In a sportswear shop in Singapore, a greying Italian is discussing the feet of an Argentine ghost.
Daniele Massaro has done many things. He scored twice in a Champions League final in 1994, made the squad but didn’t play in Italy’s World Cup-winning side in 1982, and missed a penalty in the shootout in the 1994 Cup final.
And, for years in Italy with AC Milan, he also played against a Napoli star named Diego Maradona.
Did he know him well?
“Not that much but I got to know him better once we retired. We used to meet when I was on holiday in Cuba and we would play golf together. I would use the club, he would use his feet.
“He had just started to play golf, so was still not that good. He would just juggle the ball and then when he got close to the hole, he would just kick it in.”
Ah, those feet.
Feet like a juggler’s hands, with an imagination all of their own. Feet that everyone feared. In Guillem Balague’s book, Maradona, he quotes a Daily Mail interview with Osvaldo Ardiles, where the Argentine says this of his teammate at the 1982 World Cup:
“(In the warm-ups, Maradona) would stand in the middle of the pitch and start juggling the ball. Then he would kick it in the air and chat to you, as though he had forgotten it. ‘Ossie, how are you today?’ And then, boom, the ball would fall on to his foot again. Most of the time, the opponents stopped their warm-up to watch, knowing that 10 minutes later they would be playing this monster.”
Feet which also stamped on, kicked, lunged at, the left ankle so swollen that before the 1990 Cup he could barely put on a boot. In 1982, at the World Cup, Claudio Gentile, the sizeable hit-man from Italy, fouled Maradona 23 times in an era when you could do that.
Do you remember what Gentile did to Maradona, I ask Massaro.
He wryly smiles.
“Maybe Maradona remember.”
It’s a week from when Maradona died two years ago and a Cup is never only about the living but those who left us with things. Cruyff, Milla, Socrates, Iniesta, Gascoigne. Dancers, smokers, sinners, but all saints with boots on.
Maradona anyway was the exception to almost every rule. We rail against cheats, don’t we, but him we didn’t. How come? Worship is complicated. Artists are often forgiven their excesses. He was overwhelmed, vulnerable, boyish, haunted, wild, breathless, sly. His Hand of God was cheeky and awful and yet he was pardoned. I wonder what might have happened had he done it against Brazil.
Everyone prepares for a World Cup differently. All October and November I have hung around with Maradona via Balague’s 2021 book and little clips of him that always circulate at such a time. One, which I hadn’t seen before, is of him at Napoli, practising with a goalkeeper on a wet field. Just laughing, slipping, muddy, skilful. He looks free.
Football then was another sport, not the ordered, pragmatic, less romantic game of today. How Maradona lived is almost hard to believe and Balague writes of the Argentine’s time in Napoli when fame had him in a headlock: “He developed a routine to cope. On Sunday he played a game and then took cocaine and enjoyed the nightlife until Wednesday morning. From then until Saturday night, he cleaned himself up, sweated it out and played again, before heading back to the fairground.”
Because it’s Cup time you can’t not think of Maradona; can’t not rewind that England goal; can’t not look up the one he set up for Claudio Caniggia against Brazil in 1990; can’t not replay the threaded pass to Jorge Burruchaga in the 1986 final; can’t not smile at the picture of him confronted by six Belgian defenders in 1982, an image so rich with symbolism.
And yet in the 1980s, when he ruled, we didn’t have much of Maradona. We only had his “live” work at the World Cups, not like now when every club game is shot from a hundred angles and YouTube offers every replay. So much we missed of him, but this, too, had its own beauty, for it partly turned him into a mythical figure.
It’s why I go to meet Massaro because we still don’t fully understand the enormity of Maradona, the size of the aura, the difficulty of playing him, the complexity of the man.
“He was unpredictable,” says Massaro, who uses that word multiple times to describe Maradona. “We had to work as a team (at AC Milan). It was impossible to defend against him one against one. You thought you can get to the ball before him but he got there first. You thought that it was going to go on the left side but it went right.”
It’s fascinating to speak with a man who was on the field with Maradona and there is a point in our chat which will stay with me because it speaks of respect undimmed and of how a generation saw him.
I mention that I don’t want to even ask about Lionel Messi and Maradona because it’s such a tired subject, but even before I finish my sentence, Massaro, 61, interjects and says everything in three words. Very politely but with finality.
“With respect, Maradona.”
Rohit Brijnath is an assistant sports editor at The Straits Times, Singapore, and a co-author of Abhinav Bindra’s book A Shot At History: My Obsessive Journey To Olympic Gold.
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