June 1982 was one of the greatest months of my life. I remember the 16th June with acute clarity. That day, I got home from school, turned on the TV and in front of me was not Grange Hill, it was Live. International. World Cup. Football.
I must have known it was happening, I remember England qualifying in a nervy 1-0 win over Hungary with a goal from Paul Mariner. The tournament had started a few days earlier, but I still had a euphoric feeling of finding the tournament on my TV. Perhaps it was because it was a school day, which made it more special. This was a novelty. Live football on TV was restricted to the FA and European Cup Finals and the odd home international. Suddenly there was an orgy of it, afternoon after afternoon, night after night.
What’s more, it was exotic and exciting; from another planet. Brazil’s opening game against the USSR still lives with me today. Weirdly, it was before that fateful England game, although I remember it being after.
Anyway, I went to school the next day and everyone was blasting the ball from miles out and wearing their socks rolled down to their ankles trying to be Socrates and Eder. It was a fine year for shorts too. Tiny shiny shorts. Perhaps the tiniest shorts of them all belonged to Diego Maradona.
Maradona’s World Cup career seemed to follow the same trajectory as a 12-year cocaine binge. In 1986 there was the euphoria of being the greatest player on the planet, 1990 he was a paranoid little shit and by 1994 a cheating, grovelling loser.
In 1982 he was a wild man, like Animal from The Muppets. A great mop of hair, thighs like tree trunks – a ‘little squat man’ as Byron Butler gloriously labelled him when he set off on his magical mazy run against England in Mexico.
As a precocious teenager, he was raw. In the second group stage in Spain he exacted a mugging on Brazil’s Batista and got sent off, the exit of a prodigal son. At the time, we were at war with Argentina over the Falklands and I thought wars were cool. They, the world champions, were abject in comparison to the graceful Brazilians and I hated them. In five games, they won two and lost three.
Argentina’s goalscorer in the Brazil game was Ramon Diaz, a striker who conspired only to appear in the Argentinean defeats. Diaz was a decent player; by 1982 the 22-year-old had played 24 games and scored 10 goals.
At this point his international career was unceremoniously snubbed out. He spent nine more years playing top-flight football in Italy and France, but couldn’t get a game for his country. Rumour goes that Mr Maradona’s increasing influence in Argentine football was behind this mysterious omission.
It was quite some time before Diaz found similar levels of madness to indulge in. In the intervening years he carved out a reputation as one of the most successful South American managers of his generation. And, in by natural ascent, in 2004 he became manager of those architects of misery – Oxford United.
By this point Firoz Kassam had lost all sense of perspective in running the club. He just didn’t get football; he couldn’t buy success, he couldn’t buy popularity. So, he did what every Championship Manager aficionado does when he’s bored of his project – he abandoned all sense of logic and made nonsensical signings.
Diaz was one. It was murky and ludicrous. Diaz was surrounded by an army of backroom staff, fixers and henchmen. The deal seems to have been done in a restaurant in Monaco and appeared to involve buying the club and stadium. Or maybe not. Diaz brought along a horde of little South American wingers – ‘nippy shits’ as the bloke behind me once described them – who sulked their way from Lincoln to Rochdale.
Initially we politely talked of what an impact on the team he’d had. Results-wise, he was no more than average. Inevitably it all fell apart as Kassam banished Diaz and his extended crew from the ground. What followed was the farcical storming of the stadium during the final game of the season against Chester, another glorious episode in the club’s history.