Who was the greatest footballer the world has ever known? The most popular answer to that essentially meaningless but endlessly debated question is Pele, the exquisitely talented Brazilian, while Holland’s Johan Cruyff, the Argentine-born Alfredo di Stefano and Northern Ireland’s George Best all have their passionate proponents. Today’s fans will understandably argue for the inclusion of Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi on that list.
But there is one other compelling candidate for this imaginary crown, a squat-bodied man from a poor suburb of Buenos Aires who rose to unrivalled eminence at a time when the pressures, both on and off the field, were more acute than those faced by any of his illustrious predecessors. His name was Diego Maradona and, at his peak, he bestrode the game like a god. The trouble was, it seemed all too often, he believed in his own divinity.
One man in no doubt about Maradona’s position in the pantheon was Sir Alf Ramsey, who put it thus in 1986, after the comprehensively gifted Argentinian had inspired his country to World Cup glory in Mexico: “Pele had nearly everything. Maradona has everything. He works harder, does more and is more skilful. But he will be remembered for another reason. He bends the rules to suit himself.”
It was the ultimate compliment, but also the definitive condemnation, and there lies the rub. That year, when Maradona touched his ravishing peak, lifting his sport to new levels of brilliance, his achievement was tainted by the infamous “Hand of God” controversy, when he used his fist deliberately to propel the ball past the England goalkeeper Peter Shilton to set up Argentina’s quarter-final victory.
Then, later, having been placed on a pedestal as the planet’s finest footballer, Maradona fell prey to drug and alcohol abuse, was used as a political pawn and manipulated mercilessly by vultures who made a rich living from his name.
For all that, it would be hideously unfair if the low points of the player – who made headlines during a succession of World Cup tournaments – were allowed to overshadow his fabulous attainments, first in his homeland, then with the Spanish giants Barcelona and, as the memorable highlight of a club career which spanned almost 20 years, with Napoli, whom he transformed from serial under-achievers into the champions of Italy.
Growing up in a family of eight, he was raised in poverty in a working-class area of Buenos Aires not far removed from a slum, his first home being a shack with no electricity or running water and with its three rooms separated only by curtains.
The environment was unremittingly harsh, with the community riven by petty crime and the township horribly polluted by toxic waste from factories. Prospects for youngsters were grim, but for the Maradonas’ eldest son, Diego, who narrowly escaped drowning after plunging into a cesspit as a toddler, a providential escape route materialised. On his third birthday he was presented with a football; he fell in love with it, went to bed hugging it, and pretty soon it became apparent that he had been blessed with an abnormal talent for manipulating it.
Short and squarely built, although markedly thin at that time, he didn’t appear especially athletic, but his thrilling ability developed prodigiously and, even as an eight-year-old, when he joined the local club Los Cebollitas (“the Little Onions”), his family was convinced that he was the key to a better life for them all.
Such was Diego Maradona’s phenomenal dexterity that at the age of 10 he was paraded as half-time entertainment by the local senior club, juggling balls, oranges, even bottles with his seemingly prehensile left foot. He was featured on television, audiences adored him and, in a foretaste of the excesses to follow in later life, he was placed on courses of pills and injections to build up his physique.
All the while, Maradona’s football skills were flourishing and his reputation burgeoning, and when he was 12 the reigning national champions, River Plate, attempted to sign him. But Argentinos Juniors, the parent club of the Los Cebollitas youth team, opted to keep their prized asset and duly he graduated to their senior ranks three years later, in 1976.
Already there appeared to be no question about Maradona’s starry destiny, the virtual certainty of his success reflected by the Juniors’ decision to instal the 15-year-old and his family in a spacious apartment. Already he was the breadwinner, and if his wider education had been neglected in the cause of a lucrative future for all concerned, nobody was complaining.
Maradona was still 10 days short of his 16th birthday when he became the youngest footballer to play in Argentina’s national league, rising from the bench to face Talleres de Cordoba in October 1976. Thereafter he became a regular in the side and so profound was his impact that he stepped into the full international arena a mere four months later, making his debut as a substitute for Leopoldo Luque against Hungary.
Now it became clear that an extraordinary presence was arriving on the world stage; for once the word “genius”, so glibly overused in a sporting context, could be employed realistically.
At that stage, the dumpy teenager appeared to have no flaw in his footballing make-up bar a volatile, occasionally volcanic, temperament, the spark which lit the Maradona fire.
He was a master individualist, arguably the finest runner with the ball the game has ever seen, easing past opponents as if they were lampposts. But also he espoused team play with absolute conviction, understanding it instinctively, and was a natural organiser who sent team-mates scurrying into position before plying them with visionary passes.
Awesomely powerful and quick, yet delicately precise, the Argentinian was a technician supreme, able to command the ball as if it were an extension of his body. In addition, he was blessed with the resilience and courage to withstand the frequently brutal physical punishment to which he was subjected by unscrupulous defenders virtually every time he took the field. But no matter how tightly Maradona was marked, he scored goals, and created them for others, in bountiful profusion.
However, controversy was never far away, starting with his shock exclusion from the squad for the 1978 World Cup Finals in Argentina because the manager César Menotti deemed him physically and emotionally immature. He responded with a tantrum, though Menotti was vindicated as his team won the tournament without the new idol of the masses.
Soon afterwards Maradona, who captained his country to the world youth crown in Tokyo a year later, became both the practical linchpin and the emotional touchstone of Argentina’s senior side, but there was an alarming byproduct of this eminence. Though he was politically passive at the time, the repressive military regime exploited Maradona ruthlessly, the generals using him to spout the party line in a vain bid to gull the outside world into believing that all was well in Argentina.
Maradona was coveted the world over and constantly he was linked with a big-money move to Juventus, which was blocked by a government desperate not to lose their propaganda tool. Yet bizarrely, the first overseas bid emanated from the English Second Division club Sheffield United, whose manager Harry Haslam travelled to Buenos Aires confident of closing a deal.
Not surprisingly, however, the Bramall Lane coffers proved inadequate and instead, in 1980, Maradona was loaned to the top Argentinian club Boca Juniors, who paid around £1m for his services in a complicated loan transaction. It proved a sound investment as he helped Boca, whom he had supported passionately all his life, to win the league championship in 1981 and fuelled expectations to fever pitch in the run-up to the 1982 World Cup in Spain.
Maradona was not fully fit – already he was over-using painkillers – and his contribution proved a massive disappointment as Argentina made a humiliating exit at the hands of Brazil, with their star being sent off for a gruesome retaliatory lunge at his marker, Batista.
By now there was not enough money in his domestic football to keep Maradona in Argentina and in July 1982 he joined Barcelona in a £4.2m deal which triggered a commercial explosion. A money-making company, Maradona Productions, was formed, his retinue of hangers-on mushroomed, he followed a lavishly excessive lifestyle and as the pressures of fame became increasingly unbearable, he developed a siege mentality and was linked publicly with drugs for the first time.
On the field he shone intermittently, helping the Catalans to beat their bitter rivals Real Madrid to lift the King’s Cup in 1983, but his injury problems mounted as he was subjected frequently to barbaric challenges. He fell out with the autocratic club president José Luis Nuñez and although he remained popular with his team-mates, Maradona became deeply unhappy. Eventually, bled dry by his entourage, he hit severe cash problems and in July 1984 he accepted financial salvation in the form of a world record £6.9m move to Napoli.
In southern Italy, he was welcomed as a messiah. The Neapolitan fans, many of whom lived in the same kind of abject poverty into which their new idol had been born, saw his arrival as a mighty blow against the more prosperous industrialised north. Here he fitted in better than in Barcelona, feeling himself one of the people instead of a perpetual outsider. However, his decadence continued, his links with organised crime barely concealed.
Football-wise, he flourished, and his status as the world’s top player was emphasised spectacularly as he inspired Argentina’s triumph in the 1986 World Cup Finals in Mexico. The form of the 25-year-old captain was luminous throughout, including a majestic display in the climax against West Germany, but it was his black-and-white contribution in the quarter-final victory over England that etched itself indelibly on the game’s history.
In the wake of the Falklands War, Maradona viewed England as colonial usurpers, believing his two goals in the 2-1 win represented nothing less than divine revenge, and in this vein he referred to his blatantly unfair opener as “a little bit the head of Maradona, a little bit the hand of God”.
However, there was no gainsaying the sublime quality of his second, for which he dribbled unstoppably past four helpless defenders before tapping the ball into the empty net. It was a moment of breathtaking beauty and it was a shame that it should have been sullied by accusations of earlier cheating.
Back at club level, there was further euphoria in store in 1987 as Maradona led Napoli to their first Scudetto (Italian league title), an event which provoked scenes of ecstasy not witnessed since wartime liberation, and to further glory in the Italian Cup. Altars were raised to the Argentinian icon, and he was feted by the people, by politicians, even the pope.
As Napoli metamorphosed from a downtrodden domestic club into a major European power, there followed league runners-up slots in 1988 and 1989, triumph in the 1989 Uefa Cup and another Scudetto in 1990, a year in which Maradona skippered his country to a second successive World Cup Final, this time losing to West Germany.
At the end of that year, his popularity in Italy began to wane as speculation about a drugs habit and mental health issues became rife, along with tales of the recently married 30-year-old’s extra-curricular activities with sex workers and criminals. The crisis came to a head in March 1991 when a random drugs test revealed cocaine in his system and he received a worldwide 15-month ban, during which his ties with Napoli were severed. Depressed and demotivated, he accepted rehabilitation in Argentina, where he was still adored widely.
Now his glory days were over, but there followed a series of comebacks, during which Maradona was little more than a parody of his former self. First, in September 1992, he was transferred to Sevilla for £4.5m, but achieved little of importance in Spain.
In October 1993 he returned to his homeland with Newell’s Old Boys, the flame burning brightly enough to ensure an international recall and, after he helped Argentina to qualify for the 1994 World Cup Finals in the United States, there was genuine hope that the slimmer, fitter Maradona could lead the team to one last success. But after a promising start, with wins over Greece and Nigeria, he tested positive for a banned drug – he claimed it was an innocent mistake, the substance being present in a weight-reducing supplement – and he was thrown out of the competition.
Even that wasn’t quite the end of the road, as he returned to his first love, Boca Juniors, in 1995, but he cut a tragically ineffective figure, a bumbling travesty of his former self, and in 1997 he announced his retirement after yet more drug problems.
Nearly dying of heart failure in 2000, he spent the first few years of the 21st century living off and on in Cuba. Furthermore, a gastric bypass operation in 2005 and a 2007 hospitalisation for hepatitis received widespread media coverage.
But, after cleaning up his act, Maradona would return to the game in 2008 as the coach of the Argentine national side. Two years later, he led a talented group of players, including Lionel Messi, to the quarter-finals of the World Cup in South Africa. His side crashed out after a disappointing 4-0 loss to Germany and he spent the last years of his life managing club sides in the United Arab Emirates, Mexico and Argentina.
But how should Diego Maradona be remembered? It’s best to recall him in his pomp as one of the finest footballers who ever lived.
Diegoâ Maradona, footballer and coach, born 30 October 1960, died 25 November 2020