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January 15, 2021

Diego Armando Maradona was a god to many, a genius on the ball, and also just another flawed human being. He will be remembered as much for his many missteps as for his preternatural football skills.


It is hard to convey to the uninitiated the obsession and fascination some of us have with football (or soccer, as it is called in the US), just as many football fans outside the United States cannot fathom the appeal (or the rules) of baseball or American football. Yet every once in a while, a star athlete emerges who creates legions of new fans for sports those same people were barely familiar with before—think Venus and Serena Williams, Alex Morgan, Wayne Gretzky, Martina Navratilova, Tiger Woods, Florence Griffith Joyner.

Football has had its share of extraordinary athletes, from Pele to Johann Cruyff, Lionel Messi, and Megan Rapinoe, who probably more than anyone else helped popularize football in the last couple of years—all widely revered and known beyond the world of football. Yet one transcended them all: an Argentinian born in 1960 to a dirt-poor family in Villa Fiorito, the most destitute slum of Buenos Aires. His name was Diego Armando Maradona.

There is very little debate about Maradona’s status as the greatest, and most controversial, footballer of all time. Perhaps only one other athlete in the history of sports might surpass him in iconicity: Muhammad Ali. Both came from poverty-stricken backgrounds that created a powerful fury within that fueled them, albeit in very different ways. And both were antiestablishment figures who answered to no one but themselves, which also clearly contributed to their mythical status.

One of the starkest differences between Maradona and Ali was the former’s readiness to display vulnerability (America does not allow Black athletes the luxury of public susceptibility). After losing the World Cup final in 1990, while still on the pitch, Maradona burst out in tears, crying like a boy. Only four years earlier, he and the Argentine squad La Albiceleste had lifted the trophy after beating the same opponent, Germany. Public display of disappointment, frustration, and defeat is unusual for professional athletes, football players in particular. Yet, as with so many things Maradona, the public loved him even more for it. It proved he was in the game not for money, not for fame, but out of his intense devotion to football and love for his country.

Maradona likely knew there and then that it was the end of an era—that he’d never experience the success he’d enjoyed in so many matches and tournaments before. The following World Cup, in 1994, ended tragically for him. It was discovered that Maradona, at that point aged thirty-four and overweight, had taken ephedrine, an illegal stimulant. He was banned from the tournament, and it marked the end of his international career, if not his entire career. He had left his beloved club SSC Napoli in disgrace in 1992 after testing positive for cocaine (he claimed rivals had plotted against him, but he was widely known to use the drug). He would switch clubs in fast succession thereafter, never really finding his footing again, and finally retiring in 1997 at his boyhood club, Atlético Boca Juniors in Buenos Aires.

Maradona’s exceptional footballing skills encouraged forgiveness for on- and off-pitch antics that would have cost any other player their career. His involvement with the Neapolitan Camorra, his decades-long cocaine addiction, his friendship with Cuban dictator Fidel Castro, his infamous “Hand of God” goal in the 1986 World Cup quarterfinal, and his doping scandal at the 1994 World Cup were only the tip of the iceberg. Yet ultimately none of it mattered, and was dismissed as slipups or eccentricities by his fans. In fact, it was precisely those controversies that turned him in the eyes of many into El Diego de la gente, the people’s player.

Maradona had the charisma to command an entire stadium. His aura, his skills, his confidence, and his seeming invincibility rubbed off on everyone and especially the rest of the team, while he, apparently effortlessly, shouldered the pressure of both the team and tens of thousands of screaming fans. He was one of those rare leaders in football who can decide a game on their own, which in this sport is virtually impossible (unlike in basketball, for example, where one LeBron James or Michael Jordan can turn almost any NBA outfit into a championship team). Even more remarkable is that Maradona was not an all-out striker, a goal-scoring machine like Pele, but essentially a playmaker who engaged either as an attacking midfielder just behind the strikers, or as a second forward, or on occasion as an offensive central midfielder. His critical characteristics were his dribbling ability, creativity, vision, enormous control on the ball, and of course his majestic passes.

Maradona was unusually short for a football player—only about 1.65 meters (about five feet, five inches) tall. But his powerful legs and compact physique gave him a low center of gravity, which greatly aided his enormous agility and balance and allowed him to withstand the physical pressure of much taller and stronger players. Maradona’s capacity for tremendous acceleration and tight control of the ball at high speeds allowed him to change direction almost instantly, making it practically impossible to defend against him.

Two episodes in his remarkable life perfectly illustrate Maradona’s multifaceted personality as both the supernaturally skilled professional football player and the undisciplined and impudent renegade: Argentina’s win over England at the 1986 World Cup quarterfinal, and his time at SSC Napoli (1984–91), his career’s pinnacle.

The 1986 World Cup quarterfinal took place at the massive, ninety-thousand-seat Estadio Azteca in Mexico City. The game was an immense spectacle; the players were compared to gladiators entering the Roman Colosseum. Already hours before the match began, helpless stadium ushers were overrun by fans, many without tickets. As the game kicked off, the stadium was filled with over 114,000 spectators, far more than safety regulations allowed. But this was more than just a football match. Only a few years prior, the two countries had locked horns over ownership of the Falkland Islands (or the Malvinas, if you’re Argentinian), and the conflict had claimed hundreds of lives on both sides despite the islands’ minor relevance in the larger geopolitical context. The war’s pointlessness was probably best described by Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges, who called it “a fight between two bald men over a comb.” But at the time, during the Thatcher administration, many British people were fantasizing about the restoration of the British Empire.

It fell upon Maradona, then twenty-five, and his teammates to restore their nation’s honor and heal its emotional pain by defeating the treacherous demons of Britannia. And Maradona made sure that the press, the public, and the fans understood things in those terms. What happened in those ninety minutes was pure Maradona: the notorious goal known by every football fan as the “Hand of God,” and another that would later be referred to as the goal of the century.

The “Hand of God” goal exposed Maradona’s dishonest and shameless side—the side that wanted to win at all costs, even if it meant cheating and deception. Slow-motion replays and still photographs later exposed that Maradona had used his left hand to strike the ball into the English net, but at that time, VAR (video assistant referee) did not exist, and he successfully fooled everyone into thinking he’d used his head. After the game, and for many years thereafter, he described the maneuver as part his creation and part divine intervention: “a little with the head of Maradona and a little with the hand of God.” But the pictures proved otherwise.

Then, just four minutes later, Maradona would prove himself the incredible, preternaturally talented football player he truly was. He received the ball in the Argentinian half, turned around in a flash, and ran more than half the field’s length, dribbling past five English players in a slalom course before slotting the ball past the goalkeeper into the net. The stadium exploded with screams of amazement, roars of joy. It was an ovation of such intensity that the stadium structure began to crumble. This goal cemented Maradona’s mythical status and triggered a frenzy. The ecstatic commentary by Victor Hugo Morales, a Uruguayan journalist covering the game for Radio Argentina, became almost as legendary as Maradona’s goal:

Maradona has the ball, two mark him, he touches the ball. The genius of world football dashes to the right and leaves the third and is going to pass to Burruchaga. It’s still Maradona! Genius! Genius! Genius! Ta-ta-ta-ta-ta-ta-ta. Goooooooal! Goooooooal! I want to cry! Dear God! Long live football! Golaaaaazoo! Diegooooo! Maradona! It’s enough to make you cry, forgive me. Maradona, in an unforgettable run, in the play of all time. Cosmic kite! What planet are you from? Leaving in your wake so many Englishmen, so that the whole country is a clenched fist shouting for Argentina? Argentina 2, England 0. Diego!, Diego!, Diego Armando Maradona. Thank you, God, for football, for Maradona, for these tears, for this. Argentina 2, England 0.

El Diego had become El Dios. Watching recordings of “the goal of the century” still elicits ecstasy today.

For the two very different goals in this match, the media thereafter began describing Maradona as “half angel, half devil.” This moment was the point sport historians would later refer to as start of Maradona's postmodern phase. Eight days later, the tournament ended with an Argentinian win and Maradona, the team’s captain, kissing and hugging the World Cup, reluctant to let it go. Legend has it that he took the trophy to bed with him that night and carried it personally back to Argentina, which declared a two-day national holiday to celebrate his and the team’s achievement.

Maradona joined SSC Napoli in 1984, coming from FC Barcelona, where he had had, by his standards, an unsuccessful spell. Napoli and Maradona, however, seemed like a match made in football heaven. The entire team was built around him, and he became the star of the show, carrying Napoli from victory to victory. The club had always been in the shadow of the northern Italian clubs—AC Milan, Roma, and Juventus Turin. No southern team had ever won the Scudetto, or Serie A, the Italian championship. Rivalry between the rich north and the poor south had been a characteristic of Italy for centuries: the former looked down on the latter with condescension and racism, and the south loathed the north in return. It made sense that Maradona would choose a club like Napoli given Naples’s similarities in attitude, mood, and culture with Buenos Aires—a heady mix of poverty, crime, corruption, joy, family life, and love for the simple things. He and Naples shared the status of untamed underdogs. A local newspaper stated that their savior had arrived; it did not matter that they were an unruly, ungovernable city of millions that felt discarded by the rest of the country, that they had no “mayor, houses, schools, buses, employment, and sanitation—because we have Maradona.”

Maradona won the first-ever Serie A for Napoli in the 1986–87 season. Impromptu street parties lasted for seven days and nights and the city came to a standstill. Fans created murals and altars to worship their new saint, many of which are still standing, and newborn children were named Diego in his honor. They would again be champions in the 1989–90 season and finished runners-up in 1987–88 and 1988–89. Under Maradona, the team also won the 1987 Coppa Italia, the UEFA Cup in 1989, and the Italian Supercup in 1990. Maradona had achieved the seemingly impossible: a new empire was born and shifted the landscape of Italian football forever.

Yet dark clouds would soon rise over Naples as Maradona’s off-pitch life spiraled out of control: an illegitimate son with a Camorra boss’s sister, intensifying drug abuse, missed games and training sessions, extreme lack of fitness, and a bad Ferrari crash while under the influence. He was headline news not only in the sports sections of the newspapers, but on the front pages as well. At one point, Maradona grew so frustrated with the press scrutinizing his every move that he shot at several reporters with a rifle from his balcony. His ties to the Neapolitan underworld brought particularly unwelcome investigative attention. He received two temporary bans from playing for Napoli after positive drug tests. The last one ended with his exit from the club in disgrace. He left Naples secretly one morning in 1992, without notifying anyone, and flew back to Argentina, never to return.

One episode likely contributed more than anything else to Maradona’s failed relationship with Naples and Italy. In 1990, Italy was hosting the World Cup and faced Argentina in the semifinals. The game took place in Naples. It was clear that Maradona was facing an enormous conflict, but he stated that, as with any other player in the tournament, his home country was his priority. The game was mostly unremarkable and ended in a 1:1 draw, which meant both teams had to engage in a penalty shootout. Maradona scored the goal that knocked Italy out of the tournament on its own soil, which allowed Argentina to move forward into the final, where they lost against Germany. While many Neapolitans were cheering for Argentina and Maradona during the game (the Italian squad was comprised entirely of players from the north), the overall sentiment was that Maradona had betrayed Italy. It was a major nail in the coffin of Maradona’s stint there.

Maradona’s death at age sixty on November 25, 2020, came as a shock but not a real surprise. His health had deteriorated, and his drug addictions and turbulent lifestyle had taken their toll. Football lost one of its few supernatural geniuses, El Pibe de Oro (The Golden Boy). When his death was announced, the world mourned an icon who had defined a generation on and off the field. Even the ball, that most inclusive of shared toys, grieved inconsolably, weeping for the loss of its master, Diego Armando Maradona.

Claude du Bellay, a former professional athlete, is a freelance architect and writer of poetry. He lives near Saint-Gilles on the island of Réunion.

Cover photo courtesy of: Meazza Sambucetti Maradona celebrating after the Napoli team wins its first Italian league title in 1987


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