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The Hand of God : The Life of Diego Maradona
Jimmy Burns (Bloomsbury 1997, £7.99)
"Burns is completely out of order. Those who have spoken about me in the 'Hand of God' are going to get into real trouble. I don't want people to speak in a book that does not say good things about me. If these are my friends, I prefer to have enemies" - Diego Maradona

When the subject of a biography feels as strongly as this about the book, it immediately arouses great curiosity in the offending material. What could possibly be written about the subject to provoke this kind of reaction? A violent reaction that applies to his own friends, as well as the author. Surely a comment like this can only serve to promote and create interest in the biography, instead of preventing it from reaching the attention of the public? It actually transpires that Maradona hadn't even read the book, this kind of attack on 'Hand of God' was simply part of a plan his agent was using to pressure the author into parting with some of the proceeds. An instructive episode though, as it depicts Diego as largely ignorant of the facts, while being badly advised by those around him, all in the headlong pursuit of mammon. A taste of the type of tale which makes up one of the central themes of this fascinating book about the life of one of the most skilful footballers, but fatally flawed characters, the game has ever seen. It also illustrates nicely Maradona's inability to face facts, particularly harsh home truths about himself. In 'Hand of God' Maradona's life is triumph and tragedy, part soap opera and part national crisis.

On the face of it, this is a formulaic football biography/autobiography. It centres around a poor kid who has talent, makes it to the top of his game, buys his mum (whom he loves very much) a nice place to live and comes crashing back down to earth. However, the tale is far too stunning to be just another example of the genre. Tales of Maradona's childhood are the stuff of legend, a simple life in the slums, dodging danger and tackles. Skipping school and sleeping with his football, until spotted by an Argentinos Juniors scout and being put on the road to superstardom. It seems that everybody who sees the boy is amazed at his talent and can relate an incident of him dominating a match with his skill and determination. A skill and determination which will win a World Cup, and titles in Argentina and Italy almost single-handedly, before destroying itself so spectacularly. This is no officially approved or ghost-written biography either - warts and all, discretions on and off the pitch, Maradona is laid bare. 'Hand of God' is no hatchet job either, care is taken to stay true to the facts and Burns is obviously one of the millions who have been awed by Diego's talent.

The seeds of Maradona's downfall are sown in his youth, the poverty and squalor of his upbringing are never forgotten. Diego becomes at an early age his family's passport to a better life; his football skills will be expected to provide for everyone. It's the first of a long line of weights that will be placed on Maradona's fragile shoulders. The ambition that young Diego will reach the top becomes an obsession to all his family and others, a goal that must not be prevented, no matter the cost. Rules are bent, and even broken to advance his cause, which has far-reaching effects, as the feeling that Maradona is a special case and above the rules that govern others will grow throughout his career, and in some respects come to define it.

Two particular incidents will have lasting repercussions. As Maradona's football career begins to progress he stops going to school altogether. Before the Headmaster of his school can take any action, he is persuaded to watch the youngster actually play. The Headmaster is a football fan and is amazed by what he sees on the pitch, the following day Diego 'passes' all his exams and is excused any further visits to school. Throughout his life Maradona will be blighted by his poor education, leading to many ill-judged decisions and him lending his trust to many poor advisers. The other incident is the introduction of growth hormones to fill out his slender frame. Drugs become a condoned part of Maradona's life and will have a grave effect on his career and personal life over the coming years.

In pure football terms, the story of Maradona's career is exciting and dramatic enough. Burns traces his career on and off the pitch. From the youthful talent and exuberance, which captivated so many from his earliest games and swept him into the Argentine national side and contention for the 1978 World Cup Squad. All the way through Argentina, Spain and Italy and four World Cups. Burns is often light on match action but manages to convey that Maradona's fortune on the pitch often mirrors his life away from football. However this isn't an account of Maradona's greatest moments or an attempt to relive the tension of Napoli's first scudetto or Argentina's World Cup in '86. Matches are referenced, important incidents recounted, and a general feel for how Diego's teams are faring are included. The book is no poorer for this, as the sagas on the pitch are more than matched by the epics happening off it! One match that is discussed in detail is the match against England from which the title of the book is taken. The match itself is glossed over to some extent, Burns using the two famous incidents are used to illustrate the dichotomy that is Diego Maradona. Beauty and the Beast!

Jimmy Burns does a superb job in writing 'Hand of God' - he is, of course, helped by having the most engrossing subject matter. Burns deserves much credit, though - 'Hand of God' is obviously a labour of love, much hard investigative journalism has gone into researching Maradona's life. The author has dug deep and been rewarded by some excellent insight into Diego, much of it garnered through the interviews that so distressed Maradona. Burns' prose may not always be the sharpest, yet that hardly matters, as this real life tale becomes as gripping and compulsive as many a thriller. Diego Maradona is, of course, an extraordinary character, a flawed genius, worshipped by people all over the world. His story reads like a Shakespearean tragedy, with a full cast of heroes and villains, mostly played by Maradona himself!

Tim Evershed