The legacy of Diego Maradona
How has the world remembered the footballing icon?
by Calum Robert Nelson
Photo courtesy by Fabio Sasso via Imago Images
It is now almost 3 months since Diego Maradona passed away after suffering a heart attack at his home in Buenos Aires. In the days following his death, supporters mourned the Argentine great across the world. Mass candle-lit vigils were held in Buenos Aires and in Naples, where Maradona is adored, having spent seven years with Napoli.
Tributes flooded in for a man whose influence stretches far beyond the supporters of the clubs he played for. Perhaps the most apt came from French sports newspaper L’Equipe, their front-page reading simply ‘Dieu est mort’ (‘God is dead’) above an image of the icon. The headline perfectly illustrates the affinity football fans had and will always have for Maradona. Many saw him as a messianic figure, the things he did on the pitch appearing beyond natural human ability. Indeed, there is even a religion dedicated to him: the ‘Church of Maradona’, which has around 200,000 global members. Those who regarded him as immortal will have been hardest hit by news of his death.
No doubt many football fans in the past few months will have re-visited documentaries or viewed the video of Maradona’s iconic warm-up before a UEFA Cup tie, juggling the ball and clapping along to the music. Naturally, most tributes have focused on Mexico ’86, when he led Argentina to World Cup glory, and in particular their quarter-final match against England. The game played a crucial role in defining Maradona and the hero/villain dynamic which surrounds him. Six minutes into the second half, with the game tied at nil-nil, Maradona jumped to challenge England goalkeeper Peter Shilton. The ball glanced off his outstretched left fist and into the net. After the match, he said the ball had gone in "a little with the head of Maradona and a little with the hand of God.” There was no debate about his second goal, which is now recognised as the greatest individual goal of all time. Maradona picked the ball up in his own half and proceeded to dribble past 5 England players, before upending Shilton with a feint and slotting the ball into the empty net. The goal was described by the legendary commentary of Víctor Hugo Morales screaming into the microphone: “A cosmic kite! What planet did you come from? Thank you God, for football, for Maradona, for these tears.”
To fully understand the significance of this match it is important to understand its context. Argentina as a country had endured centuries of imperialism and the humiliation of the Falklands War at the hands of Great Britain just four years earlier. The game against England was seen as a victory for the oppressed, a revenge that Maradona savoured. His first goal a rejection of the rules set by the oppressors, his second a reminder that, even without cheating, he was far better than anyone else. Both on and off the field Maradona saw himself as a rebel and regularly voiced his left-wing political views, particularly in the later stages of his life. Maradona’s influence on Argentina cannot be understated. Shaped by mass immigration from Europe, the country had struggled to find a national identity. The national football team has become central to Argentinian sense of self, providing something everyone can unite behind and be proud of. In many ways, Maradona is viewed as the embodiment of Argentinian culture. A scruffy kid from a poor neighbourhood, born of Italian and indigenous descent, who was cunning and rebellious but also possessed magical technique and talent.
Maradona was born in Lanús, Buenos Aires and raised in Villa Fiorito - a poor shantytown on the outskirts of the city. He was spotted by a scout aged 8 and went on to sign with professional club Argentinos Juniors. Even at an early age he was already gaining national attention, entertaining crowds at half-time with his skills. He made his professional debut at 16 and played with Argentinos for 5 years, scoring 115 goals in 167 games. In 1981 he signed for Boca Juniors, the club he supported as a child, and spent a successful season with them, winning the Argentine league title. A year later he moved to Barcelona for a world-record transfer fee of £5 million. However, despite winning 2 domestic trophies, Maradona’s time at the club would be marred by injury and on-field controversy.
So, Maradona decided to join Napoli, a club lingering in the lower half of the Italian league. But he embraced the challenge, and there he had his most successful period in club football. In what was the toughest league in Europe at that time, Maradona brought them the scudetto – the first league title in the club’s history. He followed this up by winning the UEFA Cup and a second league title.
At the time, with their high migrant population, the people of Naples were looked down upon by the nation, stereotyped as lazy, poor and dirty. As was the case with Argentinians, to Neapolitans Maradona became more than a footballer. He took to the pitch to fight for a people and a cause.
Along with mesmerising control and dribbling ability, at just 5’5 Maradona possessed incredible strength and determination to keep going despite being repeatedly hacked down by opponents. All the while he played through serious injuries, injected regularly with painkillers.
Unfortunately, you cannot talk about Maradona without talking about his tragic decline. He had many well-documented struggles away from the pitch. A cocaine addiction, which had begun at Barcelona, started to take hold over him in Naples and he was criticised for his excessive partying and close relationship with the Neapolitan mafia, the Camorra. He had an ego that needed to be worshipped but struggled to cope with the godly status. He hated being mobbed in public and the lack of privacy he was given.
Maradona’s relationship with Neapolitans eventually broke down after Italia ‘90 when he infamously scored in Naples to knock Italy out the world cup after asking Napoli fans to support Argentina over their homeland. Speaking in Asif Kapadia’s excellent documentary ‘Diego Maradona’, journalist Daniel Arcucci notes: “Maradona in Naples is the story of his life - rebel, cheat, hero, god.” But over time Neapolitans re-found their love for Maradona. Following his death, the club have renamed their San Paolo stadium the Diego Armando Maradona Stadium in his honour.
Ultimately Maradona’s issues got the better of him. He was given a 15- month ban from football in 1991 after testing positive for cocaine and was infamously sent home from the 1994 World Cup following another failed drug test. He also had many shortcomings with regards to the way he behaved towards women and his children. It took 30 years for him to acknowledge one of his sons as his own. But society has generally forgiven Maradona. Paying tribute to Maradona, Pep Guardiola quoted a banner he had seen in Argentina a year previously which read: ‘No matter what you have done with your life Diego, what matters is what you have done for our lives.’
The only time Maradona seemed at true peace was when he was playing football, the pitch his place to escape the hysteria. After serving his ban he would spend a year with Sevilla in Spain, before returning to Argentina to play for Newell’s Old Boys and Boca Juniors, where he retired in 1997. As fate would have it, on Maradona’s debut for Newell’s, a six-year-old Lionel Messi did keepy-ups at half-time, as Maradona himself had done at Argentinos many years previously. Having had a close relationship with Maradona, Messi paid tribute to him in November celebrating a goal for Barcelona by lifting his shirt to reveal a Newell’s replica jersey with Maradona’s number 10 on the back.
After his retirement, with his health deteriorating, Maradona went on to manage clubs in Argentina, the United Arab Emirates and Mexico. He also led the Argentine national team to the quarterfinals of the 2010 World Cup and was head coach of local side Gimnasia de La Plata when he died.
Of course, Maradona will be remembered most for his exploits on the pitch - a flawed genius who inspired a nation. But his story is also a stark reminder of what can happen when a child is thrust into footballing and celebrity limelight with no support. Perhaps this is why so many football fans across the world feel such a deep connection to Maradona. His flaws humanised a figure who, to many, seemed godly. It is unlikely any player will experience such levels of devotion as Maradona. He didn’t win the most trophies in football or score the most goals but those who saw him play know exactly why he is often regarded as the best of all time. A career of triumph and tribulation, if any footballer were eternal it would be Diego Maradona.