Maradona broke Aussie hearts but inspired a generation
GROWING up with a Socceroo dream, there was one name unparalleled in the world of football at the time - Diego Armando Maradona.
While Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo are on equal pegging as the superstars of the modern era, the larger-than-life little Argentine had no rival in the late 80s to early 90s - not since Pele in the 1960s had a player risen to such a level of awe.
He was possibly the first global sporting superstar to permeate into the conscience of a kid in the early stages of developing a lifelong love of sport, shortly before the likes of Michael Jordan and Sachin Tendulkar captured the imagination on a similar scale in other arenas I followed.
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In 1993 in Dubbo, the only football on television was the hour-long English Premier League show on Sunday afternoon on the ABC. The thought of watching SBS - and therefore the Socceroos or any World Cup match for that matter - was a pipedream.
That was until a family friend of English heritage invited us over to watch the World Cup Qualifier between Australia and Argentina on October 31, 1993, via satellite on a projector screen.
To me this was hi-tech, and it inspired the imagination of an impressionable 12-year-old, who watched on as this mythical legend from another universe used his magic and trickery to stun the 11 gallant but clearly human Australians on the field, ultimately delivering a pinpoint cross to set up Argentina's first half goal. Then through the charged emotion of Aurelio Vidmar's 1-1 equaliser, which every bit challenged the euphoria of John Aloisi's goal to finally saw Australia to football's royal party 12 long years later, a young boy dared to dream.
Until that point, I'd always really just been a kid who played soccer. But now I was sold. I was a football fan.
After Australia lost 1-0 in the away leg courtesy of an unfortunate deflection, it remained that Maradona had at once assisted in prolonging the dark ages of Australian football, while inspiring a generation who would come of age at the dawn of a new era in 2006.
The following year, in time for USA '94, another family friend who was in that room that night - this time of Italian heritage - through a vision, can-do attitude and exceeding generosity otherwise foreign to the monocultural nature of our town, arranged for SBS to be introduced to the region, so that he and his 35,000 fellow residents could watch the World Cup, free-to-air, if they chose to.
That time we saw the villain, with images of Maradona being led from the training paddock by a nurse etched clearly in my mind, on his way to test positive to ephedrine.
And that is the Maradona that will always be remembered - the hero and the villain.
A few years older than myself, Maclean Bobcats Premier League Dennis Mavridis remembers well the imfamous 'Hand of God' goal - which was before my time - in the 1986 World Cup quarterfinal.
"My first memory of Maradona is watching that World Cup - a little bloke with the weight of Argentina on his shoulders," Mavridis said.
"Everyone talks about that goal labelled the 'Hand of God', it's probably the most talked about in his career, but everyone forgets he scored arguably the best goal ever scored in the very same game. He beat half the English team with that goal."
Mavridis has no doubt Maradona is worthy of his status as one of the greatest of all time.
"When you talk about the greatest player who ever lived, you could put George Best in there, but always Pele and Maradona come to the surface," he said.
"Those days at Napioli (1984-1991), when he was at his peak, he transformed that club on his own.
"There's Messi and Ronaldo in the modern era. You can't compare the different eras, but how influencial they've been in the game, no doubt that they're up there as well."
Argentina declared three days of mourning following news of the 60-year-old's death. Such a reaction for a sporting idol is almost unfathomable in Australia, but demonstrates the passion countries like Argentina exhibit for football.
"He is absolutely adored in Argentina," Mavridis, who is on Greek descent, said.
"We look at him as the little villain, even after his career ended that stuck with him. But the adulation he got from his home country, he was treated like a god.
"It will be a country in heavy mourning, they've lost their golden child."