This is how it begins. You wake up Sunday morning to find a brand new colour TV set in the living room. It’s a public holiday. You are guessing ‘Christmas,’ but alas, it is the 23rd Madaraka Day holiday.
You have never had a television set in the house because your mother, and rightfully so, believes that ‘young children should grow their imagination by reading story books, not TV.’
But the year is 1986. Your father sneaked in the TV he bought on Saturday afternoon at Luthuli, took in a taxi to Nairobi West, and nursed over a few beers, in the dead of night. At dawn, him and a houseboy called Gidraffe ‘Giraffe’ Nandwa climbed the roof of the house to mount the antennae.
‘Thorny,’ your father tells you over breakfast, but in reality it is your mother that he’s addressing, ‘I got this TV because you cannot watch the World Cup in a story book ...’
It is the first Sunday of a month that, in retrospect, will be the happiest of your boyhood! And it will introduce you to a sport that will obsess you, first, every four years; then by the turn of the millennium, every Saturday, some Sundays, and the odd Tuesday or Wednesday midnight.
June 1986 was the month wholly owned by a footballer who started the month as a man, Diego Armando Maradona, and would end it as a legend.
Sure, other things happened in the world in that month... Bloody battles in Beirut, South Africa’s ‘State of Emergency’ (that rightfully led to more sanctions against the apartheid regime in Pretoria), the Austrians – who had previously given the world Adolf Hitler – elected an alleged Nazi as president, Antonio Scalia for Supreme Court. But the only thing that really mattered, from Vladivostok in the Union of Socialist Soviet Republics (USSR) right down to the Tierra del Fuego in the Cape Horn of Argentina was football!
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Our Nairobi West estate stopped being Iran vs Iraq in organised five-a-side duels between us boys. It was Brazil vs Argentina. Johnny, our goalie, was Nery Pumpido. I was Sergio Batista, defender, because small as I was, I was a vicious little feller, determined not to let any attacker get past. Imposing Mike Okul was midfielder Burruchaga, Quick Richie was Valdano. And Bennet Wanyama, the short, stout and super-skilled half Maragoli, half Goan boy (whose sisters had various age groups of boys smitten across estates) was Diego Maradona.
Four years before, England had beaten Argentina in a real life battle over an island called the Falklands War, using Her Majesty’s Royal Navy. On the Sunday, June 22, 1986, one short stout football genius took vengeance for Argentina.
First of all, Diego Maradona ‘headed’ the ball past England goalkeeper Peter Shilton in what became known, worldwide, as the ‘Hand of God’ goal. Then, a few minutes later, taking the ball from midfield, he beat Beardsley, left Reid for dead, butchered Butcher, flicked the football past Fenwick, re-butchered Butcher, before netting the ball past Shilton, for the Goal of the Century.
As Maradona wheeled away in celebration, my father, who had been drinking a whiskey, himself a short stout man like Maradona (and former boxing champion in Makerere) grabbed the TV in the sitting room, broad shoulders shaking as he said ‘Di-eh-gooo, A-MAN-doe, Ma-ra-donna!’ When he turned back to us kids, tears were streaming down both his cheeks.
An astounding sight, more so in retrospect; because even after my mother passed away, two World Cups later, the man who’d wept for Maradona stayed dry eyed. Maybe that is why someone said ‘it is true football isn’t a matter of life and death. It is more important than life and death.’
Diego Armando Maradona passed away Wednesday, of a heart attack, after a long history of alcohol, cocaine and obesity issues. Like my late dad, he was just 60 when he died. Got the news from Comrade Orlando Simba as I listened to the Moroccan ambassador, the excellent Mokhtar Gambou, speak of ‘Pan-Africanism’ at the Serena.
Maradona was a soccer god, who took us to football heaven for a month, and became an immortal. This is how it ends! Nyet! This is how it ends: Rudi Voller has just equalised for the West Germans to make it 2/2. Five minutes left on the clock! Diego Maradona, surrounded by Germans, creates a magical long pass to Jorge Burruchaga...