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hero and villain Diego Maradona - The boy from the shanty town who had world at his feet


A a boy touches a mural of Diego Maradona outside the stadium of Argentinos Juniors soccer club

A a boy touches a mural of Diego Maradona outside the stadium of Argentinos Juniors soccer club

A a boy touches a mural of Diego Maradona outside the stadium of Argentinos Juniors soccer club

DIEGO MARADONA, who has died following a cardiac arrest aged 60, was the most talented footballer of the 1980s, and in the estimation of many the most dominant player to have emerged since Pele; in a career never lacking in drama, he also proved himself a liar, a cheat and an egomaniac.

The sense of disappointment that accompanies Maradona’s name is not the familiar one engendered by a failure to fulfil potential in the manner of a Jimmy Greaves or a Paul Gascoigne.

Although Maradona did not win as many trophies as he perhaps should have done, there was no argument among his peers that, at his peak, he proved himself the best footballer in the world. Instead, the disappointment stems from what Pele described as the gulf between Maradona’s greatness as a player and his stature as a person.

That distance was most sharply illustrated, to English eyes at least, during the 1986 World Cup in Mexico, when England played Argentina in the quarter-finals of the competition. Five minutes into the second half, with the score at 0-0, the ball was hooked back by an England player towards the goalkeeper, Peter Shilton.

As he rose to claim it, he was challenged by Maradona, who used his left hand to punch the ball into the net. The infringement was not spotted by the officials and, to English disbelief, the goal was given.

Four minutes later Maradona scored one of the finest goals ever seen. Receiving the ball just inside his own half, he began to bear down on the English goal, swerving round two defenders and shrugging off two more attempted tackles before sliding the ball past a sprawling Shilton. It was a piece of footballing magic that he was to repeat in the semi-final against Belgium as Argentina moved inexorably towards winning the Jules Rimet trophy.

After the England game Maradona refused to admit that he had scored the first goal by cheating, though he did share the credit: the goal had been scored, he told reporters, “a little with the head of Maradona and a little with the hand of God”.

There were many excuses for the manner in which he had scored: the Argentine tradition of viveza (cunning play); the desire to avenge the Falklands War of four years before. But there was none that could disguise the revelation that both goals were equally accurate expressions of a brilliant yet flawed personality. He had divine skill, but many of the basest aspects of humanity, too.

Diego Armando Maradona was born at Avellaneda, across the river from Buenos Aires, on October 30, 1960. His mother worked as a domestic, while his father, who was of native Indian descent, had a job crushing cattle bones for meal. The family had few means, and Diego grew up in Villa Fiorito, one of the Argentinean capital’s poorer shanties. At the age of two he was saved from drowning in the communal cesspit by the intervention of an uncle.

From early childhood it was clear that he had remarkable control over a football, and that this would offer not only himself but those who clung to his shirt-tails a way out of poverty. Inspired, he recalled, by George Best, by the age of 10 he was entertaining crowds with his tricks at half-time in First Division matches, and was coming up through the ranks of Argentinos Juniors, a well-established club.

He had also encountered the first of a series of dubiously qualified doctors and dietitians who would play a significant role in his career; this one put him on a course of injections and pills which accelerated the maturing process of a physique which was then rather slight. Maradona grew to be only 5ft 5in tall, but his squat 11st frame with its low centre of gravity had both tremendous strength and pace, making him highly difficult to tackle, especially when he was dribbling at speed, his forte.

Left-footed (although good with both), he usually played in midfield, directing the game with a highly acute sense of strategy and regularly bursting forward to set up goals and to score himself.

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At 15, Maradona made his first-team debut for Argentinos Juniors, becoming the youngest player to play in the top flight in Argentina. A year later he was in the national team and already a star, even though the coach, Cesar Menotti, decided not to pick him for the 1978 World Cup (which was held in Argentina and won by them) as he had doubts about Maradona’s ability to cope with defeat.

The teenager responded by leading his compatriots to victory in the World Youth Championship the next year and while on loan to Boca Juniors, steering them to the league title in 1980.

Argentina’s triumph in the World Cup had provided a tremendous boost to the nationalist junta then running the country. While senior figures such as Menotti felt they had the freedom to question its repressive nature, Maradona, at a sensitive time in his career, appeared broadly to support it when asked; and though he had begun to attract attention from clubs as diverse as Barcelona and Sheffield United, he at first respected the regime’s wish that the country’s best players should not take their talents abroad.

His attitude changed, however, in 1982, during the World Cup held in Spain. There he saw uncensored news reports of the Falklands War, and in common with many Argentineans, rapidly became disillusioned with the junta, which had told its citizens that it was winning the conflict.

The tournament also represented a personal setback for Maradona. Having suffered at the feet of the Italian defenders, he lost his head when subjected to more of the same treatment by Brazil, and was sent off as Argentina surrendered the trophy they had won four years before.

Maradona (rather like David Beckham 16 years later) was vilified at home, and with the junta toppling saw no reason not to accept an offer from Barcelona, who had bid a record £5 million. He was still only 21.

Barcelona’s hope was that Maradona would help the club recapture the success it had enjoyed a few years earlier, when its star player was Johan Cruyff.


Two supporters hug each other outside the San Paolo Stadium as people gathered and pay their homage to soccer legend Diego Maradona, in Naples, Italy,

Two supporters hug each other outside the San Paolo Stadium as people gathered and pay their homage to soccer legend Diego Maradona, in Naples, Italy,

Two supporters hug each other outside the San Paolo Stadium as people gathered and pay their homage to soccer legend Diego Maradona, in Naples, Italy,

Maradona, however, found it harder to win over the club’s directors, principally because his private life soon became a byword for indulgence. The transfer had made him (and his extensive entourage) rich, but as no one was willing to rein in the golden goose, he quickly fell into bad company, debt and a cocaine habit.

Had the team’s fortunes been better on the pitch, his personal failings might have been overlooked; but while he played well on occasion, he often missed matches, failed to see eye-to-eye with his managers (even when Menotti was brought in), and then suffered a severe injury to his left ankle as the result of a foul by Andoni Goikoetxea, “the Butcher of Bilbao”. Thereafter the joint would become inflamed every time he played, and for the remainder of his career he needed to wear a larger-sized boot on his left foot.

Barcelona won the Copa Del Rey, or King’s Cup (the Spanish equivalent of the FA Cup) in 1983, but not the league or European honours the club thought its birthright; and when, at the end of the 1984 cup final, Maradona provoked a brawl with the victorious Bilbao players in front of the royal box, the club moved to rid itself of his disruptive influence.

With the assent of the new manager, Terry Venables, he was sold to Napoli for another world record sum of £10m.

His purchase was a statement by the Italian club’s ambitious owners that it wished to challenge the footballing (and so, metaphorically, the economic) dominance of the north of the country.

Maradona quickly felt at home in the city’s rumbustious, volatile ambience and in turn was treated by the Neapolitans as one of their own.

In exchange, he brought the club its first league title, in 1987, together with the Coppa Italia, the Uefa Cup in 1989, and a second scudetto in 1990. Taken with Argentina’s World Cup victory in 1986, these were his best years in the game. In 1990, however, his career began to implode. He had become prone to injury and to fluctuations in weight, but these the Italian fans had put up with.

They had also come to terms with the birth of an illegitimate son, the result of a brief affair with a young local woman, Cristiana Sinagra. Then, with the World Cup being played in Italy, Maradona made a grave miscalculation.

Argentina reached the semi-final, against Italy, which was due to be played in Naples. Maradona appealed to the local tifosi to back his side against their national team as a gesture of southern defiance.

The match was played instead in an atmosphere of hostile near-silence, and when Argentina contested the final in Rome against West Germany, his team was met with a hail of abuse. Argentina lost the match and the trophy, and Maradona lost the admiration of many Italians.

More particularly, his behaviour once back in Naples finally lost him the protection of the club, which had largely shielded him from investigation of his use of prostitutes and drugs and his friendships with senior members of the Camorra, the Neapolitan mafia.

In 1991, when he was given a 15-month ban after testing positive for cocaine, they cut their ties with him. Although no one knew it, at 30 Maradona’s best playing days were over.

He was by no means the first footballer to be caught with drugs, but by now his reputation was such that few clubs wanted to buy him, and those that were interested soon found him to be an over-pampered egoist.

For his part, Maradona seemed to have lost the urge to prove himself in the game. After serving his ban, he played in Spain for Sevilla for a few months in 1992-’93 before once more returning to Argentina in a huff.

Fifa then made every effort to persuade him to play in the 1994 World Cup, in the United States, such was his stature in the sport – and his importance to the commercial success of the tournament.

Having trained separately from the Argentina squad, he arrived looking in magnificent condition, and in the first couple of matches he played superbly. But his mad-eyed rush to camera to celebrate a goal gave some commentators pause for thought, and a few days later came the not entirely unexpected news that he had tested positive for five different forms of the stimulant, ephedrine.

Doping had been rife in Argentinean football since at least the 1978 World Cup, and it was simply a matter of personal opinion as to whether one believed that Maradona had deliberately cheated or had been, as he was for much of his career, manipulated by someone around him who had a stake in his continued success. That he had always lacked the intellect or willpower to take charge of the business side of his life was perhaps the saddest of Maradona’s flaws.

The scandal and subsequent suspension finished him as a force in world football – but not in Argentina, where his standing was inviolate (even when he wounded four journalists with an air rifle in 1994, for which he later received a suspended jail sentence). He played two more patchy seasons for Boca Juniors before another brush with drugs finally ended his time in football in 1997. He had won 91 international caps and scored 34 goals; he had played 608 games in all, finishing with 314 goals.

For the next few years he promoted himself as a kind of unofficial sports ambassador (even addressing the Oxford Union), although much of the promotion seemed to be only of himself. By 2000 a bloated Maradona had put on four stone in weight; he had become addicted to Valium and was living in Cuba. He suffered from a hereditary cardiac condition and that year had a severe heart attack.

From 2004 onwards Maradona’s health became of real concern. He was taken to hospital that year after suffering a heart attack brought on by cocaine use, and in 2005 had to have gastric bypass surgery to address his ballooning weight. Looking slimmer, he returned to public life, first as the host of a chat show in Argentina and then in a coaching role with Boca Juniors. He also began to spend much of his time in Cuba, he and Fidel Castro being mutual admirers.

Whether it was the benign influence of El Jefe, or later of Hugo Chavez of Bolivia, or some other impulse, by 2008 Maradona claimed to have beaten his addictions. That year, having had brief coaching stints in the Middle East and Argentina, he was appointed manager of the national side.

Although this stemmed entirely from his standing with the fans, Maradona proved to have the wherewithal to propel the team through to qualification for the 2010 World Cup when that seemed unlikely. Unwisely, he subsequently vented in public his disregard for his critics in the media, which led to a ban. When Argentina went out of the tournament in the quarter-finals, the national association chose not to renew his contract.

Despite regular health scares and misadventures, he remained iconic within the sport. At the 2018 World Cup in Russia, Fifa reportedly paid him £10,000 for every match he was seen attending, although this backfired when his celebrations on camera at an Argentina victory turned vulgar shortly before his appearing to need medical attention.

Ultimately Maradona remained the boy from the barrios, and indeed – unlike the more emollient Pele – he made much of retaining what he saw as his common touch. It was both his Achilles’ heel and the source of his genius. For all the failings of his character, there was no disputing the joy his accomplishments with the ball had brought to fans of football all over the world.

In 2004, Diego Maradona was divorced from his wife Claudia (née Villafane), his long-suffering childhood sweetheart, whom he married in 1989 and with whom he had two daughters, Dalma and Giannina. The latter married, and then divorced, the Manchester City and Argentina footballer, Sergio Aguero. Maradona’s son by Cristiana Sinagra, Diego Armando Jr, played for Italy’s U-17 side.

Diego Maradona, born October 30, 1960, died November 25, 2020.

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