Friday, 30 July 2010
Cracking portrait of a complex star
Maradona: the Hand of God by Jimmy Burns
One thing that this book most certainly is, is several cuts above standard sporting biographies. During my time as a sports writer, I had countless books sent to me to review – and many ended up in a personal library. That, a few years ago, was whittled down to just the very best – and as such, there's little more than one shelf (and that includes an awful lot of Manchester City stuff that is there because – well, because it's Manchester City.
But Jimmy Burns's book, which has been reissued with a chapter to bring it up-to-date (well, up to before this year's World Cup finals in South Africa) is not only excellently well written, it also avoids the syndrome of wanting to be all things to all readers, thus eschewing anything and everything that might be remotely controversial.
Many years ago, 400m hurdles star Sally Gunnell told me how frustrating it is to see a biography treated in such a manner – she'd wanted to say a number of things about drugs in sport and testing, but the publishers of Running Tall had simply run scared.
Fortunately, Burns has not written this book for any publisher's stereotype of a lobotomised sports fan.
What is there to say about Maradona? One of the most sublimely gifted players that the world has ever seen. Dip into YouTube and there are plenty of clips to see – not least, that extraordinary second goal he scored for Argentina against England in the 1986 World Cup Finals, leaving half the team rooted to the spot, the ball seemingly glued to his feet.
But the the thing with Maradona is that while he's rightly lauded for such sweet skills, he's equally remembered as a controversial figure, as epitomised by the first goal in that same match – the infamous 'Hand of God', when he handled the ball into the net.
Not that that was remotely the only controversy that has involved the man born in a shanty town near Buenos Aries. During his time with Napoli in Italy's Serie A, he became very friendly with – or at least was prepared to enjoy the hospitality of – the Camorra, that region's equivalent of the Mafia.
And links with assorted Argentinian regimes have seem him apparently ready to ignore human rights abuses in his own country, with a naive politics that seems largely to be based on a similarly naive nationalism.
But for most footballers, such matters would hardly merit any attention. However, Diego Armando Maradona's life has long been inextricably bound up with his country's – a symbol to be used and exploited by assorted political and business interests. And even religious ones, since it's hard to imagine why the Pope would otherwise grant an audience to someone who was rather blatantly 'living in sin' – never mind some of his other off-field activities, including sex (not with the aforementioned partner) and drugs.
And drugs are indeed another one of the aspects of Maradona's fall from grace – both his suspension for taking cocaine to his being thrown out of the 1994 US World Cup after failing a drugs test.
Burns details all this and more. But while he is perfectly happy to be critical when required – and there are more than a few times when it is fully justified – he's also deeply sympathetic to an individual who never seems to have grown up, and indeed, possibly never really had the chance to do so. Maradona is reminiscent, in so many ways, of Paul Gasgoigne.
Maradona is a complex mingling of "victim, knight, defiant rebel, foul-mouthed aggressor", as Burns describes him.
But as his reappearance at a World Cup showed earlier this summer, he remains utterly fascinating and with a sense of the mercurial about him too.