The world was thrown into mourning yesterday when the news broke that the man known by many as the greatest footballer to walk the earth has died, at age 60, of a heart attack. There is still the debate over who is the very best between the Argentine and Brazil’s Edson Arantes dos Nascimento, also known as Pele, but there is no argument that the hero of the 1986 World Cup was the best of his generation.
Maradona had earlier in the month undergone brain surgery to take care of a blood clot on the brain and was understood to be recovering at home.
Maradona would be most remembered for how he inspired his country to World Cup glory in 1986 when, as captain, he displayed a level of skill, creativity, strength, and desire arguably not seen before or since. In the same tournament, in a 2-1 quarterfinal victory over England, he also scored perhaps the greatest goal of all time during the match in which he also showed his mischievous side with the infamous ‘Hand of God’.
In Argentina, Maradona was regarded as more than just a sports icon; he was a divine figure, a cult hero of some sort. A newspaper, the Houston Chronicle had sometimes described him as a combination of Michael Jordan’s athleticism, Babe Ruth’s power, and Mike Tyson’s human fallibility. Such was the cult following he had across the football world and in his native country, Argentina, that he had simply, over time, become a symbol of hope and an idol to millions.
Born on October 30, 1960, Maradona burst onto the international football scene at the U-21 FIFA World Youth Championship held in Japan in 1979. While Argentina proved unstoppable in the tournament, deploying their one-touch football to devastating effect, the tournament heralded the arrival of truly exceptional talent in Maradona as a top goal scorer (he was a second-best marksman in the tournament with six goals), free-kick specialist, and deft passer. He came on as a fine crosser of a ball, with a change of pace that would leave the best defenders bewildered, and a never erring the first touch of the ball, as the footballing world would discover to its cost a few years later.
Early signs of greatness
Maradona grew up in Villa Fiorito near Buenos Aires as the fourth child of Tota and Chitori Maradona. At three years old, Diego received a ball as a birthday present from a cousin and it became a dear companion from the start. His exceptional talent was obvious from a very young age such that at age eight, he went to Argentinos Juniors for trials. When the coaches saw what he could do with the ball, they asked him for his identification card; they simply couldn’t believe that the boy was really that young (in reality, he was small for his age). Once it became clear that Maradona wasn’t lying, the coaches decided to devote themselves to improving his skills.
Even before he was ready to play matches for the senior team, the prodigy was in the spotlight: when Argentinos Juniors played, he would perform tricks with the ball at halftime. His reputation grew. At 15 years old, Maradona made his official debut for Argentinos Juniors first team and became the youngest player ever in the Primera. A few months later, he made his debut in the Argentina national team in a friendly against Hungary. This happened in early 1977, the year before Argentina would be hosting the World Cup. César Luis Menotti, the coach of the national team, finally decided to exclude the big talent from the World Cup squad – Diego was devastated. Maradona went on to spend five years at the Argentinos Juniors, scoring 116 goals in 166 appearances.
When the time came to move on, he chose to play for Boca Juniors, the team he supported from childhood. Despite the fact that he would only play a single season for Boca, he made it a special one. With 28 goals in 40 appearances, he led the team to a Primera Division title. At the end of the season, he took part in his first World Cup.
After a less-exciting show at the World Cup, Given his rapid development and consistently commanding displays, it was no surprise Maradona was soon being courted by Europe’s biggest clubs. In 1982, after a less-exciting show at the World Cup, having featured at his first World Cup in Spain, he joined Barcelona for a then world-record fee of $7.3 million. Unfortunately, the Argentinian star didn’t make a great impact in La Liga. The circumstances were not ideal. He struggled to show his best form for the Catalans. On the pitch, he was constantly fouled, culminating in a broken leg after a horrific tackle in September 1983 following a tackle from the “Butcher of Bilbao”, Andoni Goicoechea. Outside the pitch, the relations with the staff was sometimes bad. It was also at Barca that Maradona made his first acquaintance with cocaine.
Napoli dream and World Cup glory in 1986
IN 1984, Maradona was transferred to Napoli for another world record fee of $13 million. Upon his arrival in Naples, a local newspaper noted that the city lacked schools, buses, houses, employment, and sanitation, but none of that mattered as they had Maradona. Once he saw the 75,000 Neapolitans at his presentation, Maradona decided that he would repay their love by giving it all on the pitch. The Argentinian surely made an impression in his first Seria A season (Napoli came third after Juventus and Roma), but much more was to come.
In the meantime, the World Cup finals were to take place in Mexico. By the time the competition rolled around, there was no doubt about who the best football player in the world was. This time, there was no stopping him, with violent fouls or otherwise – he was simply too fast and too powerful for everyone else, and the referees didn’t allow the foul play that had been an effective method for the opponents four years ago. Thanks to his low centre of gravity, ball control, dribbling skills, vision, passing, and reaction times, Maradona exerted his power against every player and every team he faced at the tournament.
After eliminating old rivals Uruguay, Argentina was set to face England in the quarter-finals. This was the match in which Maradona’s legend was fully cemented. Just four minutes after sparking his team to a 1-0 lead by scoring with his hand – an incident he later called the ‘Hand of God,’ Maradona did something even more unthinkable. He received the ball in his team’s half and then ran past five English players before slotting the ball past goalkeeper Peter Shilton. Eleven touches, 60 meters, and the goal of the century.
He followed that up by scoring a brace against Belgium in the semi-finals, setting up the final match against West Germany. Though the Germans managed to contain him by double-marking, Maradona still decided the match by assisting Burruchaga for the winning goal in Argentina’s 3-2 victory over West Germany. After leading his country to the first World Cup title in their history, he was unanimously voted Player of the Tournament.
A troubled personal life
After the World Cup glory, Maradona also achieved success at club level, most notably with Napoli, whom he led to their first Serie A title in 1987. A second followed in 1990, alongside an Italian Cup in 1987 and a UEFA Cup in 1991, and such was the player’s impact at a club which previously had lived in the shadow of Italy’s northern powerhouses, particularly Juventus, Milan, and Internazionale, that Napoli announced in 2000 that they were retiring his No 10 shirt.
However, it was during his seven years in Naples, that Maradona’s addiction to cocaine took a grip. He would party Sunday to Wednesday, cleanse until a game on Saturday, and then start it all again. Drug testers mysteriously never picked him, or if they did, he somehow passed. (“Someone would pee for him,” one club official admitted years later.) His talent was such that not only did he manage to play and not get caught, but he was also winning. There appeared to have been no period during his Napoli spell during which he was not taking cocaine. But in that time, he won two league titles, a UEFA Cup and the 1986 World Cup.
He would later get hit with a 15-month suspension for drug violations in 1991 – the year he left Napoli – and, three years later, was thrown out of the World Cup in the US after testing positive for ephedrine.
Maradona took part in two further World Cups – in 1990 when he captained Argentina to runners-up place, and 1994, when he was sent home having scored in the 4-0 group victory over Greece, which proved to be his last appearance for his country. In total Maradona was capped 91 times, scoring 34 goals.
At club level, Maradona joined Sevilla following his departure from Napoli before returning to his homeland to play for Newell’s Old Boys and Boca, where he retired in 1997.
From there Maradona’s personal life spiralled out of control and in 2000 and 2004 he was hospitalised for heart problems, the second time requiring the use of a respirator to breathe properly. The following year, he underwent gastric bypass surgery to help stem his obesity.
None of that, however, could overshadow his talents on the pitch, which, at their peak, were almost supernatural.
A career in management didn’t seem to appeal to the national icon until the Argentine FA brought him back into the fold in 2008. Maradona led Argentina to the 2010 World Cup, where they crashed out 4-0 to Germany in the quarter-finals.
Following his personal battles, he had managed Argentina for two years, taking them to the 2010 World Cup in South Africa where a team containing the likes of Juan Sebastian Veron, Carlos Tevez, and Lionel Messi reached the quarter-finals.
A year later, and has left the national team post, he took charge of Dubai-based club Al-Wasl before going on to hold a number of positions, including as Dorados head coach in Mexico and most recently, Argentinian first division side, Gimnasia in his native Argentina.
His personal battles notwithstanding, it is for his playing exploits that Maradona will be best remembered. Having been named South American Footballer of the Year on five occasions, he was in 2000 named Fifa’s Player of the Century alongside Pele following a combination of an internet poll and nominations from FIFA officials, coaches, and players. Maradona won the popular vote.
CREDIT: GUARDIAN NG