I grew up on a school and on a farm. So there were no dusty streets for me to develop my football skills on. There was just dust.
Early on in life, I accepted that I did not have the nifty footwork required to be a star striker or midfielder. So I became a goalkeeper. From as early as I can remember, I was a keeper. And I wasn’t the overweight kid, then. That came later.
One of my earliest memories is trying to keep the ball made of plastic and assorted rags and newspapers from flying past me as a host of dusty Maradonas fired shot after shot at my piles of rocks representing goalposts.
The trickery, the fouls, the injuries all added to an incredible bonding experience. Some of these gentlemen are friends till today.
We did not have television so our picture of Diego Maradona, who died aged 60 on Wednesday, was left pretty much to our fancy. We did know this though: He was the best player in the world. When we got copies of the paper (The Herald, at that time), they were usually of the great man in action and so we would pose in his various stances.
One arm raised, one foot poised to strike the ball. We would play topless, with chalk lines down our little torsos, representing the famous Argentina jersey. Did we even know it was light blue?
We discovered details about Maradona’s upbringing and how he grew up in poor neighbourhoods. This inspired us abundantly. And it made the little Maradonas even more determined to score. The fights, the threats, the fury that accompanied every disputed goal. VAR would not have stood a chance.
I can imagine the referee trying to determine whether a “sticken” had gone in. (Sticken was a ball that went over the brick’ sticks, stones that represented a goalpost but in a way that was unclear whether it was in the goal or out, or if it would have hit the upright if there was one.)
In 1986, I was 12 years old and second choice goalkeeper for my school team. My persistence had paid off!!! One of my heroes was Peter Shilton. He was the England ‘keeper who would be immortalised by Diego Maradona’s “Hand of God” goal.
The greatest comfort that I got from Maradona scoring past Shilton was that it showed that in any form, and at every level, a Maradona will try to get a result.
Maradona made sure that he remained a talking point in that World Cup quarter final match played at Mexico’s Azteca Stadium on June 22, 1986.
His post-match interview in which he said the first goal was scored by “the hand of God” burned him into our young minds. He cheated the system and got away with it. The English were furious, and never forgave him till his dying day.
What made it worse for the opponents is that in the same game, he later scored a goal that FIFA, in 2002, named the greatest World Cup goal ever.
It has been described as the worst of Maradona and the best of Maradona. We loved both.
As we grew older, so did our hero. As we grew wiser, his life unravelled before our eyes, but we remained focussed on his play, as he made Napoli fans out of us, taking the Italian team to two titles and a UEFA Cup (Europa League).
Maradona was a human being. He never pretended to be a super role model. He never kept a huge image management corporation around himself. He lived each day.
For the Grade 7 in me, Diego Maradona will always be that man who kept us posing with the ball at our feet, and allowed us to dream our way out of the dust.
He created hope within us, and allowed us to see greater things than we were looking at each day.
He gave us a belief that we could outjump giant keepers almost a metre taller than we were, and we could run rings around opponents more celebrated than we were.
Diego Maradona was all of us in that dust.