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Back The genius they simply had to foul

“There was only one way to stop Maradona: foul him. We didn’t and got punished.”

Those were the words of Taffarel on ‘The Cosmic Kite’ jinking his way through Brazil to set-up Claudio Caniggia for the only goal in the last 16 at Italia ’۹۰٫ In fairness, though Alemao, Maradona’s Napoli team-mate, didn’t try to go down the illegal avenue, Dunga’s sliding challenge should have been enough to floor Maradona and Ricardo ‘The Sherrif’ Rocha tried to put him in handcuffs.

The Seleção weren’t solo lamenters. “The consensus was that we were going to kick him,” recalled Terry Butcher of the England mindset entering a Mexico ’۸۶ quarter-final. “The problem was that he was very difficult to even bring down.”

Several English lunges failed. ‘The Goal of the Century’ sent Argentina through.

Graeme Souness, one of the greatest enforcers of all time who played against Maradona in Serie A, explained: “The first problem was getting near him. He was extremely quick and had a change of direction like no-one else.

“Even if you did, he was really difficult to bring down. He was like a rugby player. I was much taller than him and a lot heavier, but Maradona was extremely powerful. You’d bang into him but he wouldn’t go down. He had this unique ability to ride challenges.”

Yet despite his incomparable capacity to avoid being impeded, and the fact that referees were far less protective of attacking players back then, Maradona extraordinarily holds not one, not two, but every World Cup record for the most-fouled player.

It began in Barcelona – ۲۵ days after he had made the city his new home. Claudio Gentile, whose surname means ‘kind’ in Italian, was anything but to ‘El Pibe de Oro’. The ruthless centre-back brought the mercurial playmaker down a staggering 23 times. Gentile was punished merely with a yellow card and, post-match, barked immortally: “Football is not for ballerinas.”

Four years later in Mexico, Maradona, then in his devastating pomp, was fouled 53 times – fully 20 more than any other player in one edition. By the time he’d waved goodbye to football’s most prestigious platform, Maradona, who was mind-blowingly the most-fouled player at Spain ’۸۲, Mexico ’۸۶ and Italia ’۹۰, had won 152 free-kicks. Lionel Messi, who has made five more appearances, comes next on 75.

To put that into context, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar drew an NBA record 4,657 fouls – a 1.7 per cent increase on his nearest challenger Karl Malone (4,578). Maradona drew a jaw-dropping 103 per cent increase on Messi.

Debate continues over whether Pele, Maradona or Lionel Messi is the greatest player in World Cup history. There is zero discussion over which of them struck terror into opponents the most. There was only one Diego Armando Maradona.

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