The rise, fall and resurrection of Diego Maradona
The football World Cup in Qatar this month will be the first in 40 years not to feature one of the greatest footballers in history as a superstar or an exuberant fan.
Argentina’s Diego Armando Maradona died two years ago this month at the age of 60. His sublime performances in leading Argentina to the 1986 World Cup trophy have been rivalled only by Garrincha’s dominant displays in Brazil’s 1962 triumph.
Diego Maradona was born in the poverty-stricken Buenos Aires shanty town of Villa Fiorito on 30 October 1960. His father Diego Sr. was a bone-meat factory worker of Guaraní Indian stock, while his home-maker mother “Doňa Tota” ensured a strong Roman Catholic upbringing. Diego grew up with his seven siblings in a shack without running water.
Football provided the young boy’s escape from poverty after his uncle gave him a leather football for his third birthday. He obsessively played in the slum’s potrero (meadow), spending hours juggling the ball in the air. Maradona joined Argentinos Juniors at 16, scoring 116 goals in as many games.
At 20, he joined Boca Juniors, scoring 28 times in 40 appearances to lead them to Argentina’s Primera División Metropolitano title in 1982. The 5 feet 5 inches attacking midfielder had incredible vision, dazzling acceleration, and close dribbling skills.
Maradona moved to Spanish giants, Barcelona, in 1982 for a world record £5 million fee, spending only two years in Catalonia.
He was often targeted for rough treatment by defenders determined to stop him with tackles that would in today’s game receive straight red cards. He won the Copa del Rey with Barca, scoring 38 goals in two seasons. However, he fought with the club president, José Luís Núňez.
During one explosive confrontation, he entered the club’s trophy room and started smashing up cups until his confiscated passport was returned. Diego embodied “player power” long before the term entered into popular parlance. In 1984, he moved to Napoli in another world record £6.9 million transfer.
Naples was in Italy’s poorer South and proved a much better fit. Here, Diego reached his peak during six glorious years in which he won two Scudettos (league titles) in 1987 and 1990 – the first by any non-northern Italian team – and the UEFA Cup in 1989.
Maradona made his debut for Argentina at the age of 16. His greatest disappointment was being cut from César Menotti’s World Cup squad in 1978 which the Argentinian hosts went on to win. A year later, Diego led his country to win the youth World Cup in Tokyo. Maradona’s first senior World Cup was in Spain in 1982.
In a match against Italy, he felt the brunt of the hard-tackling hatchet man, Claudio Gentile, who nearly stripped him naked. Maradona’s World Cup ended in disgrace when he was sent off for kicking a player in the loss to arch-rivals, Brazil. Though a crushing experience, the tournament made him more determined to succeed.
The 1986 World Cup in Mexico cemented Maradona’s legend in football’s Pantheon. In the quarter-final against England, he showed both his deviousness and genius. Feigning to head the ball, he instead fisted it into the net without the referee having seen it.
He later famously described the goal as having been scored by “the hand of God.” Like the trickster in Third World folktales, he felt he had “picked England’s pocket,” rejecting embittered British claims of cheating. Moments later, Maradona received a pass in his own half. He turned swiftly, and set off on a dazzling 70-yard slalom run in which he dribbled past six England players before scoring what a FIFA poll later voted as “the Goal of the Century.”
Maradona had publicly presented the England match as just another football game. Privately, however, he was desperate to avenge Argentina’s loss to Britain in the 1982 Falklands War. Like Holland’s Johan Cruyff against Germany in the 1974 World Cup final, Maradona not only wanted to beat but to humiliate, England.
He scored two more spectacular goals against a dazed Belgian side in the semi-finals, before providing the crucial assist that saw the Albicelestes overcome a solid German team 3-2 in the final. Diego scored 34 goals in 91 appearances for Argentina.
Having become the world’s first global superstar in the multimedia age, Maradona found fame suffocating. As his Spanish biographer, Guillem Balagué noted: “Diego never accepted half-measures – he embodied excess, a messianic character who often spoke of himself in the third person, a man who lacked boundaries.”
Maradona’s unremitting two-decade hedonistic philandering and passion for sports cars continued, even as he became addicted to cocaine and alcohol, having become entangled with Naples’s Camorra Mafia.
His fall from grace came at the 1994 World Cup in the United States, when he was expelled from the tournament for using the performance-enhancing drug, ephedrine. The trickster had finally run out of tricks. For years, he had surreptitiously carried around a plastic penis and clear urine sample to deceive drug testers.
Maradona received another 15-month ban for cocaine use in 1991, before playing out his career with Sevilla, Newell’s Old Boys, and Boca Juniors. He had scored 259 goals in 491 club matches. While coaching unfashionable teams in Argentina, the United Arab Emirates, and Mexico, Maradona had become sickly. The death of his parents in 2015 denied him the non-judgmental anchors who had tried to keep him from the path of perdition.
In the last two decades of his life, Maradona constantly suffered from obesity; heart, lung, and liver problems; depression; anaemia; and dehydration, eventually succumbing to cardiac arrest following brain surgery. His long-suffering and devoted wife Claudia (with whom he had two daughters) eventually filed for divorce in 2003 after 20 years of a frustrating marriage in which her husband had fathered a reported nine other children.
Paradoxically, Maradona simultaneously represented fulfilled and wasted genius. South African journalist, Carlos Amato, dubbed him “the angel with horns.” He coached Argentina for two years, guiding his country to a creditable quarter-final finish at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.
Diego liked to portray himself as a rebel with a cause. He read prolifically about his country and continent, and had a tattoo of Argentinian revolutionary, Che Guevara, emblazoned on his arm, and another of the Cuban leader, Fidel Castro, on his calf. He would later find sanctuary in Cuba as a guest of Castro.
Only Brazil’s Pelé can be considered to have been a greater player than Maradona, having scored 1,279 career goals, won three World Cups, and been more consistently outstanding over a longer period. But while the Brazilian played in brilliant Santos and Brazilian teams, what made Maradona’s achievements so remarkable, was that his individual genius transformed ordinary Napoli and Argentinian teams into world-beaters.
Today, Maradona is still revered as a God in his native Argentina, where he embodies a nostalgic golden age that his country has long lost. The cult of “El Diego” is firmly entrenched in the national psyche in the 45 films and documentaries; 50 books; hundreds of university courses; and countless musical tangos.
After his death, Diego lay in state at the presidential palace, with three days of national mourning declared. His Buenos Aires home has been converted into a museum, while Newell’s Old Boys have named their stadium after him. In Italy, Neapolitans still worship Diego like a deity: Napoli’s stadium is named after him and the club retired his number 10 jersey, while his image is ubiquitous on murals across the city.
Argentina’s current talisman, Lionel Messi, unlike Maradona, grew up largely in the sheltered environment of Barcelona’s academy. His embrace by Argentinians has therefore never been as symbiotic as Maradona’s: a true son of the soil who delivered World Cup victory and restored national pride. Diego was a man of the people who understood the suffering of the masses from lived experience in a way that Messi never could.
A 35-year-old Messi is undoubtedly the world’s greatest player of his generation, and Qatar will be his last chance to win a World Cup, having lost a final to Germany in Brazil in 2014. The world wonders whether Argentina’s current number 10 can finally replicate the heroics of his idol during that long, hot, glorious Mexican summer 36 years ago.
Professor Adebajo is a senior research fellow at the University of Pretoria’s Centre for the Advancement of Scholarship in South Africa.