Michael Burgess is a sports writer for the Herald on Sunday.

Former All White faces Maradona, Ronaldinho, Cafu

FIFA Legend Carlos Valderrama celebrates Diego Maradona. Photo / Getty
FIFA Legend Carlos Valderrama celebrates Diego Maradona. Photo / Getty

You couldn't blame Ivan Vicelich for being a little star-struck.

As he looked up, former Brazilian star Cafu was running at him.

Off to the right, legendary Colombian international Carlos Valderrama was lurking, ready to strike.

And behind the pair, poised back in the pocket, a certain Diego Armando Maradona, arguably the greatest player of all time.

Welcome to park football, FIFA Legends style.

Former All White Vicelich was in Manama, Bahrain over the last week, part of an invited group of ex-players from across the world.

They've been in meetings and workshops held in parallel to the FIFA congress, as the world governing body seeks to broaden the involvement of former footballers.

But with so much talent in town - others included Ronaldinho (Brazil), Pablo Aimar (Argentina), Marco Van Basten (Netherlands) and Jay Jay Okocha (Nigeria) - it was inevitable they would find themselves back on the pitch.

A series of eight a side games were organised, with a trio of legends on each side, supplemented by local football staff and Fifa delegates.

Vicelich headed the Oceania team, alongside French World Cup winner David Trezeguet and Croatian Dario Simic.

"In our first game we played against South America, with Diego [Maradona], Carlos [Valderrama] and Cafu," said Vicelich. "That's a pretty decent lineup."

Vicelich started at the back but soon shifted into centre midfield, as "some of the delegates were struggling to keep up".

It was a surreal experience - "watching Diego at the 1986 World Cup started my passion for the game" - and he was blown away by the enduring talent of Cafu (46), Valderrama (55) and Maradona (56).

"Diego played every minute of every game and I was impressed with how he held up," said Vicelich "He's still got those silky touches...the ball kinda sticks to his feet.

"Cafu was a machine - everywhere just cleaning up - and Valderrama didn't give the ball away once. He still looks the same, the big hair, and plays the same. You couldn't get close to him; he would look trapped but them twist and turn away, or find an angle no one else could see."

Vicelich's team got a "negative result" against the Latin team, though he was happy to get a far post goal and save a couple off the line.

"People were taking it quite seriously throughout the tournament," said Vicelich. "There were slide tackles and everyone wanted to win. But the skills stood out, like Jay Jay Okocha doing 20 step overs before hitting a shot in the top corner, or Ronaldinho doing his thing."

Vicelich's presence in Bahrain was sparked by a phone call from Oceania Football Confederation Secretary General Tai Nicholas, asking if they could nominate him for the Fifa Legends programme.

"It's not the type of question you expect," laughed Vicelich, "so obviously the answer didn't take too long."

Days were filled with meetings, including a round table discussion with Fifa president Gianni Infantino.

"Over the last year Fifa has tried to use more ex-footballers within the game to grow the game," said Vicelich. "It's also about getting the views of people who have played at the highest levels of the sport. Getting thoughts and views on video refereeing, on player workload, on the future of the sport...all kinds of things."

A personal highlight for Vicelich was a promotional visit to a local shopping mall.
"The kids were going absolutely nuts," said Vicelich. "They were even born when Maradona was around but that didn't matter...his fame transcends that. It was the same with Ronaldinho and Cafu."

Vicelich admitted he took a while to feel at home in the exalted company.

"They are true legends - it's something we can't comprehend in New Zealand," said Vicelich. "Even now, Maradona probably couldn't walk down a street anywhere in the world without people stopping him for photos and autographs."

Vicelich enjoyed chatting with the Argentine - "I told him about some of my memories of 1986" - and mixing with the other football royalty.

"In some ways they are just normal guys of course and it was great to talk to them behind the scenes," said Vicelich. "But then you realise they have two personal managers with them all the time as part of their entourage...and there is a security guy just around the corner."

- NZ Herald

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