by Tanner Pruitt
Alright guys, I won’t lie to you: I dreaded writing this article for a number of reasons. It wasn’t because I’m Argentinian (I’m not), it’s not because I saw Diego Maradona play in his prime (I didn’t), it’s not even really because I have some affinity for watching Diego Maradona clips on YouTube (this one happens to be true). The reason for me dreading writing this memorial to Diego Maradona is because of the shear might of his story. The term “larger than life” gets thrown around far too often, and in doing so, the term is just not good enough for a man who lived as he did. Diego Maradona was larger than “larger than life” and as I am just one man sitting at a keyboard I have to admit to you, dear reader, I must tell you that I’m intimidated. In the coming weeks you’ll see another project I’m working on, one which does prominently feature Maradona. But for now, let’s talk about the one they called “The Golden Boy”. I will do my best not to make this an attempt at a biography, though in some parts it may be necessary.
Diego Maradona was born October 30th, 1960 in Lanus, Buenos Aires Province, Argentina to a poor family and was raised in a shantytown just outside of Buenos Aires. As legend has it, Diego was gifted a football at the age of 3 and by the age of 8 he was being scouted by teams seeking his services. Now, that may sound a bit odd. Diego of course wouldn’t be playing for among adults at age 8, but rather for junior teams, the fact that his skills were noticed at such a young age is still remarkable. Maradona would play for Los Cebollitas (The Little Onions), the junior team of Argentinos Juniors, and of course would later playing for Argentinos Juniors for five years (1976 to 1981), scoring 115 goals in 167 appearances for the club.
It was in February 1981 that the extremely sought-after Maradona would have his wish to be transferred to the team he’d always wanted to play for: Boca Juniors. For those not in the know, Boca Juniors are one of the most historic clubs in all of Argentina, right alongside bitter cross-town rivals River Plate. This is of major significance for young Diego Maradona in terms of character for a very specific reason: Boca Juniors represented the poor and working class of Buenos Aires whereas River Plate, who had also bid for young Maradona’s services, represented the wealthy and powerful in Buenos Aires. River Plate had offered Maradona the world, even offered to make him the highest paid player, but Maradona turned them down. He chose to represent people like him who had come from nothing. Maradona would only play for Boca Juniors for one season, however, winning the league title in the process: the only title he won playing in the Argentinian league.
In 1982, Diego Maradona would be transferred to Barcelona for what was at the time a record-breaking deal. Let’s be honest, this was not the finest stay in Spain that anyone has ever had. On one hand, Maradona played exceptionally well when fit. He is was the first of only three players to play for Barcelona to receive a standing ovation from the fans of Barcelona’s rivals, Real Madrid due to a dazzling display he put on at Real Madrid’s Santiago Bernabeau stadium.
One the other hand, Maradona’s stay in Spain was fraught with injury, illness and violence. Maradona endured hepatitis, as well as a broken ankle as a result of a horrific tackle from Athletic Bilbao player Andoni Goikoetxea (yes, that’s a real last name) that could’ve nearly ended Maradona’s career. The injury required months of rehabilitation but ultimately made a full recovery.
Barcelona and Bilbao met again in the 1984 Copa Del Rey, with the injury still very fresh in the mind of Diego Maradona. It is reported that Bilboa fans allegedly made chants and taunts directed towards Maradona, ones that were xenophobic in nature targeting his father’s Native American ancestry. Another poor tackle was made by Goikoetxea (yup, him again) as well as provocation from Bilbao player Miguel Sola left Diego Maradona on well past the tipping point. After Barcelona had lost the game 1-0, Maradona got up and confronted Sola. The two exchanged words, with Sola allegedly using another racial slur in Maradona’s direction. Maradona then headbutted Sola, elbowed another play and knocking out another player cold with a knee strike to the head, igniting a riot inside the stadium housing 100,000 people in attendance. Solid objects were being thrown at the players, coaches, staff and media on to the field resulting in 60 people being injured. After two injury plagued seasons, this was the straw that broke the camel’s back for Diego and Barcelona.
The good news: Maradona picked up 3 major trophies during his tenure over the course of these two years, quite the achievement for such a short span of time.
This is where the story turns for young Diego Maradona. In 1984, Italian club Napoli had acquired the services of Maradona, and this turned out to be a very, very big deal. You see, Napoli had and still has a very proud, passionate fanbase. But for proper perspective, Naples was a city that was struggling politically and economically and there was a historic precedent that it was the north of Italy that produced the best teams, with Juventus, A.C. Milan and Inter Milan regularly competing and winning trophies as well as securing the best players in the world to play for them. Italian football was the place to be to make the most money and compete against the absolute very best in the world, but Naples was not the ideal landing spot for most. Neapolitans were regularly looked down upon as dirty, something that was regularly hurled as an insult by fans of rival teams as a way of dehumanizing their character and their city.
Also, it must be noted that at this time in Maradona’s career he had already picked up a different kind of hobby: a cocaine addiction. What began as simple experimentation in Barcelona had become quite serious in Naples, and Maradona quickly picked up connections to crime families using his status and wealth, and thus they would be able to help supplement his habit.
Maradona was instantly seen as a hero to the people of Naples, but it took time for Napoli to develop a winning formula. Maradona would become captain of Napoli and while not every result went their way, they were able to compete with clubs much larger than them for really the first time in their history. This all came to a head in the 1986-87 season when Napoli won their first ever league title and with it disrupted the hierarchy that had stood so long in Italy. Maradona would, at the time, call this the finest achievement of his career. Napoli would finish runners-up for the two seasons that followed, and then once again became champions during the 1989-1990 season.
But as things often appear to go for Maradona, the ecstasy of glory often ran parallel with controversy and madness. While he long professed his love and devotion to his long-time partner Claudia, it was long rumored and later confirmed in court proceedings that Maradona had fathered a child outside of the relationship. Maradona was also gripped with a full-blown addiction to cocaine, would party sometimes for days on end, and on occasion be fined by his club for missing games and practices.
Maradona’s career with Napoli would end in 1992, picking up 5 major trophies in the process and having his famous #10 jersey retired by the club. While he would go on to play for Sevilla in Spain for one season before returning to Argentina to play for Newell’s Old Boys and a final two-year return with Boca Juniors, Diego Maradona had reached the height of his career during his stay with Napoli.
It would certainly not be right of me if we didn’t also discuss what is widely regarded as Maradona’s best achievement: winning the 1986 World Cup with Argentina. His performances in the 1986 World Cup have largely been lauded as the finest of any single player in the history of the tournament. It’s not as if there weren’t any great players that played alongside Maradona at Argentina, there weren’t any players on his level that played in any team represented at the World Cup on that occasion despite who deep all of the squads were at the time and that there were plenty of tactical innovations from all corners of the world. Maradona played for Argentina like the ball was on a string attached to his foot.
The Quarter-finals game against England is the game that I would argue best represents Diego Maradona’s life and career. There were massive tensions at the time as England and Argentina had only recently been entangled in the Falklands War and resentment between the two countries were at an all-time high. While the first half of the match was worth little of note, the second half perfectly summed up the dichotomy of Maradona’s career.
Six minutes into the first half, Maradona had made a run at goal as the ball had been lobbed towards him. England goalkeeper Peter Shilton emerged from goal to seemingly punch the ball away. Maradona, who stood 5-ft-5-in tall moved in front of the much larger Englishman and reached the ball before Shilton could, hitting the ball with his left hand past Shilton and into the goal. Maradona began to celebrate what would normally amount to an illegal goal, but as the referee declared he did not see anything illegal the goal stood. Maradona remarked after the game that the goal came from “un poco con la cabeza de Maradona y otro poco con la mano de Dios”, “a little bit of the head of Maradona, a little bit of the hand of God”. And thus the infamous “Hand of God” goal was born.
It was not a game solely for the exhibition of the dark arts from Maradona. Moments later, Maradona would pick up the ball from beyond the halfway line and dribble past most of the English team who dove in with attempts at tackling the ball away from Maradona. But it was no use, for Maradona was the greatest dribbler of his generation and arguably the greatest dribbler of the ball up to that point in history. Maradona slotted the ball past Shilton once again, clean as you’d like, in one of the all-time greatest solo goals by any player, later to be dubbed “The Goal of the Century”.
Here, with these two goals, Maradona perfectly displays the two sides of his persona: with The Hand of God, he shows you the cheat, the liar, the trickster, one who will deceive you to win at any cost. And with his second goal, he displays a beautiful mastery of control, perseverance, defiance against all odds and coolness to finish the play and seal the goal.
Argentina would of course go on to defeat West Germany to claim victory in the finals, 3-2.
From there on, Maradona would star in two more World Cups, one in 1990 where he once again led Argentina to the Finals but fell to defeat at the hands of the Germans. This World Cup would be a unique experience as it took place in Italy, with the Semi-Finals featuring Argentina vs Italy in Naples. In a Machiavellian twist, Maradona attempted to plea with the people of Naples that no one had done more to bring the respect to their city and community that himself, reminding the people of his adopted home how poorly they had been treated by their fellow Italians for years, and thus, the people of Naples should instead cheer for him and Argentina over the Italian team. To the surprise of no one except for Maradona, this plan backfired and galvanized the Italians. Even in defeat, the people of Italy roundly booed the Argentina side during their national anthem in the finals as a result of Maradona’s cunning.
Maradona would also attempt a comeback in the 1994 World Cup, which was simply bizarre. From a goal celebration that would make Skeletor blush, to being sent home early for violating a banned-substance policy, Maradona’s career was finished. He would struggle for years with drug and alcohol abuse, obesity and alleged sexual promiscuity, all issues that could be detailed much, much further than what I’m comfortable writing about, honestly. He would proclaim sobriety on a number of occasions, but it often seemed fleeting. He would attempt to manage teams, including an Argentina team that featured a young Lionel Messi. These would all be fruitless affairs as Maradona was more of a figure-head than someone who could coach, craft and finesse a team to major honors. We would see sightings of Maradona, and we would get the occasional GIF or meme-able moment. But Diego’s health would decline rapidly as the years wore on. Prior to his death, he was admitted to hospital stay for major brain surgery and only days later, Diego Maradona would pass away from a heart attack on November 25th, 2020. He was only 60.
Of Maradona, fellow legend of the sport Pele said: “I have lost a great friend and the world has lost a legend. There’s still so much to be said, but for now, may God give strength to his relatives. One day I hope we can play football together in heaven.”
So where does Maradona stand? What does he mean in the grand scheme of the Beautiful Game? To me, he is a deeply troubled, perfectly flawed artist who bridged the gap between the black-and-white film era of Pele, Puskas, and Di Stefano to the modern day of Messi and Ronaldo. He showed mastery of and redefined the #10 role and position. Maradona was without a doubt one of the best dribblers as well as one of the best free-kick takers, he had a dangerous eye for a pass and was just as lethal in front of goal if not more-so.
Maradona was an icon on the international stage. He’s been suggested by some as part Michael Jordan, part Scarface. While I do quite enjoy that observation, I feel like it still somehow doesn’t do the man justice. Really only one thing is for sure:
Without a doubt, for better or for worse, there is, was and will forever only be one Diego Maradona.