The world of football is in mourning after the death of Diego Armando Maradona, arguably the greatest footballer of all-time. Like so many flawed geniuses, his life was littered with the lowest of lows and the highest of highs. While not a universally appreciated figure, involved in many controversies during his lifetime, there was no doubting his footballing genius.
Diego Maradona, the early years
Maradona was born on 30 October 1960, in a poverty-stricken province of Buenos Aires. He had four sisters and two brothers and life in his early years was tough. Describing his cramped family home, Maradona suggested, "it rained more on the inside than the outside”. However, aged just 3, he was given his first football, and by the time he was eight, he was the talk of the region.
The young Maradona’s first taste of club football came in 1969 with his local team, Estrella Roja, managed by his father. Aged just 8, he was then given the opportunity to attend a trial with local team Argentinos Juniors. This is how the coach of Argentinos Juniors described his first experience of Maradona:
“They say that once in a lifetime every man witnesses a miracle, but that most do not realise it. I did!”
The young superstar was later forced to provide identification as nobody believed he was just eight years of age. He had the physique of a child, but the footballing skills of somebody way beyond his years. This was the start of his journey!
Controversial, unpredictable but a footballing genius
It was in 1981 that Maradona moved to Boca Juniors, the real footballing love of his life, providing him with a global platform. He moved to Barcelona in 1982, for a then world-record fee of £5 million. Still, life was far from easy for Maradona in this footballing hotbed. Cup successes, adulation, injuries and controversy all followed. In amongst it all, Maradona enjoyed one of the rarest of tributes during a hotly contested Barcelona v Real Madrid game. After scoring a wonder goal, local rivalries were put to one side, with the whole stadium rising as one to applaud the genius.
In 1984, during a violent and chaotic Copa del Rey Final, the seeds for Maradona's Barcelona exit were planted. In a stay dominated by injuries, Maradona still managed to score 38 goals in just 58 games during his time at Barcelona. However, in 1984 his time was up, moving to Napoli for another world record fee of £6.9 million.
Napoli, the pinnacle of Maradona’s domestic career
While forced to leave Barcelona with his tail between his legs, Maradona reached the pinnacle of his professional career during his time at Napoli. When presented to his adoring public on 5 July 1984, there were 75,000 fans in the stadium. League and cup successes followed, changing the history of Napoli, but substance abuse and addiction began to take hold off the field.
Maradona’s introduction to the World Cup came in 1982 at the age of 21. Unfortunately, the defending champions flattered to deceive, finally exiting the tournament in the second round. While already recognised as a footballing genius, the 1982 World Cup was a disappointment for the young Maradona. However, if only we knew what was to follow!
The infamous “Hand of God”
The Mexico 1986 World Cup is recognised as one of the most compelling and exciting tournaments of all-time, with the England v Argentina quarter-final the pinnacle of the competition. In the 51st minute, the 5 foot 5 inch Argentinian captain somehow outjumped England goalkeeper Peter Shilton. While missed by the officials, Maradona steered the ball into the empty net using his hand, now known as the infamous “Hand of God”. That was just a taste of things to come…..
Just four minutes later the stocky footballing genius collected the ball in his own half, before setting off on an innocent-looking mazy run. Dodging, skipping, accelerating in a split second, he took on half of the England football team, before scoring one of the best goals ever seen. While England responded in style, pulling back a goal, the footballing genius that was Diego Maradona had done it. As ever, controversy followed the genius, with Maradona later waxing lyrical about the Falkland Islands and his pride in beating England.
This was his tournament, culminating in the lifting of the World Cup after a thrilling 3 2 win against West Germany.
Addiction and a chaotic personal life
While Diego Maradona went on to represent Argentina in the 1990 and 1994 World Cups, his international career ended in disgrace after a positive drugs test in 1994. Finally forced to retire from the game after a third positive drugs test in 1997, he underwent a period of rehabilitation. Amid rumours of criminal activity, extramarital affairs, illegitimate children and ever more erratic behaviour, there were many medical challenges ahead.
A brief move into club management followed in 1994/1995, and he re-emerged in 2008 as the manager of the Argentinian national team. Controversial, yes, but his team reached the quarter-finals in the 2010 World Cup. Unfortunately, his love affair with the national team was short-lived, leaving for a more prolonged stint in club management shortly after the tournament.
In the years before his death, Maradona was in and out of rehab numerous times. He once moved to Cuba, and became friends with President Fidel Castro, as he sought to tackle his demons. Many public appearances in later life were tainted with controversial and unpredictable behaviour. However, the diminutive footballing genius could do no wrong in the eyes of his fans.
A final word
Hounded by medical and psychological troubles, Diego Armando Maradona was admitted to hospital on 2 November 2020. While initially his condition was described as “not serious,” just one day later he underwent emergency brain surgery to tackle a blood clot. Discharged on 12 November, with surgery having apparently been successful, on 25 November 2020 he passed away, after suffering a heart attack in his home near Buenos Aires.
While Maradona and Brazilian legend Pele were at loggerheads during their careers, there was a degree of mutual respect, appreciation and friendship in later life. Paying tribute to the late great genius that was Diego Armando Maradona, Pele said simply:
"One day, I hope, we will have a kick about together in heaven."