Great Britain

It was Maradona's defiance that most inspired me | Kenan Malik

I can still remember where I was when, in 1986, Diego Maradona scored with the “hand of God”. In a flat on the Coventry Cross estate, in east London. An Asian family lived there, one of a handful on the estate, who had faced vicious racist attacks. An England-Argentina game, just four years after the Falklands conflict, was a threatening proposition. I was part of a group that organised support for besieged black families. So, there I was, with half an eye on what might be happening outside, watching Maradona destroy England, first with his left hand and then, four minutes later, by slaloming through the England team, finding space where none should have been, scoring possibly the most audacious goal in World Cup history.

Amid the praise heaped upon Maradona over the past week, it’s easy to forget how despised he was in Britain in those days. Or why many, like me, took to him because he was so despised. He was to football as Muhammad Ali had been to boxing.

For an Asian kid growing up in a Britain that was viscerally racist to a degree barely imaginable now, Maradona was more than a footballer. As with Ali, what mattered was not just his sublime skills, but his attitude, too. The defiance and pride that both men symbolised spoke to me in a world in which every day was a day of having to defend my dignity, often in the face of physical attack.

Yes, Maradona had a dark side. He was a man of great contradictions and, like all human beings, of deep flaws. But part of his greatness, again like Ali, was revealing those contradictions and flaws and yet also transcending them. “I don’t have to be what you want me to be,” Ali once said. Nor did Maradona.

Kenan Malik is an Observer columnist

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