Feed The Eels: A Celebration of Diego Maradona and Football Commentary

TT BLOG

“When you dance like him, any pitch is a dancefloor”

Matty Hayward – @Mattyhayward96

Diego Maradona’s death yesterday triggered a deserved outpouring of obituaries, hagiographies and tributes to man whose exploits on and off the football pitch marked him out as a troubled, erratic, fantastical genius. It was a shock, but not a surprise. Within minutes, social media was flooded with glorious clips of his greatest goals, bits of skill, audacious warm-us and impressive on-field scraps, as if cued up and saved in drafts for years.

It was also met with a shameless Daily Mail article (and later multiple TV appearances) from the perennially rattled and deceptively short Peter Shilton. It would, perhaps, be fitting to let the El Pibe de Oro give his own retort to that from his book, and then simply move on:

Maradona’s death came at something of a fitting time. After a torrid decade managing in the UAE and Mexico, and a spell behind the scenes at a Belarussian club, Diego found himself coaching Gimnisia de la Plata in the Argentinian top tier. He spent the final year of his life doing what he’d done for much of his career: being loved, embraced, adored by his country on something of a grand tour. Each club they visited greeted their national treasure with a warm welcome; the most extraordinary of those was Newell’s Old Boys, for whom Maradona played seven times. Instead of a bench, the club erected a throne for the opposing manager to sit on. (As an aside, on Diego’s debut there, a six-year-old did keepy-uppies in the centre circle at half time. That six-year-old was Lionel Messi).

Maradona’s most famous pair of goals, certainly in this country, came in the 1986 World Cup quarter final. Even to someone who wasn’t alive at the time, thanks to technology that remains an instantly recognisable game of football, with instantly recognisable moments and two genuinely iconic goals.

Of course, the first put Maradona on English football’s naughty step. For some, an act of skulduggery which – judging by the front pages this morning – much of the British press cannot forgive. For others, a classic act of a child from the portetros, where pitches were too small and too congested, where referees were absent, where players had to toughen up, bend the rules, find a way to survive and win against bigger, less talented opponents.

The second, however, is considered to be one of (if not the) greatest goals in World Cup history; another one borne out of the crowded slum pitches. Cutting through the English defence – and what felt like the whole country – with more twists than a Jed Mercurio series about water slides, Diego dragged his ailing side to a 2-1 victory and gave his nation the breath of hope it needed to go on and win the tournament.

As with all famous goals, but particularly this one, its beauty is perpetually associated with its iconic commentaries. There’s Barry Davies’ from the telly (“You have to say that’s magnificent. There is no debate about that goal. That was just pure football genius”), Bryon Butler’s from the radio (“Maradona turns, like a little eel…comes inside Butcher, leaves him for dead…outside Fenwick leaves him for dead”), and this slightly less known calling from Jimmy Magee (“different class…DIFFERENT CLASS!”).

As with basically everything at that World Cup, though, the South Americans did it better. Victor Hugo Morales’ commentary on that goal, translated below, is a thing of pure joy. It perhaps typifies how much this man, and that piece of genius, meant to the nation of Argentina better than anything else can.

Iconic commentary, of course, is not limited to the elite international stage or the world’s best players and goals. Probably the most memorable Torquay United goal of the last fifteen years came from the masked bonce of Tim Sills, the calling of which is almost as celebrated as the goal itself among us fans. There appears to be no footage on YouTube any more – at least there’s no footage that isn’t dubbed with a song by The Script – but former rival podcast and current friends of the blog Talking Torquay have immortalised it in a tweet:

Of course, many of us experienced this moment in the flesh, without commentary, and it was euphoric. We were lucky enough to be there, to have that feeling, to experience that goal live. But, especially at the moment, we’re all prone to nostalgia and returning to moments of joy, and Jim Proudfoot’s words are etched into Yellows folklore and Yellows’ fans’ brains as vividly as the goal itself. Just like with the Maradona goal, the commentaries rewrite our memories; a lyrical, aural tag onto a legendary passage of play.

Carlisle’s away to the right hand side again for Torquay, the break is on. Danny Stevens in the area if he stays onside. Carlisle checks instead, he’s looking for Benyon…SILLS!!! Torquay United are close to the promised land”

Commentary is a tough game and it’s easy to take the mick out of commentators. While some deserve it (see Martin Tyler for a. being Woking, and b. his ridiculous comments about footballers being “key workers” in one of the most out-of-touch ramblings of the year – and it’s a crowded field), many are simply decent people doing their best. Especially in the era of Covid-induced streaming, we’ve seen an array of newbies or those more acquainted with the print or radio trying their arm at the visual medium.

At home, games soundtracked by Ray Duffy with occasional help from Dave Thomas have been pretty decent, and especially useful for when the ball inevitably snuck under the Popside and out of view. Again, it’s easy to criticise their occasionally doddery approach, but they’re both decent blokes doing their best and will occasionally provide us with an update on a player’s injury that the club has neglected to provide publicly. They’re certainly no worse than the two helpings of professional TV commentary we’ve had this season.

The variety of accents, blatant partiality, and ham-fisted analysis we’ve had from away commentators has added to the novelty of the streams. It’s particularly enjoyable to hear those unfamiliar with Yellows players stumble over the pronunciation of Lemonheigh-Evans and Umerah. And who knows? Maybe Aaron Nemane will whack in a screamer at Wealdstone next Tuesday and the in-house commentator will show such anguish that his words will go down in history alongside Barry Davies’, Victor Hugo Morales’ and Jim Proudfoot’s.

It would seem wrong, in an article that started about Maradona, to finish on Aaron Nemane. So let’s return to El Pibe de Oro.

In 1982, after man-marking (read: “kicking the shit out of” – he fouled him 23 times) Argentina’s number 10 out of the game and the World Cup, Italy’s Claudio Gentile proclaimed “football is not for ballerinas”. In the next five years, Maradona would reveal this to be the bollocks it was. It was always going to take more than waist-high tackles, (often fair) accusations of foul play, and the weight of a country on his shoulders to stop this prophecy being fulfilled.

When you can dance like him, any football pitch is a dancefloor.

A Pick of the Obituaries, Tributes and Clips:

Journalist Jonathan Wilson on the child genius: https://www.theguardian.com/football/blog/2020/nov/25/diego-maradona-argentina-child-genius-who-became-the-fulfilment-of-a-prophecy

Guardian Football Weekly’s tribute: https://open.spotify.com/episode/7uAcn2FxgbVi0xX1GmGfXE?si=vJTZ3CrlRw-60yaDyoSyiQ

Asif Kapadia’s film – Diego Maradona

Rory Smith in the New York Times on the quasi-religion of Diego: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/11/25/sports/soccer/diego-maradona.html

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