Football Features

Diego Maradona: “The greatest, the best, the artist”

By Muhammad Butt

Published: 23:47, 25 November 2020

A legend has left us: Diego Maradona has passed away at the age of 60.

The Argentine forward suffered a heart attack at his home, two weeks after he was released from hospital having undergone a successful operation to prevent bleeding in his brain. The shock of the news has plunged the football world into a period of mourning.

Quite literally, in some places. His native Argentine will now observe three days of national mourning. Every Champions League game held a minute’s silence beforehand, and Boca Juniors postponed their Copa Libertadores game. Some of this would seem excessive for a footballer but, although he was one of the greatest to ever play the game, Diego Maradona was no mere footballer. No. Maradona was something more. Something primal. Mythic.

Diego Armando Maradona was born in Lanus, just south of Buenos Aires. He grew up in a shantytown called Villa Fiorito but even as a youngster his talent was obvious. Moving to Buenos Aires with his family, he was spotted by scouts and signed for Argentinos Juniors.

Maradona flew through the ranks and debuted in the Primera Division while still just 15 years old. He nutmegged a man that day, instantly demonstrating the range and daring nature of his game. His first professional goal came just after his 16th birthday.

 

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Maradona spent five years with his first club (scoring 116 times in 166 games) before joining Boca Juniors in 1980. There he would win his first taste of silverware, capturing the title in 1981 (28 goals in 40 games) and subsequently moving to Barcelona for a world-record fee just before the 1982 World Cup.

Cesar Luis Menotti (his coach at Barcelona) declined to take him to the 1978 World Cup, declaring him too young at 17. And so, after Maradona missed out on that medal, his first chance to guide Argentina to glory came in in 1982.

It didn’t happen, in part because of the now legendary man-marking job Claudio Gentile did on him. And although the very fact Maradona, then just 21, demanded this level attention from opponents, the world didn’t see the full extent of that talent at Barcelona either. He scored 38 times in 58 games, but a broken ankle courtesy of a horror challenge from Andoni Goikoetxea completely derailed his career. His time in Catalunya ended with a massive brawl following defeat in the 1984 Copa del Rey final (including Maradona trying to get revenge on Goikoetxea), and this just about sums it up.

Sick of the headaches, Barcelona secured a world-record transfer deal taking him to Napoli, where his legend truly began.

Napoli was the perfect place for Maradona to land. A team that had talent but needed inspiration, and a city that was much the same. Maradona needed to be adored, and Naples was ready to adore him.

From the start, Maradona was electric for Napoli. He lifted the side up, and in 1986-87 guided them to their first-ever Serie A title – scoring 10 goals along the way. The Argentina made it a double with a 4-0 aggregate win over Atalanta in the Coppa Italia final.

Now that Maradona had started winning, he didn’t stop. The Uefa Cup was captured in 1989, a second Serie A title in 1990 (after two straight second-place finishes) followed by a Supercoppa Italiana. Napoli were legitimately one of the very best teams in the best league in the world, the best league probably at the peak of its powers, too. This was Maradona’s genius.

Of course as good as Napoli was for Maradona the footballer, it was perhaps not the best for Maradona the man. Partying, drugs, alleged links to local crime organisations. Maradona’s life was nowhere near healthy enough and would have destroyed a regular player, but Maradona was never regular, never normal.

The height of Maradona’s mythic status, of his “non-normalness,” came of course at the 1986 World Cup in Mexico. The Argentine was determined to make something happen and it showed with a truly special seven-game run to lead his country to glory.

Maradona assisted all three goals in the opening win against South Korea. In the 1-1 draw with Italy, he scored Argentina’s only goal and then set up Argentina’s second against Bulgaria as they topped the group.

In the knockout rounds he was blanked by Uruguay, neither scoring nor assisting. But Maradona roared back from this performance with his two best of the tournament so far. Argentina scored twice against England and twice against Belgium. Every single goal came from Maradona and every single one of them was absolutely magnificent.

His first against Belgium was an incisive run and a quick finish with the outside of his left foot. His second saw him dance through the entire Belgium defence before finishing sharply. These goals were both mesmeric but were forgotten because against England in the quarter-finals Maradona scored two of the three most iconic goals the World Cup has ever seen.

First, the Hand of God. An outstanding bit of skullduggery so blatant that it deceived the referees completely. For his next trick, he went on an absurd run that defies belief, cutting his way through half the England team before calmly stabbing home under immense pressure.

This was a genuine miracle goal, a breathtaking bit of absurd improvisation, a masterclass of technique and skill and unquestionably the greatest individual goal ever scored at a World Cup. Brazil’s team effort in the 1970 World Cup final is the only strike that can come close and it took the entire Brazil national side; this was just one man.

Maradona got shut out in the final but still managed to produce the tournament-winning assist for Jorge Burruchaga, crowning him and his country as the champion of the world. As captain, Maradona hoisted the trophy himself and forever etched his name into history (that he made it back to the final in 1990 only cemented his ability to dominate the World Cup when the tournament was everything).

This seven-game stretch in the middle of the 1980s is why three generations of Argentine footballers, including one of the greatest players of all time, constantly play with an interiority complex when representing their nation.

It’s not that they want to underperform, but how can they not when they are constantly being compared to absolute perfection? They say Maradona won that World Cup single-handedly, and while that is patently not the case, you can’t deny the sheer scale of his influence.

Argentina scored 14 goals in the 1986 World Cup, and Maradona scored or assisted 10 of them. Or put another way, 71% of them. According to Opta, his 10 goal involvements (five goals, five assists) in one World Cup is something no player since 1986 has managed to equal.

Maradona returned to Naples in 1986 having conquered the world, and then proceeded to conquer Serie A. But all things, even the best things, come to an end. And as time went on Maradona’s off-field struggles with addiction caught up with him.

Maradona left Napoli in 1992 after a failed drugs test resulted in a lengthy ban. He joined Sevilla, where he stayed for one season before returning to Argentina to play for Newell’s Old Boys and then finally a three-year stint back with Boca Juniors. The 1994 World Cup saw him expelled from the tournament for another failed drugs test, and his career ended in disappointment and disgrace.

But the prevailing memories of Maradona are of the good times. So powerful were they, so searingly were they burned onto the retinas of every young person that watched them, that Maradona lives as a truly mythic figure. Football’s last rockstar.

The corporatisation of football in the 1990s resulted in massive leaps in the game’s professionalism. The pace of the game shot up exponentially. Players became fitter, sharper and leaner. Sports science and nutrition changed the sport and made it so that being a top-class professional required you to make colossal sacrifices.

Those sacrifices mean most players with anything approaching Maradona’s live-fast attitude, fun-loving mavericks hoping to thrive off sheer talent, fail to make the grade. Or if they do break through, they likely fizzle out in a few years because modern football simply does not allow for rockstars. The constant media coverage of the game alone can drive out those who don’t sacrifice their free time and commit wholesale to the game. To the lifestyle.

That makes Maradona symbolic of the last moment when football felt truly free, when with enough innate talent one could rise out poverty and live a fast life, an out-of-control life. That one could battle demons and addictions and still go out there and devastate everyone at the weekend.

This is why people tend to remember the good times more. Because to remember Maradona in the late 80s is to remember a time when football felt different: more open, more free, more personal. No one could ever compare to that, even if they do match the achievements on the pitch.

And on that pitch, Maradona’s talent was evident. An incredible playmaker possessing superb touch, technique and a wand of a left foot. He could pass, he could dribble and he could shoot. He would see angles and opportunities where none seem to exist. He could fight, he could lead. It was like someone took Lionel Messi’s skill-set and added Carlos Tevez’s attitude along with Javier Zanetti’s leadership.

The Argentine even tried his hand at management, although predictably (given his chaotic persona) without the success of his playing days. A spell managing the Argentine national team saw the side struggle to even qualify for the 2010 World Cup, where they were eliminated by Germany at the Round of 16 stage. All told, the highlights of his managerial career amount to the way his bench would be surrounded by star-struck photographers prior to kick-off, or his infamous belly slide in the howling rain when they secured that 2010 World Cup qualification back in 2009.

The internet is awash with quotes of great players professing their worship of Maradona. People professing their love of the Argentine for his incredible talent and technique (some even adore him for his unabashed left-wing politics including his friendship with Fidel Castro and various other socialist leaders). For the way he entertained them, thrilled them, made them believe anything was possible.

Since his death countless tributes have been paid, though it is worth revisiting a classic provided by Michael Platini, who in 2000 said: “what [Zinedine] Zidane does with a ball, Maradona could do with an orange.”

Maradona was more than just a player, he was an inspirational, mythic figure. To use but one example since the news broke, former Manchester United defender Rio Ferdinand wrote: “The greatest, the best, the artist, the man…charismatic, a leader…A WINNER! One of the main reasons why I went out on my estate to kick a ball, pretending to be Diego.”

Rest in peace, Diego. You inspired a generation of children from Buenos Aires to Balham to get up, go out and try to play football just like you. Full of joy, invention, guts and glory. Millions of children the world over, playing the game in your image. There can be no greater a legacy than that.

✕︎

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