UCFB’s Head of Employability & Enrichment Neil Silver has worked for a number of national newspapers, covering major sporting events including World Cup finals and the Olympic Games. Here, he tells a personal story of when he met the late, great Diego Maradona at White Hart Lane just weeks before the 1986 World Cup, when the Argentinian was at the height of his powers…

I fell in love with Argentinian football when I watched the 1978 World Cup finals as an impressionable 14-year-old, camped in front of the television with my dad and two brothers. 

My hero was Mario Kempes, the brilliant Argentine striker with flowing locks, who lit up the tournament on his home turf as he scored six goals on his way to a fabulous treble – a World Cup winner’s medal, the Golden Boot and the Golden Ball. 

Only two other players have won all three accolades at a single World Cup –  Garrincha for Brazil in 1962 and Italian legend Paolo Rossi 20 years later. 

As a family of season ticket holders at Spurs, we naturally appreciated entertaining football, and I will never forget that day shortly after the finals when my dad came home brandishing the back page of the newspaper which read: “Spurs Sign Argentinian Aces”. 

That was the announcement that our beloved Spurs had signed Ossie Ardiles and Ricky Villa, and little did I know then that eight years later I would have Ossie introduce me to the greatest Argentine footballer of all time, Diego Maradona, and even translate for me. 

So fast forward to the time when a work colleague of mine knew I was forging a career in the media and he introduced me to the next-door neighbour of Keith Burkinshaw, the then Spurs manager. This man, also named Keith, was a friend to several Spurs players, and we teamed up over a few years to promote the testimonial matches of Chris Hughton, Tony Galvin, Danny Thomas and then Ossie. 

Of course, it wasn’t difficult to promote Ossie’s testimonial in May 1986, as a full house was guaranteed for one of the club’s favourite sons, especially as his list of special guest players read like a Who’s Who of football. 

Topping the bill was one of Ossie’s close friends, Maradona, and I will always remember the moment I stood alongside him in the tunnel at White Hart Lane as the players waited to take the field. He stood there with his immense barrel chest, filling his white Spurs shirt, and I am sure my heart skipped a beat. I may have gained an O’Level in Spanish but it didn’t help me as I tried to tell Maradona: “That shirt really suits you, I think you should keep it and sign for Spurs!” So, Ossie stepped in to translate and the answer, which was said with a wry smile on Maradona’s face: “Sorry, but it feels a bit itchy”. Then all three of us laughed out loud. 

I was in awe of Maradona that night as he entertained from the moment he entered the arena. He took the ball from the centre spot and started playing “keepy-uppy” but not like anything we had seen before. Instead of chipping the ball a foot or so into the air each time, he launched it high into the night sky, and just kept volleying it straight back up, over and over again. What brilliance. 

I put Maradona on a pedestal that night as he dazzled us with his talents, making it look as if the ball was glued to his foot as he ran opponents ragged, so it was heart-breaking to have him knocked off it just seven weeks later. 

That was when he sent England packing from the World Cup in Mexico with two goals, one of pure skill, the other of pure treachery, as he shamefully punched the ball past goalkeeper Peter Shilton. That was Maradona. A flawed genius. Impossible to live with at his brilliant best, and equally impossible to accept when sinking to the depths of cheating by conning the officials with an outrageously illegal goal.

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Argentina would probably have beaten England anyway that night, so that was not the way to win a football match, and certainly not the way for a football god to be remembered. Ironically, Maradona attributed his “goal” to the “Hand of God” and he probably believed it to be so, but I will never forgive him for that. 

It was equally sad to see the decline of Maradona in the years that followed. He was expelled from the 1994 World Cup in the USA for failing a drug test, and was already into his downward spiral. Maradona’s unhealthy lifestyle turned that once-mighty body into a bloated, sad figure, not befitting for the man who played 91 times for his country and scored 34 goals. 

I hope Maradona is remembered for his brilliance on the football field rather than anything else. The fact that President Alberto Fernandez declared three days of national mourning in Argentina after the death of Maradona on Wednesday aged 60 is one hell of a tribute. We cannot even get a posthumous knighthood for Bobby Moore, England’s World Cup winning hero of 1966, so it certainly goes to show that Argentina sure know how to treat their football heroes.