It is exactly 40 years since Diego Maradona announced himself to an English audience -- and delivered them a warning of how he would make them suffer six years later in a World Cup quarterfinal.
There was plenty of hype around Maradona when he came to Wembley Stadium with Argentina to play a friendly against England on May 13, 1980. He had been a controversial omission from the World Cup-winning squad two years earlier, still considered too young by coach Cesar Luis Menotti. He had shone in the 1979 World Youth Championship, helping take Argentina to the title. And what he did at Wembley in one sublime moment would show that all the talk was justified, that this stocky young man had greatness in his grasp. England won the game 3-1, but it was Maradona who stuck in the memory.
He turned and spun -- wriggling like a little eel in the memorable words that BBC radio commentator Brian Butler would use in similar circumstances six years later -- leaving a cluster of England defenders for dead and bore down on the goal defended by Ray Clemence. It was a superb piece of football that deserved to be rounded off with a goal. But, aiming to roll the ball into the far corner, he struck just too wide, and the ball grazed the outside of the post.
It was, then, a wonderful moment. But it could have been better. Afterwards, Maradona's brother weighed in with some constructive criticism, saying the shot had come to earlier. A better course of action would have been to dummy, commit the goalkeeper to going to ground, and then go outside him to slide in at the near post.
In that 1986 quarterfinal, Maradona followed the advice of his brother to the letter. There is a striking similarity between the two moments. In 1980 everything happens in a more condensed area. Six years later Maradona receives the ball much farther from goal but both times he ends up one-on-one against the keeper as he cuts in from the right. At Wembley he went for the shot, in Mexico he uses the feint, Peter Shilton slumps, and Maradona goes outside to slide in what will prove to be the goal that wins the game.
Is it too fanciful to believe that as he carried the ball forward in the Azteca Stadium, Diego Maradona also carried in his head the six-year old counsel of his brother? It may seem far-fetched but that would be to overlook the genius of the truly great player, and the way that he operates inside a different framework of time.
In the dressing room after the match, Argentina's centre-forward Jorge Valdano was genuinely astonished by what Maradona told him. Valdano was up in support of Maradona as he slalomed his way through the England defence, trying to get into place to receive the ball if it were played across goal. As they spoke, it became clear that Maradona had at every stage been aware of the positioning and movement of Valdano. As he ran with the ball -- which several England players have acknowledged was in itself a stupendous feat on a very poor playing surface -- he was continually calculating his options, trying to work out whether it was best to pass, shoot or dribble. And all this was going on at breakneck speed in the thick of a match that, for political reasons, was far more tense even than the average World Cup quarterfinal.
This aspect of great athletes is superbly illustrated in "Raging Bull," the epic film starring Robert De Niro as boxer Jake LaMotta. There are times in the film where we see what's happening through LaMotta's eyes -- in slow motion. The top athlete is in full control of time. Meanwhile, the outclassed, outgunned opponent sees time as a blur. Everything is taking place too quickly, with no time to react, let alone think. The true greats, meanwhile, operate like a human computer, processing all the information so efficiently that there is no need to hurry. So it was with Muhammad Ali feinting to miss a punch and landing one of his own, so it was with Diego Maradona, learning the lesson of May 13, 1980 to shine when it really mattered six years later.