Diego Armando Maradona died on Wednesday November 25, 2020, aged 60 following a heart attack but he packed several lifetimes into those six decades. He lived life to the fullest. He was controversial yet inspiring. Maradona was the true definition of a flawed genius. He was the ‘devil’ who scored with the ‘Hand of God’.
The little Argentine football magician – he was a professional footballer and manager — was so skilful it was easy to forgive his numerous misdemeanours. When he got on the pitch, he brought pure joy to everyone watching, including those supporting teams he was playing against. His opponents prepared for him; they took hours to plot how to stop him, yet he eluded them at every turn. He was, as they say these days about players you cannot stop, ‘unplayable’.
Standing at just 5’5, Maradona was a dynamite and giant of the game. Dynamites come in small packages; so it was no surprise Maradona was a hand full. When he was in full flow, no footballer living or dead displayed skills similar to his genius. And he was often in full flow. In spite of several bans due to the use of recreational drugs, Maradona’s performances on the field inspired generations of footballers.
Before Lionel Messi, Maradona was the reference point for the ultimate skilful footballer: short and stocky; the ball stayed glued to his size 9 boots as he performed sorcery. His dominance of the 1986 World Cup in Mexico despite the presence of an array of world-class stars is still the stuff of legends.
Mexico ’86 played host to some of the truly great footballers, yet it is still remembered as the World Cup of Diego Maradona. It was as if the other top players had attended just to make up the numbers. Gary Lineker, Michel Platini, Zico, Socrates, Enzo Francescoli, Enzo Scifo, home boy Hugo Sanchez, Jorge Valdano and a host of great players were at that World Cup but Maradona was heads and shoulders above every single one of them. The only name that readily comes to mind when the 1986 World Cup is discussed is Diego Maradona.
He was not a striker but he scored five goals in Mexico. One of those goals, against England in the quarter-finals, is regarded as the best ever scored at a World Cup. Maradona was all poise, grace and unbelievable dribbling skills as he danced past England players – one after the other — to score past goalkeeper Peter Shilton.
The other goal for Argentina in that memorable match epitomises Maradona’s mischief. He jumped for a high ball and blatantly guided the ball past Shilton with his hand. With no Video Assistant Referee (VAR) at the time, the goal stood as England players protested.
Maradona admitted afterwards that he deliberately scored with what he cheekily referred to as the ‘Hand of God’. The English players and their media saw Maradona as the devil that ended their World Cup dreams unjustly. That incident encapsulates Maradona’s audacious desire to win at all cost and his willingness to bend the rules to achieve his goal.
Nobody dominated a global competition like he did in Mexico — not before him and not after. He was so far ahead of his peers that the very talented Argentine team that he captained to win the trophy was referred to as ‘Maradona and 10 robots’. It was disrespectful to his teammates but they did not care. They were playing alongside a football legend. In that epic Mexico ’86 final played on June 29, 1986, Argentina beat Germany 3 – 2 to win the World Cup.
You did not have to be born during Maradona’s playing days to acknowledge his genius. He was a great talent that transcended generations and, thanks to technology, his magic is timeless, forever in living colour.
Coming from a humble background in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Maradona lived through a life of turbulence and rose from grass to grace before falling to the ground floor from that Olympian height.
He started his career as a teenager at hometown club Argentinos Juniors and had a brief stopover at Boca Juniors before leaving for Europe in 1982. His first experience in Europe with Barcelona – which he joined for a world record transfer fee of £5 million — was not a happy one, as he was targeted by rival clubs’ hatchet men who seemed determined to end his flourishing career with brutal tackles.
After just two seasons with Barcelona, Maradona made the move that defined his club career. He joined Napoli in 1984 for another world record fee of £7m in what turned out to be a mutually beneficial move for the most part. Maradona’s arrival energised not just the club but the entire city of Naples. He led the club to their first ever Serie A title in 1987, making them the first team from the south of Italy to win the league.
He enjoyed further success in Napoli, winning the league again and the Cup, and he is worshipped in the city of Naples up till this day. Maradona was a huge success on the field at Napoli, but he struggled with substance abuse. He continued to use cocaine, for which he had been banned earlier. Maradona was fined S$70,000 for missing games and practice sessions.
He was also accused of frolicking with the Mafia and he had a pretty torrid time with the authorities over unpaid taxes. But most people in Naples prefer to remember him as the superhero that fought off failure and delivered seven years of success for their beloved club.
Despite his flaws, Diego Maradona will always be fondly remembered as the best player of his generation and one of the greatest footballers of all time. He received the FIFA Player of the 20th Century award as one of the two joint winners.
Maradona experienced the highs of life brought by his talent, and the lows brought by indulgence. By using cocaine lavishly, he had near-death experiences several times. He was banned from his beloved game on different occasions over drug use (including after his hyper-energetic, wild-eyed celebration after scoring against Nigeria at the 1994 World Cup).
He was dangerously overweight and even had his stomach pumped, but he lived through it and ultimately became a better person. Thankfully, he had found redemption before his unfortunate passing, living a drug-free life and passing on his enormous football knowledge to the younger generation through coaching.
Maradona was the villainous hero whose story will forever be inspiring and memorable. May his soul rest in peace.