20 years ago, I was fortunate enough to work at a World Cup Finals tournament. As a BBC sports journalist, I travelled with the Republic of Ireland team to the United States. The BBC had chosen to recognise the Republic as a British team after England failed to qualify. Given that all of the Republic’s playing squad earned their corn in England or Scotland, and the manager was one Jack Charlton, an English hero of 1966, the decision wasn’t a difficult one to make.
As a journalist, and I hate to admit this, tournaments without England’s participation tend to be more fun to work at and this was no exception. We travelled on the same flights as the Irish party, stayed in the same hotels, and the atmosphere was, for the post part, relaxed. I say for the most part, because Jack Charlton fell foul of FIFA for protesting when John Aldridge’s arrival as a substitute was delayed by a rather officious linesman (as they were still called back then). His punishment was a touchline suspension, something journalists and supporters knew before the man himself. I was detailed to ask for his reaction when he returned from a shopping trip to be told of FIFA’s sanction. It’s fair to say that he didn’t take it well and as I was in his eye-line after he’d read the curt fax, I felt the full force of his wrath. When, later, I had to chase him through a hotel car park, I knew we weren’t going to be bosom buddies in the future.
For the most part, though, it was a hugely enjoyable experience. I expect no sympathy when I say that in the course of four weeks work, we had one day off. Frankly, we hadn’t expected even that but it turned out to be eventful. I enjoyed a few refreshing drinks at lunchtime and took to my bed for an afternoon snooze. At dinner that night, my colleague, the BBC Sports Correspondent Rob Bonnet and I were informed of a call for us at the hotel’s reception. It was to tell us that Diego Maradona had failed a drugs test and was likely to be suspended for the rest of the tournament.
The following morning, we caught the first flight out of Newark, New Jersey to Dallas where Argentina were based. Asking around, we discovered that Maradona himself was to speak to the press. A bit more nosing gave us the name of a hotel at which this news conference was to take place and at the appointed hour, Rob, our excitable American cameraman Jeff and I were shown into a room not much bigger than your average hotel bedroom. Had we been thrown off the scent at the very last? Well, no we hadn’t as hoards of South American journalists, cameramen and photographers piled in after us. It was clear that we were the only English-speakers present so perhaps the soundbites wouldn’t be much use after all. Besides which, there was scarcely room for the hand of god, let alone Maradona’s whole body. Then, a lift in the corner opened its door and out came the man himself. What followed was utterly unintelligible to me but fascinating nevertheless. Maradona spoke passionately, gesturing furiously, answered questions bayed at him from point-blank distance and then departed. We had positioned ourselves between Maradona and the lift from which he’d appeared so he had to walk right pass us, and crucially our video camera, to make an exit.
Words weren’t exchanged but lingering stares were as the man who’d come to define both the best and worst elements of football departed the stage. Our last glimpse of him came as the lift doors closed on a defiant face.
Our television pictures were shown all round the world, though curiously not by the BBC who’d grown weary of the story. Ireland were soon on their way home, beaten in blistering Floridian heat by Holland, and so were we. So too was Diego but that wasn’t the end of his World Cup story.
Memory added on July 10, 2014
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