Let’s revisit Dublin in 1979. It’s a kind of love story.
Take a Subbuteo pitch. Turn the green cloth over and paint the word “Ireland” on the plain green side. Fold it up and put it in your pocket. Go to school.
As school breaks up count 7 in your class who are also going to the game. Argentina are in Dublin. They are the World Champions and there is talk that they have someone the papers dub ‘the Argentinian Pele’ in their ranks.
You are sceptical. There have been several new ‘Pele’s you have heard of, and none of them deserving of such names. You remember the most recent, ‘the White Pele’, from the previous year’s World Cup in Argentina. Zico had been white all right, but that was all.
Outside school, nod to the other 7 as out of pockets come flags, scarves and a…is that a Subbuteo pitch? Everyone goes different directions as if engaged in an assault behind enemy lines. You will meet up in the morning to take stock.
Go alone to the game with your pitch tied around your neck to make a cape. Take the bus to town and from Tara Street take the train to Lansdowne Road. Queue up at the stiles before they open because you are small, and there are few places for a small person standing on a terrace from which to see the game clearly when the ground is full to capacity.
Once inside run. Run for all you are worth because you are not the only small boy. 2 choices. The South Terrace or the North Terrace. The South affords you the least viewing spots, but is so much nearer than the North, so is more competitive. Opt for the marathon sprint for the North Terrace.
Make it. You have reached the section where you can look over a wall at the pitch and nobody can block your view. Stand there holding the wall and your spot tightly for one and a half hours until kick off. See the early warm-up. Try and make out the players who won the World Cup in the ticker tape of Buenos Aires the previous summer. Wonder which player might be the one everyone is talking about. He is 17 years old.
The teams are announced. Ireland’s player-manager Johnny Giles is booed when his name is announced. Don’t boo but understand why. Giles is a great footballer whose better playing days are behind him, and as a manager he tries to get Ireland to play as if they are West Germany. Irish players passing the ball sideways forever in the era before the outlawed back-pass, don’t elicit a Lansdowne Roar. Ireland will never be West Germany. West Germany won’t even be West Germany for much longer.
The game begins. It is fabulous stuff. Argentina look great, but so do Ireland. Giles is having a great game. Is this his last? At half-time it is nil-nil and one of the best games you have ever attended. As the 2nd half begins all of Lansdowne chants. For the first time chant with your countrymen. Just the word “Ireland” over and over, punctuated by 3 claps each time.
Something has changed. Argentina have more of the ball. Some young substitute is literally running rings around Ireland. Look at him. Only him. See his back for all of the 2nd half as he zigs and zags and jinks and janks through Ireland. See him hit the bar. Wish he was playing into the goal at your end. Somehow at the end he and Argentina, like Ireland, remain scoreless.
Dublin is abuzz. Walk back into the city for the train is not worth fighting the crowds. Who was that number 18? you hear everybody say. Make it to the bus terminus in half an hour. At every bus stop you hear talk of an Argentinian footballer with no name.
In the morning do your homework like everybody else. Then go to school. Your colleagues from the assault who were scattered all over Lansdowne, like you, now know his name. It is Diego Maradona, and nobody calls him ‘the Argentinian Pele’ any more. On gravel pitches when goals are scored with tennis balls, Maradona’s name is called out. Repeatedly.
The previous year he was included in Cesar Luis Menotti’s original World Cup squad, but then Menotti decided he was too young and dropped him from the final squad. If only Passarella and Ardiles had been as strong as the Brazilian senior players in 1958 when their manager was persuaded to play Garrincha and Pele.
3 months or so after his Dublin debut, Maradona led the Argentina youths to the younger version of the World Cup. A year later he returned to Europe and wowed us. Hampden Park applauded the South American teenager against their own Scotland. England despite winning 3-1 were bewitched by him at Wembley, and their manager, the lovely Ron Greewood in being asked to pick his Man of the Match said well the little fella is a bit special isn’t he, I think he’ll win plenty of Man of the Matches, so I’ll give this one to Stevie Coppell.
And then Maradona came back to Dublin. I found my Subbuteo pitch, and made the shorter sprint to the South Terrace this time. Argentina won by the only goal, and during that game, right in front of me Maradona became one of only 2 players I’ve ever watched do something with a ball that actually took my breath away.
Afterwards I waited hours for the now 18 year old and when he came out from under the West Stand I patted the South American on the back, one teenager to another. Diego Armando Maradona spoke to me, and then jogged over to the Argentina bus.
When Maradona failed 3 years later at the next World Cup, it was no great surprise. He had the world waiting for him to own it, and the world’s footballers trying to kick him so he couldn’t. Pele at a similar age had sufferred much the same fate in both 1962 and 1966, and Zico had struggled with his own reputation f4 years earlier in 1978. Maradona’s 1982 World Cup ended with his boot stuck nastily high into a Brazilian crotch, and his face on a million Spanish billboards.
Mature, 4 years later, in 1986, Maradona, overcame the expectancy - as Brazil’s Pele and Zico both had earlier done in ‘70 and ‘82 respectively - and with token help from bit players called Burrachaga and Valdano, won the World Cup as he exerted more singular influence on one World Cup than any player has ever done. And he did it joyfully and unselfishly.
The team that got knocked out today [note: 2006] on penalties by Germany forgot that joy. Against Serbia & Montenegro they kept attacking when they scored. And as they scored more the world loved them for it. Today, the team built so much in the likeness of Maradona, forgot that and sat on their goal and wasted time and did what the traditional swarthy long-haired Argentinian teams do. It’s as if they knew they were so much better and let fear stop them from trying for greatness for fear of losing and going out. So they lost and went out anyway.
This only happens every 4 years. That group of players won’t get another chance. Messi didn’t even get on the pitch. Riquelme, the most influential player of this entire World Cup was taken off. This is the stuff that makes grown men cry.
Back in 1979 there was one other game at Lansdowne I really enjoyed that May. West Germany came to town and gave Ireland a footballing lesson. But there were two glorious memories I take from that game forever rather than the fact that we lost 3-1.
First was our goal. The Irish goal was scored from a corner, taken short, then crossed, and then unbelievably for an Irish player of any generation, Gerry Ryan scored an overhead kick. Football really is about more than winning.
Secondly at half time, one player did not go into the dressing room with all the other players. Sepp Maier, one of the greatest goal-keepers of all time, stayed out on the pitch and played with the ball and with the South Terrace, where I and Ireland’s most vociferous fans hung out. So I’m not altogether sad that an Argentinian generation has missed its time; I can live with a German goal-keeping hero.
If Argentina couldn’t remember the skill coupled with joy they displayed in the first round, perhaps they should first have had a look at this video, unearthed by Roldy, of Maradona just warming up for a game. I just watched it 7 times and I know I would have beaten Germany. With style.
Oh, and that other footballer who took my breath away whilst I was at a game? It was a few years back now. He too was a teenager. 16 in fact. He’s English. And he plays tomorrow morning [note: 2006] in the World Cup quarter-final. The world could yet be his.
UPDATE: That English footballer’s World Cup ended with his foot stuck in a Portuguese crotch. (It was Mr Wayne Rooney and 2010 could yet be his)