Maradona was my favourite player and I was lucky enough to see him live

Maradona was my favourite player and I was lucky enough to see him live

Workers install a banner with the image of Diego Maradona before Argentina's Defensa y Justicia hosted Brazil's Vasco Da Gama in Buenos Aires. Picture: Daniel Jayo/Pool via AP

PELE or Cruyff? Best or Maradona? Messi or Ronaldo? Take your pick.

Of their many common traits, balance formed the central plank, like ballerinas, expecting to fall at any stage, but always somehow remaining upright.

The sad demise of Maradona mid-week at just 60 prompted a revisit to the old debate about who is considered the greatest ever.

Maradona was my favourite. Every Monday night a highlights package on the Welsh version of Channel 4 showed the weekend's action in Serie A.

Picture: PA Photo/Alfredo Capozzi.
Picture: PA Photo/Alfredo Capozzi.

There was only one team to watch and one player to zoom in on, Napoli's number 10, the diminutive, but gifted Maradona.

And he rarely disappointed, regardless of opponents' intimidation and boy did he ship some punishment, notably with Barcelona earlier.

His time there coincided with the most brutal league in Europe, epitomised by the Butcher of Bilbao, Goikoetxea, who played as if he had just come from the abattoir with the smell of blood still in his nostrils.

It was during Italia 90 that an opportunity presented itself to watch the great man in the flesh and what a game it was, a World Cup round of 16 game against South American rivals Brazil.

Ireland's base for the game with Romania in Genoa was in Rappalo, a tourist hub about 20 miles south of the city.

The Argentina-Brazil tie was played in Turin's Stadio delle Alpi, the new home ground of Juventus.

Someone in the Irish press group checked out the feasibility of organising a bus trip for the 200-mile round trip on a Sunday in late June. A quick headcount gave the thumbs up and so we headed off on a journey to take in what a South American derby could offer.

The attendance moved to over 61,000 as kick-off loomed, but even at this stage it was patently obvious that Maradona was going to the focal point of local ire.

His image on the big screens behind both goals supplied the first clues of where the Juve fans' loyalties lay.

Howls of derision roared down from the stands every time he touched a ball and this was only in the warm-up.

And so it continued right throughout a game in which Brazil were better than the defending champions, but couldn't convert their chances.

Argentina showed they had lost much of the lustre, which carried them to glory in Mexico in 1986, when Maradona was at the peak of his powers and practically unstoppable.

And yet, the little pocket-rocket had the last laugh and silenced the stadium, save for the Argentine fans, by setting up the only goal.

Maradona picked out centre-forward Cannigia with an inch-perfect pass and his colleague duly finished it off for the game's only goal.

That moment alone made it a worthwhile trip, the opportunity to watch the great man in action.

What I didn't know then that I'd catch an even closer view of the gifted one a couple of years later and it was by pure chance. Ireland were in Seville to play Spain in a crunch World Cup qualifier, November 1992, and the weather was balmy.

Maradona in action against Tony Grealish and Kevin Moran in 1980. Picture: Ray McManus/Sportsfile
Maradona in action against Tony Grealish and Kevin Moran in 1980. Picture: Ray McManus/Sportsfile

The day before the game Ireland worked out at the local club's training ground and it was all routine until the session ended. As we were about to board the bus to take us back to our city hotel, someone spotted a familiar figure in the distance, practicising free kicks.

And there he was again, Maradona, now with Sevilla, on his own curling free kicks beyond a makeshift wall and crashing them off the angle of post and crossbar.

This demanded closer attention, so we gingerly moved in his direction just to claim an armchair view of the most talented player of his or any generation strutting his stuff.

Impressively, Maradona, ensured the ball spun from the goal's frame back in his general direction, so he wouldn't have to move too far to collect the balls.

He noticed a bit of commotion and instantly recognised Big Jack and the team mingling around the bus, looking on admiringly.

Maradona didn't need any encouragement or a formal invitation to come over and shake Big Jack's hand.

Now both are departed, contrasting players and personalities in every aspect.

Picture: AP Photo
Picture: AP Photo

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