Sunday, June 18, 2006


I wonder how he puts up with such gross intrusion into his privacy. Just trying to watch a game with some friends, minding his own business, desperately hoping to blend into the crowd, the painfully shy Diego Maradona must dread occasions like Friday’s Group C meeting of his countrymen and Serbia & Montenegro in Gelsenkirchen, such is the attention he is forced to endure.

He copes with it manfully, old Diego, modestly acknowledging the cheers and chants of his name, before settling sedately into his seat, in which he claps politely at any good play by either side. What a man.

Well before the end of Friday’s match, the performance of the legendary no.10’s successors served to command the wholehearted attention of all 52,000 to the extent that the ghost of Argentina’s past looked fully exorcised by the mesmerising present and the promise of a glorious future.

For the record, Argentina’s performance was easily the most complete, skilled and stunningly beautiful I have ever borne witness to in the flesh. In the giddy aftermath of the match, I pondered whether I had seen a performance for the ages, a Real Madrid 1960, a Hungary 1953, a Milan 1994. Serbia & Montenegro are not world-beaters, and this was only a group stage match, but the Europeans are no mugs, and indeed advanced undefeated through their qualifying group having only conceded one goal.

Yet they were rent asunder here in the most merciless and devastating manner imaginable, the Argentine substitutes bench being used as a sort of elaborate torture kit, raided for progressively more gruesome tools with which to skewer the opposition. Cambiasso - Ouch! Tevez - Aargh! Messi - Grrraaaiiieeegghhh!!!!!

But let’s leave that metaphor with the Serbs. For everyone else, this performance was bliss. By virtue of a ticketing mix-up, we somehow managed to receive seats three rows from the pitch, right behind the Argentina dug-out, about forty yards in front of where the Maradona entourage held court. I don’t believe I have ever seen anything done so well so close up in my life as watching the Argentine players’ touches and movement from a matter of yards away. It was like holding Michelangelo’s ladder while he did the Sistine Chapel roof.

People who know nothing of football, and even those who know plenty about it but are wearied by its modern excesses and vulgarities are quick to talk about footballers in terms of being overpaid, pampered and fortunate jocks taking advantage of the common man’s insatiable addition to the game. But if you could see what guys like Riquelme, Messi, Saviola, Tevez, Sorin, Rodriguez and co. do and the speed at which they do it - the flicks, the control, the dribbles, the passes, the movement - you wouldn’t begrudge them a penny of their millions, and you’d leave all that tired, cynical old man talk at the door and you’d be a kid again.

Just ask Diego, he understands.


Gelsenkirchen also came up trumps with the best beer of the tournament so far, Gruben, which is made in the Hibernia bar near the station. Fresh tasting and lively, and the best part is, as soon as you've had some you can turn on your heels and get on the train the hell out of there again.

With no game until the 21st now, we're taking a few days of R and R away from the madness, heading down along the Moselle from Trier to Koblenz. Silly hats will not be necessary...


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