans show, as he was magnificent as a footballer and for those of us of a certain age he clearly touched our lives in ways he could never have known.

I remember aged 21 the anger, the frustration and the sense of injustice I felt - and still feel at his famous 'Hand of God' goal against England in the 1986 World Cup finals. England were improving as the tournament progressed and that goal, not the act of brilliance he would produce later in the game, is what I still believe decided that quarter-final tie.

I honestly didn't care about his wonder goal beating half of the team, had it not been for that hand (which I still don't know how the referee and linesman didn't see) England could have gone on to play Belgium in the semifinals.

But I have Maradona to thank for helping me discover the love of my footballing life: Athletic Club Bilbao. I moved to the city in the north of Spain in the summer of 1992 and quickly made two good friends, who said I had to go to see Athletic's next home game. It was against Sevilla and Sevilla had just signed Maradona, who was able to play once again after his first suspension for doping.

And there was history between Maradona and Athletic. Athletic's legendary defender Andoni Goikotxea (known by some as the 'Butcher of Bilbao') had broken his ankle with a lunging tackle in September 1983 when Maradona was at Barcelona and after beating Barca to the title, the two sides met again in the 1984 Spanish Cup final.

It's fair to say it was a 'physical affair' which Athletic won 1-0, only for the celebrations to be cut short by a pitched battle in which Maradona played a leading role. The Sevilla game would be the first time he'd played in Spain since then and he would do it in Athletic's San Mames Stadium.

Every time the Argentinean touched the ball 42,000 Athletic fans, myself among them, booed, jeered, whistled and hurled insults at him and when he suffered a couple of bone crunching tackles (this was before the days of manicured pitches, fouls at every contact and VAR), I certainly cheered - "That's for the hand of God" I thought.

Sevilla took the lead after the Athletic keeper, Juanjo Valencia, dropped a Maradona free kick, but Athletic turned the game around in the last 10 minutes to win 2-1 and I was converted. Thanks to Maradona I discovered my footballing love, so maybe I should be grateful - but, sorry, I can never forgive 'the Hand of God'.

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