When Diego Maradona was guest speaker at Oxford Union in 1995, his great friend Ossie Ardiles was the interpreter.
But it was not anything Maradona said that night that his former Argentina team-mate remembers now.
Speaking to Sportsmail just hours after news of Maradona’s death aged 60, Ardiles is emotional, but this story causes him to smile.
Ossie Ardiles (left) was good friends with Diego Maradona. The pair are pictured at a Tottenham Hotspur game against Liverpool in the Premier League at Wembley in 2017
‘Here was Diego, on the same stage where Nelson Mandela and Ronald Regan had stood. Suddenly, one guy shouts, “Can you do keepie-uppies with this?”, and he throws a golf ball towards us.
‘I’m thinking, “Oh no, he’s wearing a suit and brand new shoes, this will be difficult”. Diego pulls his trousers up and starts keeping the ball up. Boom, boom, boom. Easy. He then kicks it back to the guy with his heel. It was incredible. Only Diego.’
The Union erupted in cheer. But such hysteria was the norm around Maradona. It feels poignant when Ardiles says: ‘Our conversations always finished in the same way – it was very beautiful to be Maradona, but it was not easy to be Maradona.
Ardiles states he ‘loved’ Maradona, describing him as ‘incredibly sharp and very funny’
Ardiles would often act as Maradona’s interpreter when his great friend visited England
‘When you were with him, because he was such an icon, you were always surrounded by people. Thing always happened, exciting things.
‘I loved him, absolutely loved him. He was incredibly sharp, very funny. He had an answer to whatever you said.
‘But he had so many problems outside the pitch his entire life. Inside the pitch, he was the happiest person in the world. He didn’t need to work, but the best thing for him was to be involved in football.
‘When the pandemic happened, there has been no football in Argentina for six months. That did not help. He had been ill and he deteriorated badly. I am very sad, but now, he is in a place where he will find peace.’
Ask Ardiles if Maradona was the greatest player ever, and the answer leaves you in little doubt.
Ardiles convinced Maradona to play for Tottenham in his testimonial match against Inter Milan at White Hart Lane just weeks before the latter would guide Argentina to World Cup glory
‘Diego was unique, that is the word. He was extraordinary, out of this world. He had feet like hands. I was blessed to play with the world’s best players, but he was the greatest.
‘What made him so special was his courage. It was always hostile for him, always a marked man. But he always wanted the ball. They kicked him – he wanted the ball even more. He was a winner. And I know, I’d play him at tennis! He just could not lose.’
Spurs legend Ardiles famously brought Maradona to White Hart Lane for his testimonial match one month before he won the World Cup in Mexico in 1986.
‘Argentina played a friendly in Norway and Diego said to Carlos Bilardo, the manager, “By the way, I’m going to London for Ossie”. Bilardo said, “What? You are joking, you’re not going!”. “No, I’m Diego Maradona, I’m going”.
‘For him to come, wear a Spurs shirt and play that game for me, it was very special.’
Ardiles (left) last met Maradona at a Tottenham game against Liverpool in 2017, with the latter sharing a joke with Argentine compatriot and Spurs manager Mauricio Pochettino
Maradona gave pre-match advice to Harry Kane (right) who would score twice in the 4-1 win for the hosts as Spurs goalkeeper Hugo Lloris also looks on (centre)
Maradona holds aloft a Spurs shirt with his name on the back during the Wembley 2017 game
The last time the friends saw each other was in 2017 when, again, Ardiles acted as interpreter with Maradona guest of honour ahead of Spurs’ 4-1 victory over Liverpool at Wembley.
‘We went into the dressing-room and he gave some advice to Harry Kane. I was translating, “Harry, when you shoot, look one way with your eyes, but shoot the other”. But the way Diego talks, so passionate, so funny. Harry loved it.’
Kane, for the record, responded with two goals.
‘Diego was an inspirational person,’ says Ardiles. ‘He had a magic around him, on the pitch and off it. Special, so special. I am blessed to have been his friend.’
FIVE CAREER-DEFINING GOALS
Diego Maradona was a lot of things and a scorer of obscene goals was just one of them.
From his haul of 312 at club level and 34 for Argentina, here are his top five…
5. November 1985 v Juventus
With 20 minutes to play, Napoli were given an indirect free-kick 14 yards out. The Juventus wall had crept no more than six or so yards from the ball, leaving no obvious room to get it up and down. After Eraldo Pecci had a touch, Maradona somehow found the only arc to goal. It became known as The Divine Free-kick.
4. October 1985 v Verona
A classic of vision and execution. Controlling a punt forward, the Napoli attacker effectively killed the ball dead with his left boot 45 yards from goal, while simultaneously spinning. With three men drifting his way, Maradona let the ball bounce once before launching a marvellous half-volley over the goalkeeper.
3. June 1986 v Belgium
There are those who believe the second of Maradona’s goals for Argentina in the World Cup semi-final was even better than the one that beat England in the previous round. Forty yards from goal, he faced four men. Six touches and they were all gone and off balance as he supplied the finish that killed the game. Sublime.
2. June 1986 v England
It wasn’t his best. It wasn’t his head. It wasn’t legal. It wasn’t God. But that cheated goal off his hand in the World Cup quarter-final was as remarkable as any for the way it captured one half of the most captivating personality ever known to football.
1. June 1986, v England
How predictable that any countdown ends with the most unfathomable goal ever scored. From his own half, he ran a ring around half the English team and an endless loop around English minds back home.
Maradona famously went on an incredible run before scoring in the World Cup quarter-final against England in 1986
By Riath Al-Samarrai