The news hit the wires on Wednesday afternoon on 25th November, 2020 that Diego Maradona was dead. At the age of 60, Maradona suffered a cardiac arrest at his home in Tigre, Buenos Aires.
El Diego hadn’t been in good health for much of the previous 30 years, having become addicted to cocaine during the mid-1980s, and having suffered serious health scares on a couple of occasions during the 2000s. Despite his long term ill-health, Maradona’s death still came as a shock.
The man they called El Pibe de Oro, meaning ‘Golden Boy’ in Argentina had been admitted to a hospital in La Plata at the start of November, undergoing surgery for a blood clot on his brain. But the surgery was a success, and Maradona was discharged around two weeks later.
Unfortunately, decades of drug and alcohol abuse, obesity, and struggles with addiction had seemingly taken their toll on one of the greatest footballers of all time, and his eventual passing from a cardiac arrest saw tributes pouring in from all around the world.
Diego Armando Maradona was one of the most famous athletes of all time. While the world of football mourned, in Argentina though, it was different. It’s difficult to describe the importance of Maradona to the people of Argentina not just as a footballer, or athlete, but as a cultural icon.
Maradona was a flawed genius, but his flaws just made him all the more human. It may be hard for some people to understand, but Lionel Messi could have won Argentina the 2014 and 2018 World Cup’s, and eclipsed – statistically – the accomplishments of El Diego, but in Argentina’s national consciousness, no one will ever take his place. Messi never stood a chance.
It isn’t just about talent or performances, it’s about the devil inside of Maradona – the will to win, at all costs, and the way in which he always seemed to be on the edge. Lionel Messi is like footballing perfection. His passing is pinpoint, his finishing laserlike, and he almost never loses possession of the ball.
Maradona wasn’t nearly as dependable in all of these areas. He made far more mistakes, both on – and most emphatically of all – off the pitch. But there was a spark inside of him that burnt as brightly as the sun in the searing summer heat of Buenos Aires.
Maradona was a maverick who had a deep love of football, but oftentimes endured a troubled relationship with the sport. During the good times though, there was nothing quite like the love affair between Diego Armando Maradona and the most popular sport on Earth.
He had that all too rare ability to be able to drag a team up out the mire and towards greatness. A volatile and often unpredictable character – with his many demons – Maradona might not have been an obvious choice as captain, but out on the pitch his desire could never be questioned.
Maradona was capable of lifting everyone around him with his ferocious, explosive talent, and refusal to ever be beaten. Even some of Maradona’s darkest moments, such as when he was sent home from the 1994 World Cup in disgrace, were motivated by an unwavering will to win, most fervently expressed whenever he represented the national team.
In the season before the 1994 World Cup, Maradona had made just five appearances back in Argentina with Newell’s Old Boys. At the age of 33, Maradona was still recovering from his 15-month suspension for cocaine abuse at Napoli. In fact, in many respects he was in no fit state to compete on world football’s biggest stage.
Consequently, he took the performance enhancing drug known as ephedrine, primarily in order to lose weight and regain fitness. Although Maradona’s time with both Napoli and Argentina’s national team ended in long-term drug-related bans, and are often described as having ended in disgrace, Maradona remains both Naples and Argentina’s most loved son.
Maradona grew up poor in the slums of Villa Fiorito, on the outskirts of Buenos Aires. His mother and father were childhood sweethearts, and Diego was the family’s fifth child, but their first son.
He honed his skills on the streets of Villa Fiorito as a child, falling in love with football, and attracting the attention of Argentinos Juniors scouts whilst he was only eight years old. Maradona was spectacularly talented, even from that early age, and during his time as a ball boy, he would delight spectators at half time through his freestyling ability.
Maradona never lost that childish spirit and love of having the ball at his feet, and his training routines were as joyous and personalised at 30 as they had been when he was just 12.
He made his Argentinos Juniors debut at the age of 15, 10 days shy of his 16th birthday, and there may never have been a more talented 15-year-old in the history of the sport. Maradona is always remembered for his performances with Argentina and Napoli, but his early years were among the most phenomenal aspects of his playing days.
Maradona idolised Independiente legend Ricardo Bochini whilst he was breaking into the Argentinos Juniors first team – and indeed for all his life.
Bochini was a classic Argentine number ten with a superb understanding of the game and ability on the ball, although his physical attributes were far from outstanding, and his shooting didn’t pack much of a punch.
Nonetheless, he was Maradona’s idol, but by the age of 18, Maradona had already outgrown anything Bochini could do on the pitch. As a 17-year-old, he scored 19 goals for Argentinos Juniors in a single season, and by 19, he was averaging a goal a game as a withdrawn forward.
Maradona was just 17 when Argentina hosted the 1978 World Cup, but already many were outraged when César Luis Menotti left him out of his World Cup winning squad.
By the time the 1982 World Cup came around, though still only 21, Maradona was the most expensive footballer in the world. Following a single season at Boca Juniors, Maradona was signed by Barcelona for £5 million, smashing a world record that had stood for six years.
Within two years, he had broken his own record, becoming the first player to set world record transfer fees twice. The 1982 World Cup was played in Maradona’s new country of residence, Spain, but it would be a tournament to forget for El Diego.
Combatted aggressively – most famously by Claudio Gentile against Italy – Maradona struggled to get a hold in games, as Argentina’s campaign was coloured by internal conflict, particularly between the old guard who had won the World Cup four years earlier and the younger players like Maradona.
In Argentina’s final game, Maradona was sent off five minutes from time against the nation’s eternal enemies, Brazil. It was the first heartbreak of many during Maradona’s career, but redemption would arrive in Mexico four years on. El Diego’s time in Catalonia was disrupted by illness, injuries, and ill-discipline, although he was still majestic in full flow.
Despite suffering a broken ankle and a bout of hepatitis, Maradona still managed to score 38 goals in 58 games in just two seasons at the Camp Nou – becoming the first Barca player to receive a standing ovation at the Santiago Bernabeu.
Ultimately, it was his fighting both with the opposition on the pitch – and with club president Josep Luís Núñez off the pitch – that led to Barcelona’s decision to sell Maradona in the summer of 1984.
Maradona still had a reputation as one of the finest players on the planet, commanding a second world record fee, but his destination of choice came as a surprise to some. Napoli had been showing the ambition to rival Italy’s established teams over the past 12 months, but they had still finished 12th in Serie A the season before Maradona arrived.
Around 75,000 fans greeted the Argentine when he arrived in Naples, hailing him as a God from day one. Although it was during his time in Naples that Maradona’s struggles with addiction began to spiral, it was also the period in which he reached the peak of his powers.
Whilst not single-handedly, as the cliche so often goes, Maradona was the key cog in dragging Napoli from a bottom half side into a full blown juggernaut which brought an end to the Milan and Turin-based teams holding a stronghold over the Scudetto.
Over the next seven years, Maradona played more than 250 games for Napoli, becoming the club’s all time top scorer – a record that wasn’t surpassed until Marek Hamsik eventually did decades later. With Maradona as captain, Napoli won two Serie A titles, one Coppa Italia, one UEFA Cup, and Supercoppa Italiana.
It was also during his time at Napoli that Maradona redeemed himself at the world football’s premier cup competition and reached what is quite possibly the peak level of performance any footballer has ever reached at a major tournament.
Even for someone as talented as Maradona, the level he reached at the 1986 World Cup was just something else. Against Belgium in particular, but also against England – and virtually every time Argentina took to the field – there was no stopping the explosive 5’5” number ten.
Maradona twisted and turned past every challenge, weaving past defenders and making football look ludicrously simple. Once again, it is hyperbole to claim that Maradona single-handedly won the World Cup for his country, as some have done, but it is not hyperbole to suggest that he was the best footballer of all time at that particular moment in time.
Messi and Ronaldo may have outstripped Maradona’s career achievements over the last 15 years, certainly both have been far more consistent and have remained at the highest level for a lot longer, but neither has ever had a tournament like Maradona at the 1986 World Cup.
If you are someone who judges players on their performances when it matters most, and you value the World Cup above all else, it’s easy to see why you might come to the conclusion that Diego Armando Maradona is the greatest football player of all time.
During the 1990s, many of the vices Maradona had developed during the mid-80s began to catch up with him. He failed a drugs test at Napoli and was slapped with a 15-month ban, with his struggles with cocaine addiction becoming well-known.
Maradona had developed a reputation for missing training sessions and turning up to games not exactly fighting fit, and this was inevitably spilling over into his performances. He remained a force of nature on the pitch, regardless of the substances in his body, but that 15-month ban was too much for Napoli to bear.
He left the club in 1992 and spent a single season with Sevilla, before returning to Argentina, firstly with Newell’s Old Boys, and then with Boca Juniors.
As already mentioned, it was during this time that Maradona was sent home from the 1994 World Cup in an international scandal due to doping, and that put an end to his 17 year love affair with the Argentina national team, with whom he won 91 caps.
Maradona actually retired after the 1994 World Cup and went into management, before making a playing comeback, though his health struggles made his return a struggle at Boca Juniors.
Though he had no official roles within the world of football between 1997 and 2008, Maradona was never out of the headlines for long, whether for good or bad.
There were repeated hoaxes stating that he had died during 2007, as he underwent gastric bypass surgery due to his long-term struggles with obesity. The new, slimmed down Maradona went on to manage the Argentina national team, in a wildly controversial tenure.
At the time of his death, Maradona was still working in management, coaching top flight Gimnasia de La Plata, having been involved in coaching in some capacity almost permanently for the last 12 years.
There would probably have been more lucrative ways for Maradona to spend his time, given his enormous global image and brand, juxtaposed with his volatile reputation as a coach, but Maradona simply couldn’t stay away from football – the sport was in his blood.
Just a month before his death, Gimnasia won 3-0 on Maradona’s birthday, and he required assistance just to make his way to the dugout.
In hindsight, Maradona does not look like a well man, but his love of the game was undiminished. As an Englishman, I sometimes felt as though I was raised to hate Maradona.
His ‘Hand of God’ goal against England at the 1986 World Cup was among the most high-profile acts of cheating the sport has ever seen, and no doubt had such an action knocked England out of a World Cup during my lifetime, I would feel greatly aggrieved.
But somehow, I have just never been able to find it in my heart to hate Maradona. That game perhaps summed him up better than any other.
A hero and a villain, a genius and a cheat, but always entertaining, always controversial, and willing to stop at nothing to win a game of football.
Besides, Peter Shilton was about a foot taller than him, hand or no hand there’s no way Maradona should have been getting to that ball first. And Maradona’s second goal of the game against England was surely the best goal scored in any World Cup – ever.
There are many reasons why I have always found it difficult to dislike Maradona. For one, I love football, and anyone who cannot appreciate the things that Maradona could do with a ball at his feet, I would suggest – does not. And then there’s the fact that Maradona is a bit of all of us.
We are all conflicted, imperfect human beings, with talents and flaws that make us who we are. Maradona may have had more flaws than most, but he also had more talent, perhaps more than anyone else in the history of the sport.
The world of football lost one of its greatest players and biggest characters in 2020, but in the footage of his brilliance and in tales that will now be passed down through generations, his genius will never be forgotten.