Diego Maradona was a leader, an icon who was adored and respected by millions. Troubled and blessed alike, he is the last of the great football underdogs to leave. He should be remembered for his football, not his mistakes.
Diego Armando Maradona was only eight years old when he was discovered by a scout from the Argentinos Juniors, the famous team from Buenos Aires. He had played for Estrella Roja, the local team in the poor shanty neighborhood of Villa Fiorito, whom he called home, on cracked and dusty fields that looked more like road maps than playing fields.
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On his first day of training, an Argentinos Juniors coach was not convinced that the little, dark-haired boy’s raw talent was his age. “We asked for his ID so we could check it, but he told us he didn’t have it with him,” coach Francisco Cornejo told the story again years later.
“We were sure he had us with him because although he was a child’s build, he played like an adult. When we discovered that he had told us the truth, we decided to devote ourselves to just him. “
For the rest of Maradona’s adult life, this story would become a metaphor for his character. This little boy would never leave him and from the slums to the top of world football, Maradona personified childlike confidence, joy and calamity on the pitch. He was called “El Pibe de Oro” or “The Golden Boy” for several reasons.
No one could have foreseen what this dark-skinned boy with the flop hair would become: a hero adored by legions of football fans, whose face adorns the maze of streets of the city from the side streets to the main buildings of Buenos Aires, and whose Image becomes It was widespread that it dwarfed another Argentine hero, Che Guevara, whose portrait, by the way, was printed on Maradona’s upper arm.
Guevara and Maradona were both extremely determined, charismatic, and natural leaders. The decline of the former amid the surge in Maradona’s popularity was hastened by the nation’s political landscape. The late 70s and early 80s in Argentina were followed by a dirty war and deadly dictatorship overseen by a military junta led by Jorge Rafael Videla.
Diego was the antidote; As a carefree child in the field, his freedom freed a country of sorrows and wars, and his journey to rescue the nation of his people from despair began in the battered and torn fields of his capital.
Maradona made his Argentinos Juniors debut 10 days before his 16th birthday. He eyed an older player to mark his arrival and eventually caught the attention of famous Boca Juniors across town. But the Argentine capital failed to contain Maradona and eventually moved to Europe when Barcelona paid a world record fee of £ 5 million ($ 7.6 million) for its services.
His time in Barcelona was cut short by injuries and board fights, as well as bad behavior on the field. Two players once bumped their heads on the elbows before passing out during the 1984 Copa del Rey battle with Athletic Bilbao at the helm of King Juan Carlos I of Spain.
Despite winning three national trophies at Barca, he was sold to Italian fighters Napoli for another world record fee of £ 6.9m ($ 10.48m) at the end of the year, two years after arriving in Catalonia. He became a god in Naples, won two Serie A titles and a UEFA Cup, but his best performances came on the international stage as captain of the national team.
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Maradona once said he felt “like he had the sky in his hands” and in the white and sky blue of Argentina he exalted the people around him. Such was his aura and influence that he almost single-handedly led Argentina to a World Cup victory in Mexico in ’86.
In the quarterfinals of the tournament, his “Hand of God” goal against England, in which he stood up to stab the ball with his fist over a lazy and storming Peter Shilton in the English goal, was immortalized in football folklore for his embodiment the darker arts of the game.
The English team and the rest of the world accidentally screamed at what they’d seen. Only the referee hadn’t seen the tiny Maradona hit the ball into the net and signaled a goal as there was no violation of the game to award a foul.
The opposition was apoplectic, Maradona mischievous and ecstatic as we whirled away to celebrate with his team. We jumped and tossed his fist in the air as if we were imitating his moments of deception sooner, like a school kid mocking the teacher of his classmate and getting away with it.
This is the legend of that goal that overshadowed the genius of what happened just four minutes later when Maradona picked up the ball in his own half and pirouetted to break free from two English midfielders. His legs, pulsing like pistons, drove the Argentine number 10 through the opposing half of the right flank, where he carved a path inward past another player with his wondrous left foot, like a burglar opening a lock. The English defenders did not know which direction he was going and even if they did it would not have mattered. Maradona was a player who gave you to his mercy.
He left another defender for dead and galloped into the box. With a split second of his foot, he sold Shilton the cutest dummies before he coolly dropped the ball into the net. The final step in fooling the goalkeeper with sheer skill rather than skulduggery was the ultimate stamp of domination.
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It was like a heavyweight boxer landing a knockout blow right on the button: the watchers were stunned, and the recipients didn’t know what hit them. This time there were no complaints, no arguments, no desperate glances over the shoulder to see if the referee was wise with his deviousness. It was poetry in motion and magic and every clichéd superlative in between. It was “The Goal of the Century”.
That was Maradona: capable of the divine and the devious, never quite finding the right balance between the two and instead becoming an equally skilled master of any craft.
Another two Maradona goals against Belgium in the semi-finals, this time rightly scored, brought Argentina to the final, where they beat West Germany. Diego had delivered the World Cup and freed a nation from its darker recent history.
As a man and a player, Maradona’s flair on the field was only surpassed by his shortcomings. Diego had the ability to raise Hell, and his demons were always only too happy to take the call. Under the neon lights of Naples, the hooks of drug addiction dug deep into the kindred spirit that had made him a star and began to drag him into darkness and debauchery.
The parties, the alcohol, the drugs, the prostitutes. They were the fruit of his labor of love on the field, and Maradona was all too happy to get involved with them. Things turned ugly when he was disgraced from the 1994 US World Cup after testing positive for cocaine. His wild-eyed celebrations after he shot a blast against Greece were the giveaway, and it would ultimately become his final destination for La Albiceleste.
His addiction started years earlier. There were stories of Mafia meetings in the company of clan killers and drug queens from Camorra in Neapolitan nightclubs, where he sank further and further into the seductive life of the vice. Unfortunately, these moments would all too often define Diego the man.
At the 2018 World Cup in Russia, he made headlines again for his crazy, emotional behavior in the VIP spectator seats and rumors of secret drug use that were widespread among fans on social media.
Many were saddened that this little boy’s tendencies and weaknesses still ruled a man’s once-giant, making him a source of amusement among those not old enough to remember his glorious golden years. But innocence still loved her.
Whichever way he chose to live, Maradona’s mistakes made him such a compelling character. It was once said that in world football there is “no one taller or shorter” than Maradona. He was tiny, but his running chest and huge thighs weren’t physical traits given to the mere pals of the Diego show on the field. His personality and influence would also consume games, tournaments and even entire nations.
Maradona was greater than life, and this life pulsing through his veins was rich in invincibility, but also in the most delicate human fragility. His animal appetite to enjoy every moment may also be the reason for a premature death at the age of only 60, the result of a heart attack after Brian’s bleeding had prevented the same fate a fortnight earlier.
The football landscape is darkening with the loss of his Korean talent Diego Armanda Maradona. At the height of its success in Napoli, football-loving locals hung a homemade banner on the wall of a cemetery that read, “You don’t know what you missed”.
Now the player himself is on the other side of this poignant wisecrack. The irony is that he’ll never know how much the football world will miss its brightest, most brilliant precocious star. When he is retired, we remember him for his football. The faults are not ours to judge.
By Danny Armstrong