December 05, 2020

Maradona, The Lost Legend

Football is the most popular sport in the world. It's played by millions of people in hundreds of countries. In fact, a survey by FIFA at the turn of the 21st century reported that there were approximately 250 million active football players, with millions more directly involved in the game as referees, assistant referees and officials. That's not even counting the over 1.3 billion people who registered 'interested' in the game. You only need to review the FIFA World Cup viewing figures to see the games influence; the 2018 World Cup in Russia captured over 3.5 billion people's imagination (and that covers just the official broadcasting media). So, it will come as no surprise that the majority of people across the globe are aware of the name 'Maradona', or why, when he passed away at the end of November 2020, so many were affected. 

The death of Diego Armando Maradona, Argentina's ultimate football legend, triggered mourning across the globe but nowhere more so that in his home country Argentina, and in Naples, his adopted home country during the 1980s. After his death was announced, stadiums across Argentina switched on their floodlights to honour the country's hero, and fans congregated at La Bombonera, the Boca Juniors' stadium in Buenos Aires where he played in his youth to share in their loss. Similarly, in Naples, fans flocked to the Napoli club stadium, where Maradona played for seven years, to pay their respects. During the wake, which embraced all the protocol of a state funeral, tens of thousands flooded the streets of Buenos Aires. His coffin, laid to rest in the presidential palace, was visited by innumerable numbers of mourners, including the Argentine president - who declared three days of national mourning for this national icon. And, his funeral procession saw the streets from the presidential palace to the Bella Vista cemetery, on the outskirts of Buenos Aires, lined with fans wishing to say their last farewells. Since his death, calls have been made for FIFA to retire the number 10 jersey that Maradona wore during his career. And in Italy, Napoli plans to change the name of their home stadium, San Paolo Stadium, in his honour.

The outpouring of grief reveals Maradona was esteemed for much more than his skills on the ball - although his talent was phenomenal. So, what was it that made a man a living legend with an almost deity-like following?

Who was D10S?

Born into the slums of southern Buenos Aires in 1960, Maradona’s blossoming talents were spotted when he was aged just eight years old. He began playing for the Cebollitas, youth team to the first division side Argentinos Juniors. A gnat’s whisker away from his 16th birthday, he made his debut for Argentinos Juniors first team and his relationship with fame began. His eye for goal saw him take up the position of lead scorer in the team over a period of five years. Coupled with his playmaking skills, creative capabilities, ball control and technical abilities, he was quickly picked up for the Argentine national under-20s team - for which he was a key player in their World Youth Championship final against the Soviet Union. He was in short a teen sensation with a successful career almost guaranteed. Indeed, in 1981, Maradona joined Argentina’s esteemed Boca Juniors, where he helped the club win the 1982 Argentina Primera División Metropolitano with 28 goals in 40 appearances. And, at the tender age of just twenty-one, he appeared in his first World Cup, which led to his departure to Spain’s Barcelona for a record fee at the time of £5 million ($7.6 million). He had come a long way from the slums on sheer talent alone and the Argentines, reportedly, had a hard time letting their new hero go.

At Barcelona he won the Copa de Rey, the Spanish Super Cup and the world's biggest club game, El Clásico, scoring 38 goals in his 58 games for the club. The El Classico competition match against Real Madrid showed Diego’s ball mastery and, some say, his genius to full effect. He scored a goal that was only possible through lightning quick vision and ability to read the game, and sensational ball control - the move got him an ovation from his opponents fans! However, Maradona’s status as a football superstar may have been rising, but the cracks in the dream were beginning to show. He left Barcelona, for Italy’s Napoli for another record transfer fee of £6.9 million ($10.48 million), under a cloud of conflict brought about through frequent disputes with the clubs management, fighting on the pitch and what was the beginnings of cocaine and alcohol addictions.

Despite this, Maradona’s 1984 highly anticipated move to Napoli was an unbelievable success. His passion, presence and leadership on the pitch (he was made captain of the team), together with his ridiculously inspirational ball skills helped to swing the teams fortunes from beleaguered, second rate squad to Italian and European champions. Napoli was elevated into a Serie A giant with two championship wins - in 1987, the club’s first ever, and in 1990. With Maradona on board the team also scored wins with the Coppa Italia (1987), the UEFA Cup (1989) and the Italian Super Cup (1990). This would have been enough to cement his status in Italy, but his contribution to the 1986 World Cup turned him into a legend across the globe and, in Naples and Argentina, it transformed him into a god.

World Cup 1986

Most people will know Diego Maradona in connection with Argentina's 1986 World Cup win in Mexico, particularly their 2-1 quarter-final winning match against England. It was here that his legacy as the world's greatest football player was cemented, and his winning goal against the English team rated as one of the most stunning ever. In a match that stunned the world, Maradona, in the games 51st minute, scored the legendary 'hand of God' goal. Competing for a high ball with England goalkeeper Peter Shilton, Maradona impossibly beat his much taller opponent and scored a goal. That goal, which changed the course of history, was deemed by the referee to have been headed in. Maradona had actually punched the ball over the line; the foul, much to an entire English nation's dismay, went unpunished. Maradona got away with it and later described the goal as one achieved "a little with the head of Maradona and a little with the hand of God".

Though that goal was controversial, the winning goal that put Argentina on course to win the '86 World Cup, cancelled out, in all minds but those of the English, that misdemeanour by its sheer brilliance. Maradona picked up the ball in his own half and dribbled it circuitously for 60 meters passed five England players before, with a well-timed feint to bamboozle Peter Shilton, whacking it to the back of the opposition's net. It was a superb solo goal, which demonstrated his attacking midfield prowess, his extraordinary skills and his immense goal-scoring ability. And, now the whole world knew it.

All eyes were on Maradona in the finals from that point on. The relatively average Argentine side was led by Maradona, as captain, and by his sublime skills, to World Cup victory. Indeed, Maradona scored or assisted 10 of Argentina's 14 goals, including the assist for the winning goal in the final match against West Germany. The tournament won him FIFA's Golden Ball, Silver Shoe, Most Assists and All-Star Team awards, and in 2002 the FIFA Goal of the Century. It also won him mind-boggling notoriety.

The win against England was seen by the Argentinian's as divine retribution for an entire nation that had previously been an informal part of the British Empire and had felt the underdog in the relationship. And for the war they'd lost over the Falkland Islands against the English four years earlier. Maradona, aside from his awe-inspiring playing skills and blatant, but creative, cheating during the match against England, was credited with a much deeper and symbolic victory against the Argentine oppressors. Scoring those goals against the English turned Maradona into a divine symbol of Argentina's independence and strength - living up to that status proved to be hard work...

Losing A Legend

Maradona's post '86 godlike status in his home country and his adopted city (a year after the World Cup he led Napoli to the first championship in their history, for which he was idolised) came with its own costs. This worshipped player could do no wrong and was given the freedom to explore just how far he could push his, his clubs' and his family's boundaries without fear of reprisal. And so, surrounded by murals and shrines to himself and scores of adoring fans wherever he went, he seemed to do just that; cocaine and alcohol abuse, mafia associations, extramarital affairs became the norm, as did missing training and missing games.

Eventually, in 1992, the dream started to come crashing down. Maradona was handed a fifteen-month drugs ban after a failed drug test at Napoli. Then two years later he was expelled from the United States of America's '94 World Cup while playing for his home nation. The fall from grace ended his international career, and his club career's end wasn't far behind. After brief spells at Spain's Sevilla FC and Argentina's Newell's Old Boys and Boca Juniors, he retired in 1997. Despite interludes as a manager for the Argentine national team and several Middle Eastern and Mexican teams, addiction, exploitation and previous injuries all took their toll, after a number of health scares he finally died in poor health on the 25th November 2020. His meteoric rise to worldwide fame and reverence also saw him become lost behind his legend status, something no amount of adoration could fix.

But, despite Maradona's misdemeanours and his fall from grace, he is still held in high regard and remembered fondly by Argentine's, former team-mates and those who spent any time with him. His playing skills, his down to earth nature, his generosity and the gifts of dignity he gave to Argentina and Napoli. Maradona's brilliance on the field has never been surpassed; it was something that shone through and burned brighter and longer than he was able to manage.

Published: December 05, 2020
Last updated: December 05, 2020
Related Articles