We have mourned the passing of some great players in recent times, but none greater than Diego Armando Maradona. Quite simply, he was the greatest player I’ve ever seen.
The whole world is in mourning. From football through to other sports, boxing, basketball, cricket, the lot. Everyone has been paying tribute to him.
He had his faults. More than most. But he had unbelievable talent, way more than most. What he could do with a football at his feet on the pitch was incredible. All the more impressive when you consider how he lived his life off the pitch.
The first time I saw him was at the World Cup in 1978. Even then he was a child prodigy. Argentina knew about him, but the rest of the world didn’t. Manager Cesar Luis Menotti almost picked him in his final 22, but at the last moment decided it was just too early. Maradona was one of several young players who entertained the crowd at half-time with ball-juggling skills. Many of the tricks are much more commonplace these days, particularly from freestylers. But back then we’d never seen anything like it.
A year later the football world started to hear about him. He burst onto the scene at the 1979 World Youth Cup in Japan. He scored in every game, bar one, and was voted the player of the tournament. The following summer he arrived at Hampden Park for a friendly against Scotland. Up against the likes of Dalglish, Hansen, Hartford and Wark, the 18-year old was easily the best player on the pitch and scored his first goal for his country.
In 1980, he turned up at Wembley for another friendly, against England. This time he was up against Kevin Keegan, Ray Wilkins, Kenny Sansom and Ray Clemence. At 19 he was again the best player on the pitch. There was a moment when he drew gasps from the crowd. He received the ball with his back to goal about 30 yards out in the inside right position. He turned, beat several players with a mixture of deft touches and turn of pace. His low centre of gravity just allowed him to glide past players just as you expected them to get the ball. When he was one-on-one with Clemence he toe-poked it just past the ‘keeper’s right-hand post. It would’ve been an incredible goal.
After the game, he got a call from his 11-year-old brother
“you moron. You should’ve thrown the keeper a dummy, he’d already committed himself”
Six years later he remembered this advice, and the rest, as they say, is history.
By the time the 1982 World Cup came around, Maradona was the hottest name in football.
His club career had begun in 1976 at Argentinos Juniors, a small club with few aspirations. Five years later he moved to Boca Juniors. A year before then he’d been wound up by some comments attributed to Boca ‘keeper, Hugo Gatti, about his weight. Maradona’s revenge was to score four in a 5-1 win. The Boca crowd gave him a standing ovation. A year later they got their man.
He arrived in Spain with an Argentinian squad determined to defend the crown they’d won controversially on home soil four years before. By then, Barcelona had decided to invest in the young protégé with a world-record transfer fee. When they arrived in the midst of The Falklands Conflict. Fed on propaganda, the players believed their military was winning. Once they touched down in Spain and saw what the rest of the world saw, they soon realised it was horribly different. Clearly shocked they lost their opening game to Belgium. Maradona and the rest of the team picked themselves up to progress to the next round, but against Italy and Brazil, it all turned sour. Brutally marked out of the game against a struggling Italian side, Maradona was shadowed around the pitch by one of the toughest, nastiest players around, Claudio Gentile. It worked. Wherever Diego went, Gentile followed.
Later Maradona joked how Gentile even followed him into the toilet afterwards!
Against Brazil, he finally exploded. He’d spent the tournament being kicked from pillar to post, but by the time Brazil kicked him, he’d had enough. He viciously kicked Batista on the thigh and received his marching orders. It was an ignominious end to a tournament which was supposed to define the player.
Undeterred, he moved to Barcelona after the tournament. He started well with six goals in 13 appearances. But by December 1982 things came to an abrupt halt. He was diagnosed with hepatitis. What the world didn’t know then but discovered later was he had begun to take cocaine.
Despite this, he managed to produce the goods on the pitch as Barcelona won the Copa del Rey and the Copa de la Liga, both against Real Madrid. In September 1983, Athletic centre-back, Andoni Goikoetxea broke Maradona’s ankle with a crunching tackle from behind. Nicknamed ‘the Butcher of Bilbao’ Goikoetxea dined out on his notoriety for years. Maradona missed three months but by June he had the opportunity to get his revenge. Barca were up against Athletic in the Copa del Rey final. It was a violent encounter. After the match, Maradona lost it completely, punching and kicking anyone in a red-and-white-stripes. He was banned for three months.
By then he decided he needed to get out of Spain. He’d scored 38 times in 58 games, so it wasn’t a complete disappointment, but it set the scene for the rest of his life as his addiction started to bite.
He arrived in Naples hoping to find peace. 85,000 turned up for his unveiling at the Stadio San Paolo in July 1985. The Neapolitans took him to their hearts. No, they did more than that. They made him the Messiah.
The world’s most expensive player (for the second time) was now at a modest club in the poorest city in Italy. Naples was described as the sewer of Italy. The football club had never won Serie A, just two Coppa Italia titles down the years.
Maradona changed all that. His dribbling was mesmerising and his ability to bring out the best in his average teammates made all the difference. He partied hard, but generally from Sunday to Tuesday. Then he got his head down and work hard in training up to matchday the following Sunday.
The World Cup 1986 was his zenith. Never before or since has there been such a collection of the best players in the world at the time coming together in the same tournament. Yet for all these huge names, Platini, Zico, Socrates, Rummenigge, Butragueno, Papin, Boniek, Hoddle, Francescoli, Dalglish, Scifo, Elkjaer. They were all in awe of one man. Maradona.
1986 was not only his redemption from 1982, he performed several levels above any player who ever has in a World Cup. Some have argued Argentina weren’t a bad side. Personally, I didn’t see it. They were average, certainly not the best team around. But what they had was an unbelievably brilliant player who could beat teams on his own.
He scored against Italy as they won their group. After seeing off Uruguay in the second round they met an England side rejuvenated after nearly going out after their opening two games. The Azteca Stadium on 22nd June 1986 has gone down in World Cup history. Some in England cannot forgive him for his first goal, rising to meet a strange backpass from Terry Fenwick, he punched the ball into the net. The players all saw it, Peter Shilton definitely saw it, some of the fans saw it. The officials didn’t. Maradona ran off to the side of the pitch beckoning his teammates to join him before the ref noticed.
Four minutes later he scored one of the greatest goals in football history. Gary Lineker, England’s main goal threat that day, explained recently how the pitch had recently been re-laid. It was a patchwork of grass squares.
“As soon as you put your foot down, the grass moved”, he explained.
All the more amazing when you consider his first two touches which took him clear of the England players. But that’s been much of the Maradona magic. Even fellow professionals were mesmerised at his genius.
Having beaten every challenge, as he neared Shilton he remembered what his brother said to him six years before. Instead of trying to toe-poke it past Shilton, he went around him and slotted it home.
It was an incredible goal. It summed up the contrast with Maradona. Many have talked about the two personas, Diego and Maradona. He was full of contradictions. The good, the bad. He said he picked the pocket of the English. It was his revenge for The Falklands and his Argentine countrymen loved him all the more for it. In a press conference after, he called it “the Hand of God”. It has remained one of the most notorious episodes in world football.
Maradona followed this up with two sublime goals in the semi-final win over Belgium. The second was just as astonishing as his second against England. For the final against West Germany, he was a little more subdued, as once again he was marked tightly. But one moment of magic was his through ball to Burruchaga to score the winning goal, just as it looked like the Germans would spoil the party.
Maradona and Argentina were world champions. Maradona was easily the player of the tournament.
Back at Napoli, the dream went on and on.
Influenced by a man at the peak of his powers, Napoli won Serie A for the first time in their 61-year history. Not only that, they won the league and cup double. Maradona called it “the most important celebration of his life”. The title had never been won by a mainland Southern Italian club before. His god-like status reached new, ridiculous heights.
The party went on for two months. A banner outside the cemetery read ‘you don’t know what you’re missing’.
Their first-ever European trophy arrived two years later as they beat VFB Stuttgart to lift the UEFA Cup. Then their second Serie A title was earned the following season.
Everything seemed set for Diego to once again lift the World Cup as the tournament arrived in Italy in 1990. He could do no wrong. Until he did.
By now his cocaine addiction was rampant. He was now partying longer during the week. The sciatica in his back required several injections. Lesser men would have crumbled under the pressure, but remarkably he was still able to perform to a very high level on the pitch.
If 1986 was his rise, 1990 was most definitely his fall. Drawn against Italy in the semi-finals in, of all places Naples, Maradona attempted to appeal to the locals to support his team over the hosts. When the game moved into a penalty shootout and Maradona scored his kick, the rest of Italy saw his claims as a betrayal of their nation.
His Argentina team was booed throughout the final, which descended into a spiteful affair. Two Argentinians received their marching orders and Germany won by a contentious penalty.
With two months of the 1990-91 season remaining, Maradona was chosen for a random drugs test after a win over Bari. He tested positive for cocaine and was subsequently banned for 15 months. He never played for Napoli again.
“When I arrived, there were 85,000 there to greet me”, he said, “when I left, I left alone”.
He was never the same. He was arrested back in Buenos Aires for cocaine possession, and after some negotiation with FIFA to allow him to leave Napoli, he had a brief spell with Sevilla.
In 1994 came his second positive drugs test. Aged 33, he was a surprise inclusion in the Argentina squad for USA ’94. Without a club, he had to work extra hard to be fit for the finals. He scored against Greece, then celebrated wildly right into a camera. After beating Nigeria, he received the news of his drugs test. He was gutted.
“I busted my balls!”, he said, “I worked my arse off like never before – and now this”, he tearfully protested.
It was later revealed his personal trainer had a bought a vitamin supplement in the States called Ripped Fuel, believing it to be the same as Ripped Fast, the supplement he’d been taking in Argentina. Sadly, the US product contained traces of ephedrine.
The rest of his footballing career was a mixture of failed playing performances and patchy managerial experiences. He was appointed national manager in 2008. At the 2010 World Cup, we had the delicious combination of Maradona managing a team containing Lionel Messi. He left the role soon after the tournament.
He died of a heart attack on 25th November 2020, aged 60. 15 years earlier, George Best died on the same day. Best was one of Maradona’s inspirations as he was growing up.
Tributes have poured in from around the sporting world, such was Maradona’s reach. In the history of football, only Pele has managed similar exposure.
For many, they preferred Pele’s cleaner image. If you like your heroes flawed, then there can hardly have been a more flawed genius than Maradona. With Maradona, you got more flaws and more genius.
The final word on Maradona is one from Pep Guardiola’s tribute. He read a banner once in Argentina which said
‘It doesn’t matter what you have done with your life, Diego. It matters what you have done with our lives’.