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Diego Maradona — The Hand of God meets its maker

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Photo via Imago

Our Guest Author: Ritwik Sarkar

There’s something quite sobering, for a life so loud to be greeted by a deafening silence upon its end.
We grieve mortals with a sense of sadness and reflection. How then do we grieve someone who felt like so much more?

“I saw Maradona do things that God himself would doubt were possible,” opined Zico, a fierce international rival.

A figure larger than life, consumed by the ignorance of his own mortality. In a career defined by gold dust and bad blood — in equal measure — El pibe de Oro’s journey reminds us of the power of a dream against all odds. A life lived to beyond it fullest, and a career with chaos worth a million lifetimes.

Man Becomes Myth: Maradona at Barcelona

Diego Maradona’s journey on the other side of the Atlantic began at Barcelona. A two-year period that gave the world where a small man became a big myth.

The Blaugrana faithful weren’t ready for what would unfold.

Maradona entered the Barcelona roster as the most expensive player in the world and left to become it once again. What transpired in between were a series of highs, lows and drama that would put the best telenovela to shame.

Under the contrasting stewardship of German coach Udo Lattek, Maradona netted six times in his first 13 games. The German’s cold stare tempered the Argentine’s rising mercury, Lattek would rather refer to his star player as ‘Este chico, Diego’ (‘this kid, Diego’). Putting up with Maradona’s erratic personality was the price to pay for having his genius out there on the field. He knew that all too well

Diego Maradona Barcelona

Maradona’s time at Barcelona was riddled with sheer greatness and controversies. (Photo via Imago)

Hepatitis would pause his searing start and serve only to amplify what was to follow. With Lattek fired during his time on the sidelines, Argentine World Cup-winning manager Cesar Luis Menotti took over. El Flaco’s appointment did little to aid both Maradona’s and Barca’s return to form. It did, however, birth the most iconic moment of the Argentine’s career till then — a cup winning goal against bitter rivals, Real Madrid.

Maradona dribbled past Madrid goalkeeper Augustin, and as he approached the empty goal, he stopped just as defender Juan Jose came sliding in a desperate attempt to block the shot and ended up crashing into the post before Maradona slotted the ball into the net. It combined searing pace, magnetic control, a body feint, a deft touch and a sure finish. All in one move. Only one man could do this.

The poesy of that moment reached a fever pitch when he received an honour no Barca player had ever received — a standing ovation from Los Blancos faithful. It’s a feat matched only by Ronaldinho and Andres Iniesta since, something that took two decades to be repeated. Such was his ability, such was Maradona.

Maradona’s larger than life status was already proved when he received a standing ovation from the Santiago Bernabeu faithful. (Photo by Carlo Hermann / AFP)

Fanning Flames and Scorching Earth

The Argentine’s second season would be his last at the Camp Nou. Hardened by consistent hacking, Maradona took action. He doubled the number of shinpads, lighting a fire within him that would leave scorched earth in his wake. A burgeoning partnership with German midfielder Bernd Schuster powered Barça in the early parts of the season.

The club’s will was bending a bit exceedingly towards Maradona, however. His newly minted lifestyle was proving costly for Menotti. Then-President Josep Luis Nunez years later admitted, to what was essentially an open secret;

“A lot of things went on with Maradona. We even changed the training timetable so he could sleep in in the morning.”

Josep Luis Nunez

The Argentine was becoming Mara-prima donna as the backroom became increasingly uneasy. Anecdotes stretched from late arrivals to dissatisfaction with playing boots. Problems which echoed louder in his later career. These quandaries spiralled when the Argentine was hacked by Andoni Giokoetxea — The Butcher of Bilbao — relegating him to sidelines once again.

11 goals in just 16 appearances did their bit to galvanise the club. It wasn’t enough however as Athletic Bilbao lifted La Liga by just two points.

The league was over, but Maradona’s chalice of blood was far from filled. In the final of that season’s Copa Del Rey, the flood gates had opened, precipitating nothing short of war. A 1-0 loss was too much for the Argentine to bear.

He first confronted Bilbao’s Miguel Sola, who cursed and flashed a derogatory sign at him moments before. Maradona got in Sola’s face and head-butted him. He found several other opposing Bilbao players, elbowing one and kicking another. As players from both teams brawled, fans threw objects on the pitch.

Sweet Dreams and Bitter Ends

The cup final riot was a fitting, if unfortunate end for the Argentine at Barcelona. It left 60 people injured and earned Maradona a three-month ban from Spanish football. Maradona got into frequent disputes with FC Barcelona executives, particularly club president Josep Luis Nunez culminating with a demand to be transferred out of Camp Nou in 1984.

During his two injury-hit seasons at Barcelona, Maradona scored 38 goals in 58 games, winning two cups. It was not what the club had hoped, but it was a sign to the world for what was to come

For many of older fans of Barcelona, Maradona and his turbulent spell presents one of the biggest what-if questions in their minds and hearts. The two-year stint was absolutely pivotal to the legend he became.

The physical battles strengthened both his desire and resolve to overcome those who couldn’t beat him clean. His record-breaking move to Napoli serves as a shining example. The diminutive Argentine near single-handedly won them their only two Scudetti as well as a UEFA Cup to boot. His cult-like status echoed the Stadio San Paolo like a war cry propelling his myth to legend.

He was one-man wrecking crew, who would shatter both opposition and himself to win — a trait that led Argentina to two world cup triumphs, with Maradona at the bleeding heart of one of it.

More than anything, Maradona’s spell inspired another petite Argentine to become larger than life. Lionel Messi planted back the flowers from the path of Maradona’s scorched earth, elevating the #10 jersey he once wore.

Mourning the loss of Maradona, his hero, the Barcelona captain perhaps put it best, “He is leaving us, but he is not going, because Diego is eternal.”

All the drugs in the world couldn’t satiate Maradona’s appetite. The strongest vice — the beautiful game was never out of his agenda. Failed spells at management too did little to cloud his aura. Nothing could befall a man who lived that full of a life.

Diego Maradona was never a mere mortal. (Photo via Imago)

Every roller coaster will come to an end, but the highs of the ride will still sustain. There’s scarcely a patch of earth that hasn’t heard Maradona’s name. The Hand of God will now meet his maker, and one can only hope that heaven is ready for him.

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A history of crumbling under pressure: The Jordi Alba conundrum in a big game

Shahraiz Sajjad

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Photo via Imago

Claiming Jordi Alba to be one of La Liga’s – if not Europe’s – most improved players from last season would not be a far fetch. While on his best days, his quality has always been evident, and his raiding runs on the left flank tend to give the Blaugranas a huge edge, the Spanish international’s output in the final third has lately begun to revolve around sensible plays, with visible improvements in Alba’s decision making; most notably refraining from relying on the formularized ‘Messi cut-back.’

The marauding speedster has become a crucial cog in Koeman’s side as the newfound 3-5-2/3-4-3 formation arguably seems to extract his best qualities and conceals his most noticeable flaws. The Spaniard is considered lethal, and a vital source of penetration situated higher up the field. With slick spells of possession in the centre, his runs from wide are almost gone unnoticed.

However, in spite of Alba’s achievements thus far and enhancements in his gameplay, issues that have tainted the talented Spaniard’s career still prove to be a thorn in his side, overcoming him in arguably the worst moments. Big games and Jordi Alba appear to have developed an incredibly toxic relationship as the 32-year-old has, on countless occasions, been a victim of his feeble mindset, tarnishing his legacy in the process.

The Copa del Rey final will once more be a huge encounter with a crucial source of silverware on the line for the Blaugranas. A win will undoubtedly elevate their status, uplift the morale of the team and surely prove to be their saving grace this season. Unfortunately, a game of this magnitude is also the perfect breeding ground for Alba’s antics. As promising as his season may have been, he has still proven to be unreliable in pressure situations.

Alba has talked more and performed less in big games. (Photo via Imago)

Blitzing forward, he is known to be a menace, but in the defensive third, poor decision making is often visible. In the recent Clásico, Alba’s assist for Mingueza may have overshadowed his lack of focus defensively, but it must not be forgotten that he was a major reason why Fede Valverde was able to comfortably cruise past the Barcelona midfield and provide Benzema with the pre-assist. After enjoying one of the best patches of his career, Alba fell prey to the big game syndrome on the night it mattered most.

While that defeat was not entirely the number 18’s fault, it was a testament to his habitual blunders. In the Spanish Supercup final against Athletic Bilbao, Alba was once again one of the major culprits, proving to be undependable in set pieces and as confused as a lost sailor in defence, suffering at the hands of Iñaki Williams most notably. Scoring an own goal against the very same opposition in the league was another dent on his resumé. The fact that Alba contributed heavily to Valencia’s Copa Del Rey victory in the 18/19 season also devalues his presence in critical games, with both goals from Valencia easily avoidable, had the Spaniard not fumbled cheaply.

For the first goal, Alba came instantly rushing to block the scorer but was sent to the cleaners as he gravely mistimed his run. On the second occasion, the 32-year-old enabled Valencia’s winger to charge past him seamlessly as he went onto assist the final dagger. Admittedly, Culés have done their best to move on from the past in an attempt to forget and forgive. Having made some huge strides this campaign, clinging on to errors that any mere mortal is capable of committing does seem nonsensical.

Even so, despite efforts made to channel more faith in Alba, his recent comments have only made matters worse. As a leaked conversation between Alba and Piqué was made public by the media after the Clásico, concerns are again beginning to mount over his mentality. Even though Piqué appeared to be optimistic regarding Barça’s chances in the Copa Del Rey, all Alba had to offer in response was, “I don’t know.”

Completely ignoring the progression Barcelona made after proceedings, disregarding the fact that a point is the least Barça deserved, and most importantly, forgetting the club’s ability to bounce back this season, a meagre “I don’t know” is all the full-back gave in response. Of course, drawing conclusions based solely on a 10-second clip would be unjust, yet, given Alba’s past of wavering when it matters most, it really does not come as a surprise. The Anfield annihilation still remains fresh in memory, a wound that is yet to heal fully.

To play or not play, that is the question

As the full-back made a mockery of himself under the lights, his breakdown at half-time when the comeback was not even completed simply implies his pessimistic nature. Thus arrives the million-dollar question: do Barcelona run the risk of playing Alba in a game where the stakes are this high?

Considering Alba’s recent comments and reputation in knockout stages, fielding him in a game that holds such value for Barça’s campaign is inarguably a risk. The brand of football Barcelona have been playing comprises of collective strength, which emphasizes on every individual playing a vital role. One loose screw is all it takes to disrupt the team, and it’s fair to say Alba has proven to be that loose screw on several occasions before.

Nonetheless, the Blaugranas are incredibly limited, not yet possessing the privilege to have any firm competition in Alba’s position. As frustrating as his shortcomings may be, there is still no denying that his “good days” earn him the title of one of the best full-backs in the world. An additional factor is that he has, at the very least, not crumbled in any of the previous Copa del Rey knockout stages. Against Granada and Sevilla, his contributions were absolutely vital, particularly his performance against the Nazaríes, where a blistering brace enabled his side to seal qualification.

Barça are certainly running a risk, but this risk could potentially pay dividends if Alba shows a more daring and composed version. Making a sudden change in the final seems unlikely and could potentially hamper the team’s harmony. 

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