AMIDST the waves of sanctimony that followed Diego Maradona’s divinely appointed goal against England in the 1986 World Cup, the aesthetics of the thing were overlooked. No other counterfeit has ever looked as fine as this one. The little Argentinian genius first had to judge the arc and pace of the lofted, spinning ball and then choose to be brave and hang in there until just the right moment, even as a burly six-foot Peter Shilton came blundering out at him in the way that only English goalies at World Cups can: like a drunk Widow Twankey. Then came that disguised and delicate flick of the wrist. 

Perhaps Maradona felt that merely to head the ball in that moment would have diminished its artistry. Of course it was a foul, but with less malicious intent than those assaults with which a trail of hapless England defenders tried in vain to cut him down for the rest of the match. England produces many great players of its own but somehow contrives always to truss them up in tactical straitjackets where the principal aim is to stop rather than to create.   

I’d actually wanted England to win this quarter-final tie, my attachment to the Three Lions born of decades-long subscriptions to their football magazines and Football Focus on Saturday lunchtimes. But the rivers of contrived piety about Maradona’s Hand of God moment made me glad Argentina had won. In all this unctuousness they had forgotten, of course, about the deeply questionable circumstances of England’s own World Cup triumph in the mid-1960s.  

There was the ridiculous dismissal of Argentina’s great captain Antonio Rattin that turned their quarter-final tie in England’s favour; and Sir Alf Ramsay’s description of the South Americans as “animals” when in truth they were the technically superior team. And then, of course, there was England’s own fake goal in the final that handed them what remains their only tournament success.  

The tone adopted by the Daily Telegraph in marking the death of this extraordinary man was predictably cheap and callous. As was a tweet by Peter Shilton who felt Maradona should have apologised. For what, exactly? Committing a foul, or making a fool of him?    
Shilton’s nasty little comment was eviscerated by Paul Gascoigne, another footballing genius who struggled with the extraordinary demands of supporters, a rapacious media and the hell of addiction. Like Maradona, Gascoigne had emerged from poverty, although, by UK standards, life in a poor Buenos Aires neighbourhood was at an entirely more wretched level of deprivation.  

We yearn for these characters to add colour to our own less dramatic lives yet when they begin to gather the rewards their gifts bestow we become jealous and look for the means by which we can clip their wings. At the first hint of moral fragility and every subsequent error of judgment thereafter we become censorious about their human failings. In almost every report about the death of Maradona we’ve been reminded of his flaws. These get added lest we might think there is tacit approval of them. It’s as though we can’t bring ourselves to offer anything in the way of unqualified admiration for his gifts alone.  

In this we think nothing of our own less than exemplary lives and our secret vices because, well… Maradona and all those other working-class heroes who flew too close to the sun are role models and really ought to know better. This is nonsense, of course. These anointed few didn’t sign up to be exemplars of good sense and manners. They merely sought to make as much for themselves in that short and brutally unforgiving period of their pomp so that they can live comfortably for the rest of their days and share it with their families who sacrificed what little they possessed to nurture their gifts.  

Marcus Rashford, the talented Manchester United striker, is currently feeling the fetid breath of England’s right-wing tabloid predators. They obviously feel that this young man, with no obvious character flaws, is getting ahead of himself what with him embarrassing the Tories by campaigning for free school meals. Thus, they sneeringly point to his recent property investments. That these have been enabled by honest endeavour and not by inheritance or tax avoidance matters not.  

Our outrage over the gargantuan salaries paid to modern footballers ignores several mitigating factors. These young men are expected to forgo all formal education in pursuit of their dreams and are thus left marooned in their mid-30s with most of their lives yet to be lived without the tools to flourish. In the decade or so of their peak they must hope they avoid life-changing injury or the whims of inadequate coaches. They are expected also to support several generations of twice removed relatives out of poverty and deprivation. Many are unstinting in their quiet support for children’s charities.      

I’ll leave it to the professional football writers to convey his gifts as a player in more expert terms. As a mere armchair aficionado I can say that watching Maradona play football gave me joy. He seemed to play with his entire body, all his emotions and every ounce of his soul. Perhaps, having left everything of himself on the football pitch he simply didn’t have enough of what was required to fight off the predations of those who existed to feed off his greatness.

You fancied that if he were ever to play for your own amateur team he would quickly forget his humble surroundings and play like his life depended on it. In the slums of Buenos Aires and Naples where they saw him Maradona his best and at his most vulnerable they are familiar with human frailty and know its roots. This perhaps explains their compassion and enduring love for him.  

Another Tweet, this one by Cat Boyd, the Scottish trade unionist, more accurately conveyed Diego Maradona’s appeal and the challenges he encountered in his troubled life: “I loved Diego Maradona! A total punk, anti-war, anti-imperialist and an incredible footballer. Cocaine is a horrible drug, addiction is hell and I’ll be lighting a candle for him tonight.” 

I’ll also be lighting a candle for Diego Armando Maradona to thank him for choosing to make the most of his gifts and to share them with us.