Words: Owen Blackhurst
Images: Offside Sports Photography
There is a lot of bollocks talked about what is the most difficult skill in football. Some will say it’s hitting that volley like Cantona did against Liverpool in the 1996 FA Cup Final. Body poised, leg and foot ramrod straight chopping down onto the rising ball like an axe to ensure it doesn’t balloon over the bar. Others will argue for rainbow flicks, overhead kicks, or taking a dropping ball over your head and leathering it first time. They are all wrong. They are all wrong because Diego Maradona once did the hardest thing ever seen on a football pitch with such ease that it has remained stuck in my head on a perpetual loop for over two decades. Twenty years in which I endlessly bored people about it at three o’clock in the morning, using pissed mates as goalkeepers, until I finally saw it again.
The first time was in 1997. I was 19 and stuck in endless purgatory between being kicked out of school and starting and quitting college courses and crap jobs. Me and my mate Paul spent a month smoking diesel flavoured resin that was really cheap but gave you the cough of a Siberian gravedigger. We also played a lot of football. Every night we’d assemble on the school tennis courts with other dropouts and, in the half-light of the nearby Astroturf, we’d play endless battles on concrete, surrounded by chain-link fences, with a bong behind the goal and the threat of violence never far away. Without fail, I either wore my 1986 Argentina shirt with 10 on the back or a 1991 Juventus shirt with a drop V-neck and massive collars. I miss it all terribly.
Every morning that summer, we’d wait for Paul’s mum Sue to go to work and sneak back into his house. We’d drink tea, play computer games and watch football videos his younger brother Kev had spent his pocket money on. We used to sell his videos as well, but that’s a story for another time. One of them was Nick Hancock’s Football Hell. It was mostly shit, but then, as we sat there with glazed eyes, flicking pistachio shells at a bowl to see who made the next brew, it happened. A fuzzy clip of Diego Maradona accelerating into the box wearing Napoli blue—the opposition in indiscriminate yellow. And then he did it. The moment he stole my heart forever. More than the second goal in 1986 or the madness of 1994. More than any footballer before or since.
As the keeper got within four yards of him, Maradona, on the angle of the six-yard box and decelerating, stabbed his foot under the ball and started to wheel away. The ball fizzed in a tight arc up and over the keeper, and Maradona knows that he’s scored. Off he goes as the keeper crumples and turns to watch it roll over the line. Fucking brilliant. The ultimate in expression and absolute belief and arrogance and fuck you spirit. It was intoxicating, and we rewound that VHS for an hour or more before it was time to disappear and avoid Sue’s wrath.
There are plenty of reasons I didn’t see it again for 20 years. From the tape being flogged for more diesel to not searching for the right thing on YouTube and, more importantly, not wanting to find it in case my retelling had got out of hand. The memory was so perfect, encased in the protective cushion of a period of my life that I’ll never get back, that I was terrified I might have shattered it with embellishment. But for once in my life, I was speaking gospel.
It transpired that James Wright, one of our contributors, had also seen the goal on Hancock’s late 90s moneymaker. He remembered it the same as me. We acted it out in the office as the rest of the lads stared at us indifferently.
Fast forward three weeks, and we’re all in a hotel room deep into the witching hour after our issue 9 launch party. As we all took turns to talk about ourselves, I made James Bird be the goalkeeper and wearing a crown—don’t ask—I dinked the imaginary ball over and over again. I’m not sure anyone believed me until the other James piped up from the bed. He’d found the fucking goal. My head almost split in half with a smile when we crowded around to watch it on his phone. It was exactly as I remembered. It was the best thing I’d ever seen on a pitch. My perfect memory remained intact. I think I screamed.
And that’s not all we watched. Because this goal, this moment of absolute glory, is on the opening credits of a simply magical fan compilation called top20 maradona lob goals by a user named ‘fishtsingtao’. Set, brilliantly as it turns out, to The Power of Love by Jennifer Rush, it is 4m46 of the goals that time forgot. Grainy footage from Barcelona, and Buenos Aires and pitches across several continents show the absolute master of his craft taking the absolute piss out of everyone on the pitch. Right foot, left foot, headers, free kicks and, at number one, him flicking it up from the kick-off and lashing it in from the halfway line. The legend of Maradona wouldn’t be what it is without his unbridled footballing talent, but this talent is often boiled down to a handful standout moments, or talking endlessly about how he won this or that single-handedly, or how so and so and whatshisname wouldn’t do it at Wigan.
You can see every goal that Messi or Ronaldo have scored. You know when they are and where they are and who they were against and what minute they were scored in and what Clive Tyldesley had to say about them. You can’t with Maradona. And that is why this video is ace. It’s like a treasure map on faded parchment. In many of the clips you don’t know who he’s facing, and in others it’s hard to see who he is playing for. Genius stripped of stats or time-stamps or detail. A man from a different time doing things that seem preposterous even today. A man and his best mate making the ridiculous look simple. Him and the football, together.