Opinion

Maradona should be remembered for his genius not his flaws

Diego Maradona holding the World Cup in Mexico in 1986 Source: AAP

Football has lost one of its greatest and most influential heroes after the inimitable Argentine Diego Armando Maradona died of a heart attack in the city of Tigre, near Buenos Aires. He was 60.

And the massive popularity he enjoyed due to his extraordinary exploits on the football fields of the world is best illustrated by the moving condolences expressed by dozens of football personalities and the outpouring of grief in the two countries he touched by his brilliance: Argentina and Italy.

Maradona was an inspirational captain but also a flawed genius, no doubt about that.

His sublime skill as an attacking footballer and his ability to lead by example enabled an average Argentina side to win the 1986 FIFA World Cup.

Mexico '86 was Maradona's tournament same as Mexico '70 was Pele's and France '98 was Zinedine Zidane's.

At club level Maradona turned battling Napoli into a Serie A giant and played a key role in the club's two championships in 1987 and 1990.

Michel Platini, who crossed paths with him many times in the 1980s, once said that "what Zidane could do with a ball Maradona could do with an orange".

Yet controversy and Maradona were never mutually exclusive.

On his way to leading the 'Albiceleste' to global glory in the land of the Aztecs, Maradona's legacy would be established in four memorable minutes that stunned the world.

In a tense quarter-final against England in Mexico City, the Argentine broke the deadlock after 51 minutes with an illegal strike that would become known as the 'Hand of God' goal.

Vying for a high ball with goalkeeper Peter Shilton, Maradona knew the only way he could beat the much taller opponent was by using his hands and that is what he did ... he punched the ball home, ran away to celebrate and got away with it.

It was not the first time someone had tried to break the rules to seek an unfair advantage and it would not be the last.

But what angered the English was the way he seemed to be taking the mickey out of the beaten team and justified his action by claiming 'revenge' for the Falklands war Argentina had lost to Britain four years earlier.

Not long after reaching the bottom of football integrity, however, Maradona scaled the heights of the game's immortality when he picked up the ball in his own half and went on to beat half the England team in a mazy run before planting the ball in Shilton's net for one of the greatest goals ever scored.

The Argentine was at the peak of his mesmeric might and a year later he led his club Napoli to the first championship in their history.

He was treated like a god in the southern Italian city which is probably where his off-field problems started.

Away from the spotlight, he started mixing with the wrong people - notably the local Camorra crime syndicate - but the club turned a blind eye to his indiscretions.

Napoli knew about this but were not overly concerned. Their attitude appeared to be 'as long as he delivers on the field he can do whatever he likes'.

Drug addiction rumours were becoming stronger by the week and matters come to a head in 1991 when he was suspended for 15 months for cocaine use.

It is when Maradona saw Naples and 'died'.

His stellar career was in serious turmoil yet he would come back to help his country qualify for the 1994 World Cup at the expense of Australia.

I will always cherish the one-on-one interview I had with the great man at a hotel in Sydney a few days before the first leg of the playoff with the Socceroos.

He lamented the excessive money in football that was putting its top players under too much pressure and complained about the lack of protection for the game's entertainers from unscrupulous defenders.

In America he was sensationally kicked out of the tournament after he failed another drug test. His troubled career as a professional footballer was effectively over.

He later would dabble with coaching with scant success.

And now that his extraordinary life has come to an end, I just hope that for all his faults and weaknesses, Diego Armando Maradona will be remembered as a magnificent footballer who enjoyed life and gave joy to hundreds of millions of fans around the world.

Muchas gracias, Diego.