There are not that many individuals to whom the term “Larger than Life” applies based on the lives they have led. Among the very few that this can be applied to, fewer still can come close to the legend that was Diego Armando Maradona. The name “Maradona” alone evoked footballing genius. In the many ways that the stocky Argentine was larger than life, the global appeal of his skills transcended generations of football fans across the world to inspire even those who never saw him play in real-time.
That was the essence of his genius.
Yet, coupled with the flamboyance of his creativity with the round leather on the field of play was a disturbingly troubled lifestyle that revealed the dark underbelly of a life of substance abuse that caused him to be banned from football for certain periods, obesity that sent him to the hospital on more than more occasion and an extra-marital affair that produced a son named after him. And these were only a few of the issues that floated around the orbit of the legend of Maradona.
Put together, the football maestro lived many lives in one.
But, it all started 60 years ago. On Sunday, October 30, 1960, the precocious talent that was to be nicknamed “El Pibe de Oro” which translated to “The Golden Boy” was born to Diego Maradona and Dalma Salvadora Franco at the Polyclinic Evita Hospital in Lanus, Buenos Aires Province as the first son after four daughters.
He was raised in the poor family house in Villa Fiorito, a shantytown on the Buenos Aires outskirts. He started playing football at a young age with the rest of his mates and soon entered his neighbourhood club Estrella Roja. It was there that at the age of eight, that a talent scout spotted the young Maradona and brought him to the junior team of Buenos Aires’ Argentinos Junior, popularly called Los Cebollitas (the little onions).
The accomplishments of Maradona on the field of play began professionally 10 days before he turned 16, when he made his debut for Argentinos Juniors that fateful October 20, 1976. It was coincidental that he was wearing a number 16 jersey but his age made him the youngest player in the history of the Argentine Primera Division. His memory of the game was that poetic. “I felt I held the sky in my hands.” Two weeks after turning 16, he scored his first professional goal of many. It was against San Lorenzo on the 14th of November of that year.
It was about this time that the youngster made his international debut for his country. The fixture was on February 27, 1977 against Hungary. For the 1978 World Cup however, the national coach Cesar Luis Menotti considered the 17-year-old Maradona too young to feature and did not include him in the squad.
Five years with Argentinos Juniors after he had netted 115 goals in 167 appearances, he was ready to move. Offers came from many clubs who had seen the prodigy of the young player. The popular River Plate were ready to make him the highest paid footballer but Maradona had his mind made up: he always wanted Boca Juniors and that was what he got. It was a record transfer worth USD 4million.
In the time he played for Boca Juniors, he also represented his county. As an 18-year-old, Maradona was in the Argentine delegation to the 1979 FIFA World Youth Championship in Japan. He was easily the star of the Championship with six goals in six appearances including one in the final 3-1 win over the Soviet Union. After that, it was easy for him to be slotted into the senior team where he scored his first international goal in a match against Scotland at Hampden Park on June 2, 1979.
Back in the domestic league, he was a revelation for Boca Juniors. Fresh off the signing of the contract on the 20th of February, he debuted with a brace against Talleres de Cordoba in a 4-1 win. The highpoint of the choice to play for Boca Juniors came in Maradona’s first Superclasico (as matches between two of Argentina’s biggest clubs Boca and River Plate were referred) where he starred and scored a goal in the 3-0 defeat of River Plate. They will go on to win the league title that year, the only title the prodigious player won in the Argentine domestic league.
By the turn of 1982, Maradona was in another world record transfer move from Boca Juniors to Barcelona. The young son of a factory worker from the dusty streets of his shantytown was joining the big league. It cost Barcelona USD 7.6million to secure his services and by 1983, the club was reaping dividends. They won the Copa del Rey against Real Madrid and the Spanish Super Cup by beating Athletic Bilbao. When Barcelona met Real Madrid in the Spanish El Clasico, one of the biggest club ties in the world, Maradona scored and became the first Barcelona player to be cheered by Real Madrid fans who were supposed to be arch-rivals of Barcelona players.
It was at this time that Maradona featured in his first World Cup. It was the 1982 Cup and it came to Spain. Though Maradona played all five matches that Argentina managed in the competition and scored twice against Hungary, he was persistently fouled and insistently man-marked. He was sent off for a retaliatory foul against Batista in the tie against fellow South Americans Brazil.
Back in Barcelona, Maradona who was wracked by hepatitis and controversial incidents on the pitch against rival players such as an Andoni Goikoetxea, whose insidious tackle that took him out for three months, had a violent on-field confrontation with Miguel Sola that snonwballed into a full-out pitch fight leaving about 60 people injured. Barcelona finally accepted Maradona’s demands to be transferred, especially as his disputes with club management worsened. Just like the two transfers that came before, another world record fee of USD 10.48million was involved as he left for Napoli after 38 goals in 58 matches.
75,000 fans welcomed the one who they saw as a saviour to Naples in July of 1984. No team from the South of Italy, where Naples was located, had ever taken the league title. They had seen what Maradona could do with the ball between his stout legs. They believed Maradona was going to change that. And that was exactly what the maestro did. At the peak of his talent, the Argentine elevated the team and forever changed their history. Napoli took their first ever Serie A title in 1987 and Naples celebrated for over a week. Maradona took on a cult-like status. His murals adorned the city and babies were named after him.
Then, in 1986 Maradona captained the Argentine national team to victory in the 1986 World Cup in Mexico. The tournament was an exhibition of the dominance and genius of Maradona. Playing every game and almost covering every blade of grass, the stocky player scored five goals in five games, made five assists and helped to eliminate Uruguay and cemented his legend forever with the dazzling run that started just inside his own half at the half-way line, beat half of the England team, rounded off the keeper and slotted into the net from a nearly impossible angle.
By contrast with the cheating of his first goal against England that he scored with his hand unbeknownst to the match officials, it was satisfying to the Argentines who were still seething from the Falklands War with the United Kingdom and exasperating for the English players who could not prove that he did not use his head.
Maradona’s virtuoso performance at the World Cup continued in games against Belgium in the semi-final and West Germany in the final where even though he was double-marked, his presence was enough to be the difference. The statistics on Maradona alone in this 1986 competition were incredible. For dribbles, winning free kicks from fouls, scoring, assisting, possession of the ball and being all over the pitch to help the team move forward at pace, no other single player even came close. His award of the best player of the tournament was stating the obvious as many agreed that he virtually single-handedly won Argentina the trophy.
In 1987, Maradona met with Pope John Paul II at the Vatican and, in his telling of the dialogue, said they clashed on the issue of wealth disparity as he admonished the Pope to sell his golden ceilings if he truly cared about the welfare of poor kids in the world. It was an expression of the temperament of the man.
The title winning feat in his club career with Napoli was accomplished again in 1990, while ending second best in the two years before in 1988 and 1989. They also won the Coppa Italia in 1987 and came close to winning other honours like the UEFA Cup, the Italian Super Cup and the domestic league in the period of Maradona’s time with the Neapolitans. He was a menace to defenders across Europe and a god to his adoring fan base, which grew by the minute.
When the 1990 World Cup came, Maradona again was called to the national team as captain. But an ankle injury meant his performance as not as dominant as it was four years before. They qualified for the knockout stages by the skin of their teeth. Maradona was instrumental to their successes against the likes of Yugoslavia and Italy in the quarter and semi-finals but they lost to West-Germany in the final and ended as runners up.
Yet, it was at this time in Naples that the dark shadows of his lifestyle appeared overcast. For absenteeism at games and team training sessions as his cocaine use increased, he was fined for up to USD 70,000. His addiction to cocaine, which took hold from the mid-1980’s had become impossible. Extra-marital affairs were also on the offing as a scandal over an illegitimate child threatened to derail his football focus. When he failed a drug test for cocaine, Maradona was slammed with a 15-month ban and left Napoli in 1992 in disgrace at the end, a stark contrast with how he arrived.
He was to feature for national duties in Argentine colours again at another World Cup, this time in the United States in 1994. But the Argentine talisman was no longer that. He played two games, scoring against Greece and setting up two goals from free-kicks against Nigeria before he failed a drug test for ephedrine doping and was sent home. That was how the curtail fell on his illustrious international career that began that day in 1977 against Hungary as a prodigious 17-year-old and ended 17 years later in disgrace but not without yielding 34 goals from 91 appearances and a World Cup to boot.
It is not possible to capture the enigma of his personality in any brief form. For someone who lived a life that was acclaimed to be larger than life, no summaries could ever do justice to his enigma. What can be offered is at best storied glimpses of the inexhaustible phenomenon that is the icon. And there is no shortage of that in Maradona’s case.
Pestered repeatedly by the press, Maradona once fired at reporters he claimed invaded his privacy. He once had a three-round exhibition boxing match with Santos Laciar for charity in April of 1996. In the year 2000, the legend published an autobiography titled “Yo Soy El Diego” (“I am The Diego”) which became a best-seller in his home country and which had a portion of the dedication addressed “To Fidel Castro and, through him, all the Cuban People.”
That same year, he won the FIFA Player of the Century from an online poll, although FIFA changed the protocols so the award was jointly conferred on Maradona and the Brazilian Pele. He returned to his boyhood club, Boca Juniors as a sports vice-president in June 2005. While there, they won the 2005 Apertura, 2006 Clausura, the 2005 Copa Sudamericana and the 2005 Recopa Sudamericana. In the same year, he debuted as a TV talk-show host with most guests drawn from football and show-business. One notable interview guest was Cuban leader Fidel Castro with whom the player shared particular interests and ideologies.
In 2004, he divorced his wife Claudia Villafane with whom he had two daughters and a son. In the divorce proceedings, he admitted to fathering a son out of wedlock. That son Diego Sinagra is a footballer in Italy. Without regular training and strict discipline, his high tendency to put on weight worsened his obesity issues. He weighed an astonishing 280 lb (130kg) that he required undergoing gastric bypass surgery in Colombia in March 2005. Placed on a liquid diet, he was noticeably thinner when next he was in public after the operation.
Maradona was a guest at the Miraflores Palace of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, whom the player openly supported, in 2005. He believed Chavez to be a giant among great men and addressed himself as a Chavista, a fan of the Venezuelan president.
In March 2007, he was back in the hospital for treatment for hepatitis and effects of alcohol abuse. Released in April, he was readmitted after two days and it was not long before rumours of his deaths began circulating. But he survived. In August, having recovered well, he made an appearance on Chavez’s weekly TV Show “Alo Presidente” and said, in apparent expression of being a Chavista, that he hated everything that came from the US with all his strength. Maradona had a documentary done about him in 2008 by Serbian award-winning filmmaker Emir Kusturica simple titled “Maradona”.
Not much is known of his finances but Italian officials announced in March 2009 that the talented Argentine was indebted to the Italian government for unpaid taxes to the tune of €37million. They alleged that €23.5million of it was accrued interest over the original sum. Of all that, they claimed Maradona had only paid €42,000, two luxury watches and a set of earrings. They were determined to get what was remaining from him through all legal means available to them.
If Maradona heard, he did not react. Instead, he added coaching to his incredible slew of gifts. It began professionally when he proposed his candidacy for the vacancy at the top of the Argentine national team. The chairman of the Football Association, Julio Grondona confirmed that Maradona had been appointed head coach of Argentina on the 29th of October, 2008. His suitability for the post was queried in the media especially after Argentina lost 6-1 to Bolivia in one of the qualifying matches for the 2010 World Cup. But, Argentina qualified after winning their remaining two matches and Maradona hurled abuses at the press at the post-match conference. It was greeted by a FIFA ban and fines.
The national team went to the 2010 World Cup in June with Maradona in charge. A 4-0 trouncing in the quarter-finals by Germany was as far as they managed. Although the Argentine FA was supportive of the manager, they decided not to renew his contract on July 27.
Thereafter, he was manager of Dubai club Al Wasl FC in the United Arab Emirates in May 2011 but was fired in July the next year. Then, coaching stints in Deportivo Riestra in Argentina, Fujairah in the UAE lower division, Dorados in the Mexican second division followed before his coaching gig at Gimnisia de La Plata where he was stationed as coach until his unfortunate passing.
In stark contrast with his meeting of Pope John Paul II, Maradona was a different person when he met Pope Francis in Rome in September 2014. He credited the pontiff for inspiring him to return to religion after so many years away and encouraged the imitation of the generosity of the Holy Father as he believed that no one would starve in the world if each person gives something to the other.
In January 2019, Maradona went under the surgeon’s knife again after a hernia led to internal bleeding in his stomach. And this year, on November 11 he was discharged from the hospital after being admitted due to concerns over anaemia and dehydration but ended up on the surgeon’s table for an operation for a subdural haematoma. Two weeks later, on Wednesday November 26, he was pronounced dead after suffering a heart condition before going into cardiac arrest.
Renowned for an ability to dribble with the ball seeming tied to his legs, the footballing genius had an on-the-pitch vision that was unmatched. His close ball control, passing and creativity on the field of play made him one of the most skilful to lace his boots for the game. His compact physique, stocky legs and low-centre of gravity allowed him to easily handle pressure on a blistering pace while his quick feet, mental acuity, heightened vision and enhanced spatial awareness all combined to allow for rapid change of direction to the detriment of opposing players.
He was good in the air with his head despite his stout physique. He was good with the dead-ball as free-kicks and penalties were his specialty. His defensive work-rate off the ball made him a formidable opponent to play against. He understood pressure and could absorb it all on behalf of teammates and immediately worked to resolve difficulties as the role of a captain required. And as his “Hand of God” goal against England typified, he was full of tricks and cunny enough to get away with them. Yet, he won praise from friends and foes alike as the best player of his generation by a distance.
The mercurial player was also notorious for his poor diet and extreme lifestyle outside the pitch. His indulgence in illicit drugs and abuse of alcohol did not help his game in the least. And as his career waned his weight doubled. The combination of a lack of discipline, his confrontational attitude and his temper that was on a short fuse was a harbinger of negative consequences. They all took a toll on his performance and negated his longevity in the sport that brought him so much and impacted his life just as much. In the end, his health was unable to sustain the abuse and succumbed.
The man had lived many lives in one. He had accomplished much more than most ever will. He had taken the world by storm and more than proven himself in his specialty. He etched his name forever in the sands of time. And for good more than not, he will be forever remembered as the football legend he became.
The one and only Maradona.