Diego Maradona, a god of football

26 November 2020

6:26 PM

26 November 2020

6:26 PM

Argentina has announced three days of national mourning after the death of Diego Maradona. Take a second and think about that. Who in Britain, beyond the Queen, might command such nationwide grief?

Despite his untimely death, Maradona will never truly die. Gods never do.

Naples is able to marry the divine and the devil like no other city; a rough, tough, crumbling beauty that seats opulence in the midst of teeming poverty. Fitting, then, that it became Maradona’s own home for so long. He arrived to the wild fanfare of 75,000 people when he signed his contract at the Stadio San Paolo in 1984.

Maradona cut a mixed figure in the 80s. After starring for Boca Juniors, he arrived at Barcelona in ’82 for a world record fee. He was a rare talent. But during the ’84 Copa Del Rey final he got in a brawl and knocked an opponent out cold. With the Spanish royal family in the stands watching, even Maradona could not come back from that.

Italy at the time was home to the best of the best: Baresi, Van Basten, Platini and Paolo Rossi were all there. Into this company stepped El Diego, playing for a poor southern club which had never won anything. By the time he left, giant murals of Maradona adorned the city; his jersey is still the one people buy, thirty years later. Among the shrines that dot the streets and the traditional figurines sold by Neapolitan vendors, in terms of popularity, only the Madonna can touch Maradona.

What forged his legend beyond Italy were his exploits at the ’86 World Cup in Mexico — where most Englishmen first encountered ‘El Pibe de Oro’. The goal known as the ‘Hand of God’ is still remembered with resentment and incredulity here, that anyone might try anything so outrageous and get away with it. Maradona confounded it all when, having played the sinner, he then found his inner saint with a sublime, weaving run and low finish, that became known as ‘The Goal of the Century’.

‘Genio! Genio! Genio!’ the Argentine commentator famously cried.

That moment of vengeance marked a turning point for Argentina, four years after the humiliation of the Falklands. Their subsequent win over West Germany in the final wasn’t Las Malvinas, but it was a victory in front of the world, delivered by the dancing feet of a boy born in a Buenos Aires slum (with a helping hand from the Almighty).

Yet we also remember Maradona for his off-field infamy. His exit from Napoli came after a 15 month ban for testing positive for cocaine, and a charge of distributing the drug after being caught offering it to two prostitutes in 1991 (as you do). If that seems a very Gomorrah-esque fall from grace, it was nothing compared to the rumours that whirled about the true depths of his ties to the mafia. But then, what king of Naples past never had to deal with the city’s notorious underworld?

He also tested positive for a banned substance at the ’94 World Cup, having rather given the game away with a wild-eyed celebration after scoring against Greece. Earlier that year, he’d lost his temper and taken potshots at journalists with an air rifle. After retirement, years of partying took their toll, and he ballooned. Yet he pulled himself together sufficiently to become the Argentinian coach for the 2010 World Cup. Upon qualifying for the tournament, he informed members of the press who had doubted his ability that they were welcome to fellate him, earning him a two-month ban.

Diego, though, was not inherently trouble. If one story stands out, it is that of him turning up to a charity match on a muddy field in a Naples suburb in ’84, to raise money for a sick child’s operation. Napoli banned him from attending; Maradona went, and played against a group of local amateurs as if it were a cup final. The grainy footage of him warming up in the car park and being mobbed by spectators lining the edge of the pitch is a sight to behold.

Where Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo treat the sport as a religion — fitness fervently preserved, trophies obsessively chased — Maradona was his own cult. He hung out with Fidel Castro, had audiences with the Pope, and partied with Pablo Escobar. He would warm up for matches by dancing on the pitch, flicking the ball up and down as he hopped from foot to foot, untied laces swinging as he went.

He did what he liked, as and when he wanted. He played hard, partied harder, fought his demons, and sometimes won. Within a short career he plumbed depths few could ever endure, reached heights fewer ever came close to, before doing the whole waltz all over again. When it mattered most, he was the saviour of a lost city, and gave a broken nation redemption. He was flawed, combustible, irreparably damaged. And he was the best the game has ever seen.<//>

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