Maradona by Guillem Balagué review – the magic and the madness

Reaching the final of this year’s Euros means that, win or lose, Gareth Southgate’s England have laid the ghosts of past tournaments to rest. Yet it was only last week that the retired goalkeeper Peter Shilton could be found on television – well, GB News – wishing, not for the first time, that VAR had been around back in 1986, when a certain 5ft 4in Argentinian playmaker outjumped him to slyly palm the ball into the net during a World Cup quarter-final. The Scots have a song about it:

You put your left hand in
Your left hand out
In out, in out
You shake it all about
You do the Maradona and you turn around
He put the English out!
Ohhh, Diego Maradona

The coup de grace came four minutes later, when (does it even need saying?) Maradona burst from inside his own half to skip past four England players before dummying Shilton for a second goal, wholly legal yet still more outrageous.

If these two goals, stirringly reconstructed in a new biography by Spanish football journalist Guillem Balagué, sum up the Jekyll-and-Hyde tint to Maradona’s on-pitch gifts, another strike was just as revealing. Playing for Barcelona against Real Madrid in 1983, he found himself through on goal with only the onrushing keeper to beat. Rather than shoot swift and low (too easy), he dribbled round his opponent, yet still refused to score even when the goal gaped (much too easy), preferring instead to take his sweet time until a Madrid defender had sprinted back to the goal line – at which point Maradona dribbled round him as well, finally rolling the ball home just as the skidding defender ended up taking a between-the-legs thwack off the post.

Winning wasn’t enough, in other words; Maradona took the piss too. The word “revenge” is studded mercilessly through his memoirs, El Diego (2005) and Touched By God (2017), and his targets were legion. England after the Falklands, , but also Argentina itself, whose football high-ups – he never forgot – omitted him from the 1978 World Cup squad, a snub that tempted him to quit the sport; he was 17. His grudges weren’t even always personal: in Italy, the rampant anti-southern bigotry he encountered on signing for Napoli only fed the zeal with which he turned relegation candidates into serial trophy-winners.

These stories have been told many times over, yet there’s still no solid English-language account of Maradona’s post-playing days, which makes it all the stranger that Balagué – first into the breach following Maradona’s death, aged 60, after a heart attack last November – more or less keeps to the usual stations of the cross. It’s all here, from Dieguito’s eight-to-a-room boyhood without running water in a Buenos Aires slum, to the fracture of his magical left ankle in an X-rated horror tackle by Andoni Goikoetxea (the “Butcher of Bilbao”), to the 1994 doping ban that ended an unlikely international comeback.

But anyone curious about the jigsaw of what came next (managing Argentina, working in Mexico, Belarus and Dubai, more trouble with drink and drugs, allegations of domestic violence) may find less to go on. Instead, Balagué sharpens the existing picture, partly on account of his nose for the archives of the Spanish-language press, but mainly thanks to an old-fashioned dollop of journalistic access, not least to Maradona’s long-suffering personal trainer, tasked with helping him sweat out his post-match benders. Balagué’s interviews put fresh legs on old hunches: was the “hepatitis” that laid out Maradona at Barcelona actually an STD? Did Napoli let the 1987/88 title slip because doing otherwise would have bankrupted the Camorra? And did Fifa cynically overlook Maradona’s cocaine habit to lure him into an international return simply to boost USA 94’s box-office appeal?

In El Diego, Maradona rubbished these possibilities, yet he was hardly averse to conspiracy theories of his own, as Balagué reminds us. He claimed Argentina lost the 1990 World Cup final because the organisers had wanted Italy there instead, yet – with seemingly no sense of contradiction – he also boasted, against Brazil in an earlier round, the winning goal (set up by Maradona) came after Argentina’s staff had switched a Brazil player’s mid-match drink for one laced with Rohypnol.

Balagué is a sceptical guide through the myth-making, even if he is the kind of writer who would rather call Italy a “transalpine country” than say its name twice in one sentence. No matter: anyone writing on Maradona knows the main attraction is the tale, not the teller. And given recent news of the involuntary manslaughter charges against his doctors, not to mention the fact his body couldn’t be cremated – it is evidence of DNA for several outstanding paternity suits – and the dozens of other legal cases still pending, from tax evasion to sexual harassment, you can’t help but feel that his story, even now, is barely into stoppage time.

Maradona: The Boy. The Rebel. The God by Guillem Balagué is published by Orion (£20). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at Delivery charges may apply

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