Sport

MICAH RICHARDS: The day I met Diego Maradona I used to be so in awe I could not discuss

Crossing paths with a superstar can affect people in many different ways. Personally, it left me scared to the point of being unable to speak.

I wasn’t born when Diego Maradona conquered the world in 1986 and I was too young to remember him playing at the 1990 and 1994 World Cups. None of that, though, has prevented me from feeling the same sense of loss as someone who lived through his glorious career.

In some ways, it is wrong to refer to Maradona just as a footballer. He changed people’s lives, someone who inspired a nation and gave little kids around the globe the ability to dream about what might be possible with a ball at their feet. To the people of Argentina and Naples, he was like God.

Diego Maradona came to watch Man City's title decider with Manchester United in 2012

Diego Maradona came to watch Man City’s title decider with Manchester United in 2012 

I was so in awe I was left unable to speak when he visited the players' lounge after the game

I was so in awe I was left unable to speak when he visited the players’ lounge after the game

I can consider myself blessed to have been in a room with him once but I’ve been thinking about that meeting in the last couple of days with a sense of regret.

Let me give you some background to how it happened. The night that Manchester City played Manchester United in April 2012 — in what had been billed as a title decider — we went through our usual pre-match routine, which involved staying at a hotel in the city centre.

We always had a meeting, which was led by our manager Roberto Mancini. But this particular day, our chairman Khaldoon Al-Mubarak was involved. Khaldoon is a private person, who doesn’t get involved in the business of running the team, so the fact he came to address us was unusual. 

Maradona wasn't just a footballer, he inspired a nation and gave children the ability to dream

Maradona wasn’t just a footballer, he inspired a nation and gave children the ability to dream

He began to speak and told us Maradona would be at the Etihad Stadium that night. Maradona, of course, was Sergio Aguero’s father-in-law but the fact he was coming to see the club’s biggest game since the 1960s was huge. There was also going to be a worldwide TV audience of 600million.

‘Tonight you do not lose,’ Khaldoon said, to conclude his speech. It wasn’t so much a request, more an order.

It was the first time many of us in the squad had felt that kind of significant pressure but we delivered. Vincent Kompany’s header settled the game and put us within touching distance of the title. Afterwards, the dressing room was wild in celebration.

Then Maradona showed up. Even now, as I’m thinking back, I can still feel the shock of setting eyes on him. I couldn’t actually believe he was there in the same room, if you know what I mean? We used to get famous faces in the players’ lounge all the time — but this was something different.

What really struck me about the presence of Maradona was the reaction of Carlos Tevez. ‘Carlito’ was such a cool, quiet guy but here he was almost bowing down in reverence. None of us had ever seen him acting in such a way, so animated and emotional.

City's chairman Khaldoon Al-Mubarak told us we couldn't lose the match with Maradona watching on in the stands

City’s chairman Khaldoon Al-Mubarak told us we couldn’t lose the match with Maradona watching on in the stands

A number of the other lads took their chances to get a picture with him. Maradona was surrounded by security but everyone who wanted a moment with him got it. For some reason, though, I couldn’t bring myself to go over as I was so in awe.

There have only been two other times in my life when I felt such a way. The first was when, as an 18-year-old, I got into the England squad and saw David Beckham. I’m not saying David was a player on Maradona’s level but he was a global figure with a huge presence.

I never felt like I belonged in that England team as I was so young and I couldn’t comprehend that I was able to share a pitch with a man who had won so much and played for the world’s biggest clubs. I’ll never understand why Beckham isn’t appreciated as he should be in this country.

The other moment when I was left starstruck was a few months later when I saw the late Kobe Bryant at the 2012 Olympics. The GB team was in the athletes’ village and he was there, as part of the USA basketball team. I’m not a big basketball fan but, again, I didn’t need telling he was such an iconic figure. 

I wasn't born when the Argentina legend. conquered the world in 1986 but still feel his loss

I wasn’t born when the Argentina legend. conquered the world in 1986 but still feel his loss  

A number of the other lads took their chances to get a picture with him. Maradona was surrounded by security but everyone who wanted a moment with him got it. For some reason, though, I couldn’t bring myself to go over as I was so in awe.

There have only been two other times in my life when I felt such a way. The first was when, as an 18-year-old, I got into the England squad and saw David Beckham. I’m not saying David was a player on Maradona’s level but he was a global figure with a huge presence.

I never felt like I belonged in that England team as I was so young and I couldn’t comprehend that I was able to share a pitch with a man who had won so much and played for the world’s biggest clubs. I’ll never understand why Beckham isn’t appreciated as he should be in this country.

The other moment when I was left starstruck was a few months later when I saw the late Kobe Bryant at the 2012 Olympics. The GB team was in the athletes’ village and he was there, as part of the USA basketball team. I’m not a big basketball fan but, again, I didn’t need telling he was such an iconic figure. 

MICAH’S MAN OF THE WEEK

Erling Haaland continues to set records and on Tuesday he became the fastest player to reach 15 Champions League goals. It is incredible that he has got a better tally than Zinedine Zidane managed in his career.

I spoke to Jadon Sancho, his Borussia Dortmund team-mate, at St George’s Park a couple of weeks ago and he was telling me that the level of detail Haaland puts into studying opponents and working on his game is next level. He is the best young player in Europe.

The more I see him, the more I wonder why a Premier League club did not take the chance on him when he was at Red Bull Salzburg. He would be a fantastic addition to our game. He has the ability to play for any club.

Erling Haaland became the fastest player to reach 15 Champions League goals on Tuesday

Erling Haaland became the fastest player to reach 15 Champions League goals on Tuesday

BIELSA DESERVES ACCOLADES 

Marcelo Bielsa has caused great debate once again this week after he was nominated for the FIFA Best Manager of the Year award.

Bielsa is alongside Jurgen Klopp (winner of the Premier League), Hansi Flick (winner of five trophies with Bayern Munich), Zinedine Zidane (winner of La Liga with Real Madrid) and Julen Lopetegui (winner of the Europa League with Sevilla). Many will wonder why Bielsa is in the running having ‘only’ won the Championship.

For the people of Leeds, though, it doesn’t matter whether he comes first or fifth in that list. What he has given them is worth more than any accolade.

The very fact he is being discussed in the same breath as the other managers shows, firstly, what reputation he carries and, secondly, that Leeds are back on the map.

I live in Harrogate and spend a lot of time in Leeds and I know the depth of feeling towards him in the area. Leeds is a city known for football and the area has a team to be proud of once again.

You cannot underestimate the importance of that during what has been a difficult year.

I said before the start of the season Bielsa would keep them up. Everything I have seen since has justified my confidence. 

Lees boss Marcelo Bielsa deserves his nomination for the FIFA Best Manager of the Year award

Lees boss Marcelo Bielsa deserves his nomination for the FIFA Best Manager of the Year award

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