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  • Writer's pictureSoccer Down Here

¡Feliz cumpleaños Diego!

by Jason Longshore

The first match I remember planning to watch was the 1986 World Cup semifinal between Argentina and Belgium. I played my first season of youth soccer at the Clayton County YMCA in the spring prior to the World Cup and stumbled across a few broadcasts randomly during the summer. I know I saw the end of the epic France vs. Brazil quarterfinal match among others. I found the semifinal between France and West Germany, saw the highlights of Argentina’s quarterfinal win over England, and was ready to watch them the next day against Belgium.

Yeah, whenever I tell people that Maradona in 1986 is what hooked me on the game, they always think it was the England match. I didn’t even know it existed. It’s not like the World Cup was in the newspaper then, or on SportsCenter, or anywhere else I would have found it. I had only played 10 games of soccer in my life at this stage and still really didn’t know that much about it. There wasn’t a professional team in Atlanta in 1986, so there were no reference points for a 9-year old in Riverdale, GA.

It was Maradona’s performance in the semifinal that made me want to play soccer every day, watch every match that I could, and read everything I could find about the sport.

The final was on NBC and I'll always remember dribbling a soccer ball through my backyard all morning getting ready for it. It will probably always be my favorite World Cup final (at least until the USMNT wins one) for sentimental reasons, but I think the match still holds up as one of the all-time best. Maradona didn't score but was involved in all of the goals. There was incredible drama with a comeback from West Germany to tie the match at two before Maradona's pass sprung Jorge Burruchaga to score the match-winner. Relive the whole Argentine World Cup campaign through the goal calls with Victor Hugo Morales here:

Before the next soccer season started a little over a month later, I had found Puma cleats, a light blue and white striped jersey, and wanted to wear #10. I was completely obsessed with the sport now and it was all thanks to Diego. We had access to see Maradona play for Napoli occasionally on our cable system, I watched the whole 1990 World Cup on TNT and Argentina's run to the final where an injured Maradona somehow dragged a lesser squad to the final where they fell to West Germany in a bit of revenge. I screamed my head off when Maradona's pass put Claudio Caniggia in to score against Brazil.

By this time, ESPN was televising more USMNT matches and I was starting to find my own heroes in this country in the game from John Harkes to Eric Wynalda to Michelle Akers and Mia Hamm. Maradona bounced around after leaving Napoli in disgrace to Sevilla and Newell's Old Boys, all while preparing for one last journey with the Albiceleste to try to get them into the 1994 World Cup. I wish I had been in a position to get to Foxboro Stadium to see his final matches in the World Cup. The squad had really rounded into form and was amazing in wins over Greece and Nigeria, and Maradona was pulling the strings as more of a playmaker. He did have one last spectacular moment scoring though.

After the Nigeria match, Maradona was selected for the post-match drug test and it came back positive for the banned substance ephedrine. In his autobiography, Maradona claimed the American version of Rip Fuel contained the substance while the Argentine version he typically took did not. It marked the end of his international career and torpedoed Argentina's chances in the tournament. They crashed out in the Round of 16 to Romania.

Maradona returned to Argentina in 1995 to play with his beloved Boca Juniors through 1997. He is most associated with Boca, even after starting his career at Argentinos Juniors and playing in Europe. This was one of this biggest performances for Boca, in the Superclásico against River in 1981.

Maradona captured my imagination as to what you could do in the game. I had never seen anything like him in American sports, even the great Michael Jordan although he might be the closest. He was an inspiration to a kid who was just learning about the sport, and a touchstone for what the game could look like. Of course, you had to be a cosmic kite to reach that sort of level, but we could all dream, right? Legendary French player Michel Platini said:

"Diego was capable of things no one else could match. The things I could do with a football, he could do with an orange."

For those of dreaming, it felt like the ball was a bowling ball, but we tried anyway. Diego has lived a pretty unique life, coming from nothing to be the most recognizable athlete in the world to falling into addiction and illness to recovering to manage Argentina in a World Cup and back and forth again. He is currently managing Gimnasia in the Argentine Liga Profesional de Fútbol, although he might not be able to be on the touchline on his birthday due to precautions about Covid-19. Last year, he was able to be honored by many clubs around Argentine during Gimnasia's travels and celebrated in a way that his gifts to the game deserved. Maradona is far from perfect, like most of us. However, I would not have the life that I do if I hadn't seen him play in 1986. I would not view the game in the same way. I would not have dared to dream that I could do the things that he did with a soccer ball. Very few have, but Maradona's gifts to the sport reach so far beyond that.

Leave it to the famous University of Oxford to bestow the most appropriate honor on Diego Maradona. In 1995, they gave him the honorary title of Master Inspirer of Dreams. I couldn't agree more. Gracias Diego por inspirarme. Gracias por cambiar mi vida. Que vivas 60 años más.

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