Maradona, the king of soccer and a man of free spirit

Gao Xing
Argentina and Diego Maradona have become synonymous but for many Chinese, including myself, the two are inevitably linked to the 1986 FIFA World Cup.
Gao Xing
Maradona, the king of soccer and a man of free spirit

Diego Maradona kisses the World Cup trophy at the 1986 FIFA World Cup in Mexico.

I wonder how many of you guys heard about Argentina for the first time because of soccer? I definitely got an inkling about this South American country due to the beautiful game.

To be more precise, I heard the name "Argentina" during the live television broadcast of the 1986 FIFA World Cup in Mexico and became obsessed with the magic ball.

Without knowing how far this country was from China at the time, I just had a feeling that the Argentine fans in the stands looked very crazy, with the stadium always full of flying pieces of paper.

But what attracted me most was the great No. 10, Diego Maradona (1960-2020), one of the most talented soccer players of the last century. People said that the 1986 World Cup belonged to only one person, Maradona.

Moreover, after reading some articles on the Malvinas (Falklands) Islands War between the United Kingdom and Argentina several years later, I came to understand why Maradona tried to score goals against England at all costs in Mexico. I had a better understanding of "the hand of god" from a different aspect.

But undoubtedly, my admiration for Argentina began then.

The 1986 World Cup is just the beginning. Maradona inspired me a lot, he made me fall in love with soccer, and with the Italian Serie A, and the club Napoli, where the diminutive forward plied his trade. I even began to like the map of Italy!

As long as Maradona was playing, I, like many Chinese soccer fans, considered Argentina as our "national team," especially during the summer of 1990 in Italy. I spent many sleepless nights with my "national team," enjoying the happiness, sharing the pain, talking about tactics, and replaying the goals again and again, although this team was not as unbeatable as the one four years ago in Mexico.

I still believe for sure today that had Claudio Caniggia, regarded as "son of the wind," not been suspended for the final against West Germany (the forward got his second yellow card in the semifinals), or if the referee had not awarded the Germans a penalty, Argentina would have definitely won the World Cup again because, apart from Maradona, the team boasted the mighty goalkeeper Sergio Goycochea.

I fully enjoyed the charisma of sports and that's the main reason I began my journalism career in the late 1990s on the sports desk. I covered many international sports events, such as the Olympics, FIFA World Cup (both men and women), Formula One, etc.

Having enjoyed being a sports journalist for seven years, I had one of my most memorable moments when I got a chance to cover Maradona in Shanghai.

That was in deep autumn of 2003 when the Argentina great was invited to China on a business trip. There was a period of time going back 20 years when Chinese were intrigued by world-class soccer clubs and players.

Despite being retired for a while, Maradona still grabbed fans' attention. It could be because he and Pele, the Brazilian legend, were the joint winners of FIFA Best Player of the Century award in 2000. The difference is Pele was voted mostly by professional FIFA members, while Maradona was chosen by fans through Internet voting, which he considered noteworthy.

And indeed, there was nobody quite like him.

Maradona, the king of soccer and a man of free spirit
Ti Gong

The author poses for a photo with Diego Maradona in Shanghai in 2003.

During his short three-day stay in Shanghai in 2003, I witnessed his casualness during his itinerary, kindness to fans and enthusiasm about soccer. No wonder many people who knew him say he was a devil and angel in one.

With my hard, lucky (I have to say) and crazy (like a fan) work, I finished an exclusive two-page article about his stay in Shanghai, receiving not only praise from counterparts and readers, but also a chance to have photos taken with the soccer great.

I still remember the picture was taken at a private club, where Maradona spent the night dancing, chatting and laughing. He gave me a high-five and said something in Spanish, then we had a photo taken together with an intimate gesture as though we had known each other for a long time – for me, that WAS indeed a long time ago – from 1986 to be precise.

This then was Maradona, a man with a free spirit, a tango dancer on the pitch.

The year before last, when I heard news about his passing away, I felt very depressed. I wrote an article to commemorate the Argentinian and was surprised to find some reader comments saying: "Who is Maradona? Is he better than (Lionel) Messi?"

I thought that this probably proclaimed the end of a soccer era.

But the great Diego Maradona will live on, connecting Argentina with soccer forever.

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