MANCHESTER, England (Reuters) – Diego Maradona’s famous second goal against England in the 1986 World Cup began with the tightest of turns by the Argentine and the deftest of touches to begin his incredible, unstoppable, dribble goalwards.
It was the kind of technique and improvisation learnt in the tight spaces of street and playground football, delivered by a player who, used to avoiding the rough attention of close-marking in games without referees, knew only that he could trust himself and his skills.
It is also a moment of individual brilliance and spontaneity that many fear is now coached out of young players who, instead of learning their craft in rough games in back alleys, are subjected to passing drills and “tactical shape” sessions on pristine pitches.
“Academies are crammed with coaches, it’s too organised, regimented, all bibs and cones and two-touch football. Let them dribble,” former England winger Chris Waddle said.
“They are passing it 10 yards to someone who passes it 10 yards to someone who passes it 10 yards to someone who goes backwards. They’re over-coached and scared to give it away,” he added.
Maradona wasn’t scared of much on a football field.
In club football in Argentina, Spain and Italy, defenders tried everything – legal or otherwise – to stop him making them look as hapless as England’s Peter Reid did at the Azteca Stadium in Mexico.
Yet Maradona had the self-belief, determination and sheer arrogance to keep on making them look like fools.
“You could tell he was from street football. He did keepy-uppies with a ball of tinfoil. He made a brick look round,” said his former Sevilla team mate Rafa Paz.
The Argentine certainly wasn’t the last player to play at the highest level having learnt his skills in informal football.
France World Cup winner Zinedine Zidane grew up in the tough La Castellane district of Marseille, playing in games on the Place Tartane, and Maradona’s performances in the 1986 World Cup left their mark on the future Juventus and Real Madrid midfielder.
“I was 14 then, and when you’re 14 you’re aware of everything. It’s really at that moment that I became aware of the player he was, making differences as he did. He won games single-handedly,” Zidane said.
“That’s the extra thing he had over the other players. In 1986, he was on another level.”
Maradona said he was influenced by earlier street players, like Manchester United’s George Best, who knew that tactics meant little if you could do it all by yourself.
“George inspired me when I was young,” Maradona said at the time of the Northern Irishman’s death.
“He was flamboyant and exciting and able to inspire his team mates. I actually think we were very similar players – dribblers who were able to create moments of magic.”
Of course, another Argentine, Lionel Messi is proof that the academy system doesn’t necessarily eliminate that magic.
Messi left his homeland at the age of 12 to join Barcelona’s La Masia academy and it would be hard to argue that his dribbling skill suffered as a result.
France, the current world champions, are blessed with a number of talents who emerged from the “Banlieues” (Paris suburbs) or places like Bondy, outside the capital, where Kylian Mbappe honed his dribbling skills.
From Ferenc Puskas, kicking rag balls on the local “grund” in the ruins of post-war Budapest, to Benfica’s Eusebio playing barefoot in Mozambique, to Wayne Rooney playing on a small tarmac play area in Croxteth, Liverpool, the most basic of facilities have produced some of the game’s most exciting talents.
England and Borussia Dortmund winger Jadon Sancho is one of a number of players to emerge from the cage football scene on the courts of south London.
“Everyone just expresses themselves and that’s how people learn their skills. Street football means you fear no one,” Sancho said.
Perhaps it is that very lack of fear, that willingness to take a chance that is the thread that links all these players who cut their teeth in rough and ready football.
“I am Maradona, who makes goals, who makes mistakes. I can take it all, I have shoulders big enough to fight with everybody,” he once said.
“You can say a lot of things about me, but you can never say I don’t take risks.”
(Reporting by Simon Evans, editing by Ed Osmond)