In part of the build-up to his 60th birthday on Friday, Argentina great Diego Maradona gave an interview to France Football in which he said that he dreams of scoring a goal against England with his right hand.
That 1986 World Cup quarterfinal in Mexico City's Estadio Azteca still stands as the defining moment of his career, and maybe of his life. This, of course, was the match when he put the Albiceleste ahead against England with his notorious "hand of God" goal -- deftly punching the ball into the net without being caught by the officials -- and then doubled the lead with an extraordinary solo effort that later won a FIFA poll to find the "Goal of the Century."
There were magnificent early exploits with Argentinos Juniors, a brief but much-loved spell with Boca Juniors and, perhaps his best and most consistent body of work, the Italian titles with Napoli. But it is that Mexican afternoon against England that always seems to stand out. This has a lot to do with the opposition -- and not just because England and Argentina had gone to war over the Falkland Islands only four years earlier.
Maradona is a perfect illustration of the dynamic of the game in South America. Introduced by the British and full of European prestige, it was reinterpreted by the locals, who found that the game lent itself well to a balletic style that came naturally to those with a low centre of gravity. In turn, that reinterpretation led to international triumphs and recognition.
Stocky little Maradona was an Argentine everyman, who that day against England lived out a national fantasy. Like all highly skilled players, he was far more sinned against than sinning, and he played at a time when the game was developing physically with little protection from referees.
Courage was a necessity, and part of the survival strategy was a sense of low cunning -- very evident in that controversial "hand of God" goal. The message to his countrymen was clear; the English might have the formal power, but we are smarter. And, screamed the second goal, we are better. The entire match was scripted from a nation's long-held dream.
This was sport as powerful symbol, and nothing in Maradona's life would ever be quite the same. Former Argentina captain Roberto Perfumo made a comparison with Julius Caesar. The Roman emperor had people walking behind him, whispering reminders in his ear that he was only a mortal. Argentine society, said Perfumo, had tended to do the opposite with Maradona.
But although he may have been deified, Diego is not a god. Living in the aftermath of 1986 has not been easy. There have been wild excesses, some of them lived out in public. There have been many times when it seemed unlikely that he would get this far, too, which is why his 60th birthday should be celebrated. Many in Argentina, and around the world, like him and identify with him all the more precisely because of his tendency to slip up and fall down, only to pick himself up and set about reinventing himself once more.
Maradona is currently coaching Gimnasia, a relatively weak side in the Argentine first division. He could surely do without it, and get by from making personal appearances. But he chooses to put himself on the line and pin the team sheet to the wall -- surely an admirable trait.
There have been no matches since the middle of March, when the coronavirus pandemic forced a shutdown, but the date that has deliberately been chosen for the restart is Friday, Maradona's birthday. And Gimnasia are first up, getting the ball rolling at home to Patronato.
It seems unlikely, though, that Maradona will be present. Argentina is currently going through its worst moment with the pandemic, and after having been in contact with someone who tested positive, Maradona is in enforced isolation.
The months of lockdown have reportedly not been good for his morale. But given his age and medical history, he's clearly at risk and needs to be protected -- Gimnasia advised him to stay away from training when it resumed in August. For all of the pleasure that he has given, he surely deserves to come out the other side of the pandemic and celebrate plenty more birthdays, put himself through other challenges and keep dreaming of goals he would like to score, legal or otherwise.