Love him, hate him, regard him as one of, if not the greatest players of all time, or simply a cheat and someone whose behaviour and lifestyle inevitably destroyed him, no one will ever forget Diego Armando Maradona and the mark he made on the history of football, or indeed on society as whole.
Like Pelé before him, Maradona’s is a name that simply transcends football, but unlike his equally illustrious predecessor, his carries with it a huge level of notoriety based on his rogue-like nature and his well-documented self-destructive lifestyle. For me he was a sublime football genius who fired the imagination of an at-the-time early teenaged football obsessive with his exploits for Napoli and at the Mexico World Cup.
Maradona’s story starts in the barrios of Buenos Aires, Villa Fiorito to be precise a poverty-stricken neighbourhood that was apparently so violent that police had to be bussed in every day as it was deemed too dangerous to have a permanent base there. So poor was Maradona’s family that the young Diego in his early formative years developed the streetwise skills to survive in such a ghetto, making any cash he could by opening taxi doors, selling scrap, collecting the foil wrapping from cigarette packets. At the same time having been gifted his first football at the age of three and then subsequently using anything else he could find: oranges, screwed up newspaper or bundles of rags, he honed his naturally given footballing skills.
The always excellent Jonathan Wilson author of “Angels with Dirty Faces” which provideda fascinating insight into the history and evolution of both football in Argentina and of the country and society itself, outlined the legend of the “Pibe” (literally street urchin) as described by El Gráfico’s editor Borocotó in 1928 as having: “a dirty face, a mane of hair rebelling against the comb; with intelligent, roving, trickster and persuasive eyes and a sparkling gaze that seem to hint at a picaresque laugh that does not quite manage to form on his mouth, full of small teeth that might be worn down through eating yesterday’s bread… his stance must be characteristic; it must seem as if he is dribbling with a rag ball”, as the embodiment of the Argentine footballer. Nearly 50 years later Maradona burst onto the scene as the veritable incarnation of this mythical figure.
At the age of eight Maradona joined the youth section of Argentinos Juniors, where such was the supreme level of talent he had at his disposal that the club’s youth coach, Francis Cornejo, said of his first encounter with the child football genius: “They say people witness at least one miracle in their lives, but most do not even realise. I certainly did…My miracle occurred on that rainy Saturday in 1969, when an eight-year-old kid, an age I could not believe, did things with the ball that I’d never seen in my life.” By twelve Maradona was entertaining the crowds with his mesmerising ball-juggling skills at half-time in first team games and at the tender age of fifteen he made his professional debut.
Such was Maradona’s impact on the club, scoring 115 goals in 167 appearances, that it was inevitable that he would attract the interest of the bigger fish, in Buenos Aires and Argentina that of course means River Plate and Boca Juniors. Although River made a substantial offer for his services, Maradona opted for the cash-strapped Boca, an early indication perhaps of how the role of the feisty underdog taking on the world suited him. So it was that in 1981 at the age of twenty he found one of his spiritual homes, La Bombonera. Maradona’s 28 goals in 40 appearances helped Boca to the title, the only one he won in his native country, and of course attracted interest from Europe and after just a year at Boca he signed for Barcelona for a world record fee of $7.6 million (£5 million), leading to protests at his departure from the whole Argentine nation.
After controversially, at least according to Maradona, being left out of the Argentina squad for the World Cup triumph at home in 1978, he failed to shine at the 1982 tournament in the country in which he was now to play his football, thanks in no small part to the horrendous treatment he received from the opposition, most vividly the eventual champions Italy and their arch villain Claudio Gentile who apparently watched two days’ worth of videos of Maradona in preparation for kicking him all over the park.
Maradona’s time at the Nou Camp could be summed as turbulent to say the least with: fallings out with controversial club president Josep Lluís Núñez, allegations of heavy drinking and drug use, illness in the form of a bout hepatitis, injury thanks to the continually brutal treatment he received most infamously the tackle from the ‘Butcher of Bilbao’ one Andoni Goikoetxea whose tackle/ assault left him with a career-threatening ankle injury, and sparking a mass brawl in the Copa Del Rey Final against Athletic Club in response to another brutal tackle by Goikoetxea and racial taunting by the Bilbao fans.
Salvation came in the form of another record-breaking transfer to Napoli in southern Italy, a move that it has been revealed was funded in no small way by the Neapolitan mafia, the Camorra. It was there that Maradona truly established himself on the world football stage leading the previously lowly club to break the domination of the big clubs from the north by winning two Scudetto titles, the Coppa Italia, the Italian Supercup and the UEFA Cup. His impact at Napoli is best summed up by a banner that the Ultras displayed at the entrance to a local cemetery after the first title win that simply read: “You don’t know what you missed”.
It was after his second season at Napoli that Maradona reached his highest level, a level that few if any other than a certain Brazilian from Santos have ever reached, when he almost single-handedly dragged Argentina to their second World Cup triumph in Mexico in 1986. Many England follower may still not be able to forgive him for that infamous “Hand of God” goal in the quarter-final, but no true football fan could fail to be blown away by the second goal just four minutes later in which he displayed every single element of his almost other-worldly talent. The goal was so good that Gary Lineker has said that it was the only time he almost felt like applauding a goal scored against a side he was playing in. There were many other moments of sublime skill in that tournament and I vividly remember a highlights reel set to “It’s a Kind of Magic” by Queen screened by the BBC that showcased these brilliantly. If that video is available on Youtube I would highly recommend it.
Despite the success, as anyone who has watched Asif Kapadia’s superb documentary will know, there were all sorts of indiscretions during his time in Naples: cocaine addiction, connections with the Camorra and a son as the result of an extramarital affair that Maradona refused to acknowledge for many years. Eventually, inevitably, there was a positive drugs test despite his ingenious methods for avoiding them previously involving a plastic penis and someone else’s urine, which resulted in a 15-month ban and Maradona leaving Italy in disgrace.
Even though he came back with Sevilla and then had spells at Newell’s Old Boys and back at Boca, he was never to really hit those incredible heights again. He was hampered by an injury during at the Italia 90 World Cup but still somehow helped Argentina to the final and then was infamously booted out of USA 94 for drug use, when you didn’t have to be a qualified doctor to work out how he had got himself just about fit for that tournament.
The years following his playing days, managing Argentina to the quarter-finals of the 2010 World Cup in South Africa aside, were like some kind of warped soap opera with almost countless high profile incidents. Shooting at journalists with an air rifle, battles with obesity, admissions to hospital related to his drinking and drug use including a spell in a psychiatric hospital, a high-profile yet frankly insane TV show, meeting Fidel Castro and of course the incident at the Russia World Cup where he was caught on camera taunting fans after allegedly just the couple of glasses of vino blanco.
Adore him or despise him, Diego Armando Maradona will never ever be forgotten. To borrow a line from Monty Python: He was most certainly the messiah in Argentina and Naples, but he was also a very naughty boy. As many of the tributes following his passing have said: the body may have died but his legend will live on forever.
From all of us that had the great privilege of watching you play: Gracias Diego.