There are many words that can used to describe Diego Maradona. Mercurial, genius, ethereal, mesmerising, tortured, astonishing, and above all, brilliant. Maradona set an incredibly challenging standard for later Argentine stars like Lionel Messi, and also for himself. In fact, it might be said that Maradona was his own worst enemy.
Maradona was born on the 30th of October 1960, to humble beginnings, but his parents gifted him a football at the age of three, and his love of the game began. Maradona devoted a lot of time to his craft, and by the age of eight, was on the radar of Argentinos Juniors, and in 1973 and 1974, he led the club’s youth team to an incredible 141 unbeaten games in a row. On the 20th of October 1976, Maradona made his first-team debut, just 10 days before his 16th birthday. He scored his first goal on the 14th of November, the first of 115 goals in 167 appearances.
In 1981, Maradona was prized away from Argentinos Juniors, signing for Boca Juniors. He scored twice on his debut, and helped guide Boca to the league title that year. It would be the only domestic league title Maradona won in his career, for, following the 1982 World Cup, he would sign for Spanish giants Barcelona, for a then-world record fee of £5 million. Here, he would make history, in becoming the first Barcelona player to be applauded by Real Madrid fans at the Santiago Bernabeu, for an outrageous piece of skill, that culminated in Maradona stopping right before defender Juan Jose could tackle him, and stroking the ball into an empty net.
The ugly side of football brought out an unfortunate side in Maradona, during his experience with Barcelona. Having grappled with injury problems (including a broken ankle, due to some seriously poor tackling from Andoni Olaskoaga, Maradona then faced hideous racist abuse from Atlético de Bilbao fans, during the 1984 Copa del Rey Final in Madrid. The taunting reached fever-pitch at the conclusion of the game, which ended in defeat for Maradona’s Barcelona, and aggressive posturing from Bilbao player Miguel Sola. Maradona’s anger erupted, and Miguel Sola was on the receiving end of a headbutt. An all-out brawl erupted, with Maradona punching and kicking anyone in a Bilbao shirt.
Maradona had already come across as difficult to work with, and after 38 goals in 58 games, over the course of two injury-hit seasons, Barcelona decided to cut their losses, in mutual agreement with the player. He signed – for another record fee – for Italian club Napoli. It was during his tenure at Napoli that Maradona would hit his greatest heights. He became feted by the city for helping the club win their first-ever league title (and the first for a club from southern Italy) in 86/87, and his silky skills helped guide Napoli to the Coppa Italia in 1987, UEFA Cup in 1989, and another league title, in 89/90. He became the club’s top scorer, despite playing in an attacking midfield role, with 115 goals, in a league famous for tough, defensive football. Oh, and during this period, he won another trophy as well, just not with Napoli…
The 1982 World Cup hadn’t been great for Maradona. He played in every game, but did not perform quite as well as he could have. His tournament ended in frustration, with a red card for a retaliatory foul upon Brazilian Batista, and Argentina (the defending champions at the time) were out. Maradona had been determined to be too young for the 1978 World Cup squad, despite having made his full international debut at 16, so the 1986 World Cup in Mexico was a big moment for the more experienced player. He created five goals, and scored five goals, including one of the best goals of all time, and one of the most controversial goals of all time, both of which happened to come against England.
The ‘Hand of God’ moment will live on in infamy. After a brief passage of interplay, the ball flowed through the air towards Maradona, and England ‘keeper Peter Shilton. Maradona reached the ball first, with his left hand, and directed the ball into the net. England waited for the goal to be disallowed, but to their horror, it was given. Maradona would later weigh it in terms of revenge over the Falklands War.
His second goal has often been described as ‘The Goal of the Century’. Maradona collected the ball in his own half, and ran with it at his feet for 60 yards, beating four players (twice besting Terry Butcher), before selling a dummy to Shilton, and putting the ball away. Argentina triumphed 2-1, and Maradona got another brace against Belgium in the semi-final, including another dribbling masterclass.
West Germany awaited in the final, and they tried to double-mark the magical Maradona, but he still found the means to hurt the opposition, playing the defence-splitting pass that allowed Jorge Burruchaga to score the winner.
There had been questions over the legitimacy of Argentina’s 1978 success, but thanks to Maradona’s brilliance, there could be no such questions around the 86 World Cup. Maradona was directly involved in 71% of all Argentina’s goals, a phenomenal achievement, and he had cemented his place as a superstar.
However, Maradona’s dark side continued to plague him. He began to turn to drugs, such as cocaine. He began to miss games and training for Napoli, and despite the reverence for him, Maradona left the club, somewhat in disgrace, for Spanish side Sevilla in 1992. He left after a year, and returned to Argentina, to play for Newell’s Old Boys, and in 1995, resigned for his former club Boca Juniors.
The 1990 World Cup saw Maradona battle through injury, and was not able to control the flow of proceedings quite as before. A cynical Argentina side got through to the final, largely thanks to penalties, but they were undone by West Germany, and in 1994, Maradona would represent his nation for the last time. He scored against Greece in their opening match, and ran to the camera, screaming and celebrating like a mad man. His final game came against Nigeria, where he created both goals in a 2-1 win, before testing positive for a banned substance. It is said that Maradona was using cocaine from the mid-80s, and he would struggle with addiction until 2004. This problem would resurface on more than one occasion, involving both drugs and alcohol.
The legacy of his struggles would not eclipse his ability and accomplishments as a player. Maradona gave Argentine fans what they most dearly wanted, and turned Napoli into title winners. At his glittering best, Maradona was peerless. Many compare him to Pelé, and many would rate him as the better player. There should certainly be no doubting his greatness.