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Diego Maradona: Triumph, Tragedy and a Story Only Sport Could Write

ByBen Cairns

Nov 26, 2020

Diego Armando Maradona, the greatest footballer of his generation, died yesterday in his hometown of Buenos Aires aged 60. 15 years to the day that George Best, a similarly gifted yet troubled legend of the game passed away, Maradona’s passing similarly marks the end of a long battle against addiction that had begun during his dazzling footballing career. His remarkable rise captured the Argentinian imagination at a time when football seemed the only thing capable of distracting from near-constant political turmoil, meaning the expectations surrounding him quickly spiralled out of control. The triumph of Maradona’s story is the way in which he somehow lived up to those astronomical expectations on the pitch, while the tragedy arises from the effects of this unbearable pressure on his personal life.

Maradona’s remarkable story begins in the slums of southern Buenos Aires. In his history of Argentinian football, Angels with Dirty Faces, football historian Jonathan Wilson draws a wonderful parallel between Maradona and the Argentinian idea of the pibe, a term which loosely translates as “urchin”. Maradona’s urchin-esque cheek, rebelliousness, and a certain naivety stayed with him throughout his rise to a level of worldwide fame few have ever matched.

His career began in Buenos Aires with Argentinos Juniors and the giants of Boca Juniors, before crossing the Atlantic for a mixed spell with Barcelona. It was in Naples that Maradona seemed to find his home, his intense pride and feisty nature matching perfectly the psyche of a city with a perpetual sense of being looked down upon by Italy’s more affluent north. Maradona earned the undying love of a grateful city after delivering the only two Serie A titles in Napoli’s history, along with a UEFA Cup.

However, it is Maradona’s achievements in international football that will be remembered the most strongly. World Cups are never won single-handedly, but Maradona’s role in Argentina’s 1986 triumph represents the closest any successful team has come to revolving around a single player. The quarter final against England demonstrated the way in which magnificence was often displayed side-by-side with a readiness to disregard even the most basic rules. Maradona punched the ball over Peter Shilton to open the scoring, before doubling Argentina’s lead after leaving practically the entire England team for dead, a goal of stunning skill which could be matched only by his similarly jaw-dropping exhibition of balance, technical ability and finishing one round later against Belgium.

His relentless competitiveness, which often strayed over the line, was demonstrated by the 1990 World Cup final, which became an ugly spectacle as Maradona led the Argentine side in repeatedly haranguing the referee. His tears after the match had concluded in defeat to West Germany showed that lifting the trophy four years previously had not taken the slightest edge off his competitive spirit.

By that point however the injuries inflicted by a decade of vicious tackling on rock-hard pitches had begun to take their toll and Maradona’s personal demons seemed to be growing out of control. Within a year of losing the World Cup final he had tested positive for cocaine and received a 15-month ban. After unsatisfying spells with Sevilla and Newell’s Old Boys Maradona seemed to be drifting out of the game altogether, until he declared his intention to return for one last World Cup in 1994. A tournament which initially showed signs of being the perfect swansong, with Maradona scoring in Argentina’s opening 4-0 demolition of Greece, instead descended into farce as he once again failed a drugs test after Argentina’s second match and was sent home in disgrace.

In contrast to the unadulterated joy of watching Maradona on a pitch, his retirement became rather more of a sad spectacle. The crushing weight of expectation which had rested on him since his teenage years never lifted and he was unable, and often unwilling, to escape the glare of the public eye. Maradona’s self-destructive streak grew alarmingly apparent as he searched for a way back to the fulfilment he had only experienced on the pitch, being treated on multiple occasions for the effects of alcohol abuse. Despite seeming patently unsuited for management he was nevertheless put in charge of the Argentine national team, with his first match coming at Hampden Park in a 1-0 win over Scotland. Once again, his adventure ended in defeat to Germany, this time at the 2010 World Cup.

In Maradona’s later days, the sense of a constant search for fulfilment seemed to manifest itself literally as he crossed the globe: one day appearing in Belarus to be named chairman of Dinamo Brest, a few weeks later taking charge of a Mexican second tier side. At the time of his death, he was managing Buenos Aries club Gimnasia – the reverence in which he continued to be held by Argentinians of all allegiances was encapsulated by the throne constructed by fans from which he observed a game against Newell’s Old Boys.

The reverence for Maradona extended to practically all corners of the globe. The morning after his passing, France’s renowned daily sports newspaper L’Equipe simply pronounced “God is dead”. Within minutes of his death being reported, social media was awash with tributes from the great and good of both football and wider society, many accompanied with their own photos with Maradona and one of the countless stories from a life lived to the fullest in every sense. It is perhaps inevitable that such a God-like figure would come to be surrounded by so many tales that the line between apocrypha and truth has become indistinguishable, Latin America’s magic realism reflected in a man who came to be synonymous with his home country.

Now is not the time, as some have chosen to do, to gripe about the Hand of God and question Maradona’s integrity; now is the time to mourn the loss of a footballing genius and recognise the lessons that need to be learned about the tolls exerted by societal pressure. Maradona’s search for fulfilment is now at an end. But football’s search for another player with his combination of individual brilliance and magnetic personality will likely continue into perpetuity.

Image: Cadaverexquisito via Wikimedia Commons

By Ben Cairns

Sport Editor