Legendary Argentinian footballer passed away on Wednesday evening after suffering a cardio-respiratory arrest at his home in the Tigre district on the northern outskirts of Buenos Aires in Argentina.
Maradona, who led Argentina to victory at the 1986 FIFA World Cup, is widely regarded as one of the greatest footballers of all time.
He was particularly well-known for the two goals he scored against England in the 1986 World Cup quarter-final. One was later voted “Goal of the Century”, while the other is generally referred to as the “Hand of God”, a reference to the fact that the goal should have been disallowed for handball.
Nineteen years back, then FIFA Magazine Editor Andreas Werz had caught up with the Argentine in Buenos Aires. Below is the transcript as it appeared in the print edition
Q. Personally, how do you rate the standard of today’s football?
A. Technically, I would say that football is no better today than it was a few years ago. That was fairly evident from the level of play at the last two FIFA World Cups. I think this stems primarily from the fact that in many countries football is no longer played on the streets, in the backyards or on playing fields – the places where football skills are best learnt – often because these spaces don’t exist anymore. What strikes me most about many of today’s players is that they lack respect for the ball. It seems to me that much more importance is now attached to physical conditioning, tactics and defensive play than to technique and attacking football. There is a great deal that FIFA can do to encourage people to buck this trend.
Q. What do you mean exactly?
A. Well, FIFA can use its influence and standing to ensure that a passion for ball skills and attacking play is reawakened in young players. Sometimes, I watch a game and wonder whether the players have been replaced by robots. I think FIFA needs to keep a very close eye on what is going on in football academies. In recent years, numerous academies have been set up all over the world – a trend I welcome wholeheartedly as these institutes not only nurture the next generation of footballers, but they also create good people.
However, no one should be allowed to set up and run an academy purely on the back of a handful of appearances in the Argentine championship, for example. Football academies have a major responsibility to society, therefore they must be managed by specialists. I have noticed in Argentina that most academies are more concerned with tactics and skill. It’s probably the same elsewhere, but it shouldn’t be the case, and it’s having a very negative effect on the appeal of our sport. That’s why FIFA should step in.
Q. What kind of thing do you have in mind?
A. I spoke to Michel Platini about it in Buenos Aires some time ago. He also believes that FIFA ought to launch projects to promote the technical side of football. The onus is also on coaches to ensure that tactics do not stifle technical flair. Tactics are important, for sure, but they must not be allowed to dominate football. Sadly, that is exactly what is starting to happen and as a result a lot of enjoyment is being taken out of the game. Football is not as attractive as it used to be – for players or spectators.
Q. Should retired world stars like Michel Platini, Johan Cruyff and yourself make an effort to revive this enthusiasm for skilful play?
A. I think so and I’m sure that we could make a difference. If Platini, Cruyff and I were involved in a global campaign to promote the technical element, it would have a much greater impact than if we simply tried to foster this style of play in traditional coaching roles. I would like to talk over my ideas with Platini and other retired top players sometime and hear their thoughts on the matter. I would love to get involved in promoting and improving football worldwide, it is something I feel very strongly about.
Q. Can football be improved by making further changes to the Laws of the Game?
A. There should definitely not be any major changes to the Laws of the Game. Football has always been a spectacle and it is the most popular and compelling sport that is. However, FIFA and the International Board made a very shrewd decision when they outlawed goalkeepers from handling backpasses, and I’m also a strong advocate of the six-second rule for goalkeepers. Both of these amendments have had a positive effect on the game. But we must never forget that football should stay a simple game.
Q. Today, more and more club and national team competitions are being organised around the world. Critics claim that there are too many games and football is reaching saturation point. Do you believe that this build-up of fixtures will harm the players and ultimately have a detrimental effect on the quality of the game?
A. We must certainly take care that the amount of football being played does not reach saturation level. These days, some players are forced to play in a huge number of games. Often, they go on to the field looking tired and jaded, and inevitably, it is the sport that suffers. Fans pay a lot of money to see the top teams and players, and what they end up getting for their money is often a disappointment. The supporters then become disillusioned and ask themselves why they should bother going to a game again. Nevertheless, the mass popularity of football will never die.
Q. What is your view on clubs paying fees in excess of $60 million for players like Luis Figo and Zinedine Zidane?
A. First of all, let me say that I don’t believe the players receive their rightful share of transfer fees. Figo and Zidane may get ten per cent of this $60 million. In my opinion, that is not enough. The clubs receive the lion’s share of all fees, not the players, and that is simply not right. I still don’t think that top players earn enough money. After all, they are the ones who draw the crowds to matches, and they are the ones, who enable clubs to seal the lucrative television and marketing contracts that generate so much money. It is not the high transfer fees paid for top players that concern me, but the disproportionate sums that are now being demanded for very average footballers. Zidane warrants $60 million because he is an exceptional player. There are very few active footballers with this talent, but we still often see incredible amounts of money being paid for run-of-the-mill players. That’s something I can’t even begin to understand.
Q. Is too much attention now being paid to money rather than the game itself?
A. That’s definitely the case in the media and business. But the players themselves still have only one aim when they set foot on the pitch. That’s to win the game and entertain the public. In this respect, things are the same as they have always been. If players take pleasure out of football, so will the fans. Unfortunately, very few showmen exist in today’s game.
Q. Which of today’s players do you enjoy watching the most?
A. Rivaldo. I love watching him play. In my opinion, he is the only player who really is a joy to watch and he never ceases to amaze me. I rate Luis Figo very hihly as well, but he is not yet a complete footballer.
Q. Is there a player who you would consider to be your successor?
A. Each footballer should try to get the best out of his or her own particular talents, play their own game and not model themselves on others. Pele was Pele, Platini was Platini and Maradona was Maradona. Each one was unique, and always will be. I don’t think anyone should attempt to be like I was as a player. It’s not possible as each player has his or her own individual qualities. I never wanted to Pele, I just wanted to be Maradona.
Q. Are you glad that you played in the 1980s and 90s, or would you rather have been a professional today?
A. I would be happiest if I was still able to play. It never stops hurting knowing that my playing career is over. Football still flows through my whole body – my head, my heart, my stomach, my legs and my feet. My passion for the sport is as strong as ever. I was so happy when I was playing. I had fun for the whole of my career, whether I was playing in youth teams, at the FIFA World Cup, with FC Barcelona or with Napoli.
I have always loved the game, no matter whether in front of 10 or 100,000 spectators. Football was and still is nothing but a pleasure for me, I am at my happiest when I’m on the pitch.
Q. In your autobiography, ‘To soy el Diego,” you say that the happiest time of your career was during the FIFA World Youth Championship in 1979. Why was that?
A. Argentina had an unbelievably strong team in Japan and we won the world title in style. It was my first major success. At the time, I was very young and I was full of dreams and ambitions, as were all my team-mates. We all had so much fun playing football and it showed the way we played. We would repeatedly put the ball through the legs of our opponents, delicately chip defenders, and score fantastic goals. We played absolutely wonderful football. It’s true that I never had as much fun at any other time while I was playing. Japan is my happiest memory.