Maradona, The Lost Legend - One Year After His Death
Football is the most popular sport in the world and has been for many years. It's played by millions of people and watched by billions in hundreds of countries across the globe. For some, it is almost a religion. So, it will come as no surprise that most people, whether old or young, know the name of one of the most famous footballing legends, 'Maradona', or why, when he passed away at the end of November 2020, so many were affected.
The death of Diego Armando Maradona, Argentina's ultimate football legend, triggered mourning across the globe but nowhere more so than in his home country Argentina and Naples, his adopted home country during the 1980s. After his death was announced, stadiums across Argentina switched on their floodlights for a time to honour the country's hero. Fans congregated to share in their loss at La Bombonera, the Boca Juniors' stadium in Buenos Aires, where he played in his youth. Similarly, in Naples, fans flocked to the Napoli club stadium, where Maradona played for seven years, to pay their respects. During the wake, which embraced all the protocol of a state funeral, tens of thousands flooded the streets of Argentina's Buenos Aires. Maradona's coffin, laid to rest in the city's presidential palace, was visited by innumerable numbers of mourners, including the Argentine president - who declared three days of national mourning for this national icon. His funeral procession saw the streets from the city centre presidential palace to the Bella Vista cemetery, on the outskirts of Buenos Aires, lined with countless fans wishing to say their last farewells.
In the year following his death, a plethora of murals depicting Maradona across his life and career were painted around the city streets in Buenos Aires and far beyond. Statues and monuments were erected in his honour, and his childhood home in Villa Fiorito was recognised as a historical site. In Italy, Napoli even changed the name of their home stadium, San Paolo Stadium, to Stadio Diego Armando Maradona, to immortalise their hero.
To mark the first anniversary of Maradona's passing, Argentine's in their thousands are paying tribute. All club matches are observing a minute's silence, with players arranged to form the number 10, Maradona's famed football jersey number. Special masses across the country are being held for mourners and fans. However, many are gathering at significant sites or beside statues and monuments to pay their respects and leave flowers, personal messages, flags, footballs, t-shirts and candles. And, in Naples, two new statues of the man himself are to be revealed in the city, one outside Maradona's stadium, and three club matches are being played in jerseys adorned with Maradona's face. In December, Barcelona and Boca Juniors, two of the football legend's clubs, will also compete in the first Maradona Cup - a new competition between Europe and South American teams, named in his honour.
The outpouring of grief upon Maradona's death and ever since reveals that he was esteemed for much more than his skills on the ball - although his talent was phenomenal. So, what was it that made a man a living legend with an almost deity-like following?
Who was D10S?
Born into the slums of southern Buenos Aires in 1960, Maradona's blossoming talents were spotted when he was just eight years old. He began playing for the Cebollitas - youth team to the first division side Argentinos Juniors. A gnat's whisker away from his 16th birthday, he made his debut for Argentinos Juniors first team, and his relationship with fame began. His eye for goal saw him take up the position of lead-scorer for five years. Coupled with his playmaking skills, creative capabilities, ball control and technical abilities, he was quickly picked up for the Argentine national under-20s team - for which he was a key player in their World Youth Championship final against the Soviet Union. He was, in short, a teen sensation with a successful career almost guaranteed. Indeed, in 1981, Maradona joined Argentina's esteemed Boca Juniors, where he helped the club win the 1982 Argentina Primera División Metropolitano with 28 goals in 40 appearances. And, at the tender age of just twenty-one, he appeared in his first World Cup, which led to his departure to Spain's Barcelona for a record fee at the time of £5 million ($7.6 million). He had come a long way from the slums on sheer talent alone and the Argentines, reportedly, had a hard time letting their new hero go.
At Barcelona, he won the Copa del Rey, the Spanish Super Cup and the world's biggest club game, El Clásico, scoring 38 goals in his 58 games. The El Classico competition match against Real Madrid showed Diego's ball mastery and, some say, his genius to full effect. He scored a goal that was only possible through lightning-quick vision, ability to read the game, and sensational ball control - the move got him an ovation from his opponent's fans! However, Maradona's status as a football superstar may have been rising, but the cracks in the dream were beginning to show. He left Barcelona, for Italy's Napoli for another record transfer fee of £6.9 million ($10.48 million), under a cloud of conflict brought about through frequent disputes with the club's management, fighting on the pitch and what was the beginnings of cocaine and alcohol addictions.
Despite this, Maradona's 1984 highly anticipated move to Napoli was an unbelievable success. His passion, presence, and leadership on the pitch (he was made captain of the team) and his ridiculously inspirational ball skills helped to swing the team's fortunes from beleaguered, second rate squad to Italian and European champions. Napoli was elevated into a Serie A giant with two championship wins - in 1987, the club's first-ever, and in 1990. With Maradona on board, the team also scored wins with the Coppa Italia (1987), the UEFA Cup (1989) and the Italian Super Cup (1990). This would have been enough to cement his status in Italy, but his contribution to the 1986 World Cup turned him into a legend across the globe and, in Naples and Argentina, it transformed him into a god.
World Cup 1986
Most people will know Diego Maradona in connection with Argentina's 1986 World Cup win in Mexico, particularly their 2-1 quarter-final winning match against England. It was here that his legacy as the world's greatest football player was cemented, and his winning goal against the English team rated as one of the most stunning ever. In a match that stunned the world, Maradona, in the 51st minute, scored the legendary 'hand of God' goal. Competing for a high ball with England goalkeeper Peter Shilton, Maradona impossibly beat his much taller opponent and scored a goal. That goal, which changed the course of history, was deemed by the referee to have been headed in. Maradona had actually punched the ball over the line; the foul, much to an entire English nation's dismay, went unpunished. Maradona got away with it and later described the goal as one achieved "a little with the head of Maradona and a little with the hand of God".
Though that goal was controversial, the winning goal that put Argentina on course to win the '86 World Cup, by its sheer brilliance, cancelled the misdemeanour out (in all minds but those of the English). Maradona picked up the ball in his half and dribbled it circuitously for 60 meters past five England players before, with a well-timed feint to bamboozle Peter Shilton, whacking it to the back of the opposition's net. It was a superb solo goal, which demonstrated his attacking midfield prowess, extraordinary skills, and immense goal-scoring ability. And, now the whole world knew it.
All eyes were on Maradona in the finals from that point on. The relatively average Argentine side was led by Maradona, as captain, and by his sublime skills, to World Cup victory. Indeed, Maradona scored or assisted 10 of Argentina's 14 goals, including the winning goal in the final match against West Germany. The tournament won him FIFA's Golden Ball, Silver Shoe, Most Assists and All-Star Team awards, and in 2002 the FIFA Goal of the Century. It also won him mind-boggling notoriety.
The win against England was seen by the Argentinian's as divine retribution for an entire nation that had previously been an informal part of the British Empire and had felt the underdog in the relationship. And, for the war they'd lost over the Falkland Islands against the English four years earlier. Maradona, aside from his awe-inspiring playing skills and blatant but creative cheating during the match against England, was credited with a much deeper and symbolic victory - a win against the Argentine oppressors. Scoring those goals against the English turned Maradona into a divine symbol of Argentina's independence and strength - living up to that status proved to be hard work...
Losing A Legend
Maradona's post '86 godlike status in his home country and his adopted city (a year after the World Cup, he led Napoli to the first championship in their history, for which he was idolised) came with costs. This worshipped player could do no wrong and was given the freedom to explore just how far he could push his, his clubs' and his family's boundaries without fear of reprisal. And so, surrounded by murals and shrines to himself and scores of adoring fans wherever he went, he seemed to do just that; cocaine and alcohol abuse, mafia associations, extramarital affairs became the norm, as did missing training and missing games.
Eventually, in 1992, the dream started to come crashing down. Maradona was handed a fifteen-month drugs ban after a failed drug test at Napoli. Then two years later, he was expelled from the United States of America's '94 World Cup while playing for his home nation. The fall from grace ended his international career, and his club career's end wasn't far behind. After brief spells at Spain's Sevilla FC and Argentina's Newell's Old Boys and Boca Juniors, he retired in 1997. Despite interludes as a manager for the Argentine national team and several Middle Eastern and Mexican teams, addiction, exploitation, and previous injuries all took their toll. After numerous health scares, he finally died in poor health on November 25th 2020. His meteoric rise to worldwide fame and reverence also saw him become lost behind his legend status, something no amount of adoration could fix.
But, despite Maradona's misdemeanours and his fall from grace, he is still held in high regard and remembered fondly by Argentines, Neapolitans, former teammates and those who spent any time with him. They reflect on his playing skills, down-to-earth nature, generosity, and the gifts of dignity he gave to Argentina and Napoli. Maradona's brilliance on the field has never been surpassed; it is something that shines through and burns brighter and longer than he was able to manage.