MARTIN SAMUEL: Image of Diego Maradona surrounded by Belgium players in 1982

This is the photograph that encapsulates Diego Maradona. It is not what it seems, but that doesn’t matter. It’s not about what’s real. It’s about the man, the life, the myth and our memory. This is Maradona as we picture him: on the ball, against the world, against the odds. It’s beautiful.

The man who shot it, Steve Powell, was on his first assignment for the magazine Sports Illustrated. Not being one of the established media pack, FIFA delivered him a poor vantage point at Nou Camp stadium: a seat high in the stands. In a 95,000 capacity arena, that is truly up with the gods. Yet the foreshortening from Powell’s angle, the composition that places Maradona almost nose to nose with his adversaries, merely adds to the fabulous drama. Nothing in this image, however, is what it seems.

Argentina versus Belgium was the opening game of the 1982 World Cup. Argentina lost, to a goal from Erwin Vandenbergh. This is not the year Maradona held the trophy aloft. Argentina went home after the second group stage, the round of 12. They played five games, and lost three. Their only wins were against Hungary and El Salvador and Maradona scored just twice all tournament. It was, by his standards, disappointing.

This iconic image of Diego Maradona vs Belgium at the 1982 World Cup sums him up perfectly

This iconic image of Diego Maradona vs Belgium at the 1982 World Cup sums him up perfectly 

We like to project that Maradona starts running from here, slaloming through the field of Belgium shirts to goal. In fact, this move fizzled out quite quickly with a poor pass. We had to wait for the next World Cup for Maradona’s most breath-taking solo assaults on the opposition. Against England in the quarter-finals, and Belgium in the next round, he took half a team out of the game to score. He even waltzed through three England players in the build-up to the Hand of God goal. Not this time, though. Sorry to shine light on the magic. 

The explanation for the juxtaposition in Powell’s photograph is quite straightforward, viewed logically. To begin with, of course, teams did not line up six players in a row to take Maradona on individually, like incompetent bad guys in a Bruce Lee movie. The composition of the photograph is not false, just a little misleading. As great as he was, six versus one would leave four versus nine across the rest of the field, and Maradona could pass as well. 

It is us who see this as a realistic image, it is our recollection or mental picture of what it was like to face down Maradona, that makes us believe this is how opponents took him on. There are some who argue that anyone who cannot deconstruct this photograph and see it for what it is, does not understand football, but that isn’t true. 

They are the ones who misconstrue because they fail to comprehend that this is the essence of Maradona’s greatness, whatever the truth: that it would have taken six men to contain him. And that even then, there would be fear in 12 eyes. This is our interpretation: Maradona alone, against the rest. They miss the point, the logicians.

The reality…

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