In the hands of God
Diego Armando Maradona (30 October 1960 - 25 November 2020)
D10S, as he was known in his native Argentina, is widely regarded as one of the greatest football players of all time. A diminutive 1.65metre tall maestro who terrified generations of defenders with his close ball control, sensational passing and astonishing vision which is weighed in the balance against the destructive nature of his personality and of course, for England fans, the humiliating five minutes in Mexico 1986 when he scored the most infamous goal in World Cup history before doubling his brace with potentially the greatest. Such is the dichotomy of Maradona.
Born to a poor family in the shanty town outskirts of Buenos Aires to Diego Maradona "Chitoro" and Dalma Salvadora Franco 'Doña Tota' he was the first son after four daughters. He had two younger brothers who both went on to be professional footballers as well.
Maradona was first spotted at the age of eight by a talent scout and was offered a trial with Los Cebollitas the youth development team for Argentinos Juniors. The manager, Francisco Cornejo was left dumbfounded. "He seemed to come from another planet". By the age of 12 he was entertaining the crowd at half time of first division games with his ball skills. He named Brazilian playmaker Rivelino and Manchester United & Northern Ireland superstar George Best as his role models when he was growing up.
He made his professional debut on October 20 1976, ten days before turning 16. He was the youngest player to play in the Primera Division and within minutes of taking the field he nutmegged Juan Domingo Cabrera. Maradona spent five years with Argentinos Juniors, scoring 115 goals in 167 appearances. In 1979 he was the lynchpin in the Argentine victory in the World Youth Championship final against the Soviet Union and his fame became too great for Juniors to keep hold of him. He was showered with offers from several major clubs but was to reject all offers, including one from River Plate to become their highest paid player, to move to Boca Juniors, the team he always dreamed of playing for. He was to spend a solitary season at his favourite club. Despite winning the league title he had a stormy relationship with the manager Silvio Marzolini. He flew to Spain to compete in the 1982 World Cup and despite being given a red card at the end of a defeat to Brazil he was promptly signed by Barcelona for a then world record fee of £5m. He was still only 21 years old.
His two years at Barcelona were turbulent to say the least. 38 goals in 58 games and a Copa Del Rey alongside the start of cocaine use and heavy drinking. He suffered a career threatening ankle injury inflicted by Andoni Goikoetxea of Athletic Bilbao which required a three month recovery period. He also had a bout of Hepatitis B but on the pitch he also received a standing ovation from the Real Madrid fans after rounding the goalkeeper and avoiding a sliding tackle on the goal line that saw the defender crash into the post. Frequent disputes with the club president Josep Lluís Núñez and then instigating a mass brawl in front of the Spanish King after defeat in the 1984 Copa Del Rey final saw his tenure at the Catalan giants come to a close. During 1984 he also got married to long time fiancé Claudia Villafañe
He broke his own world record transfer with a £6.9m move to Napoli. He spent seven years in southern Italy and virtually single handedly broke the northern dominance of the sport in Italy, guiding Napoli to become the first southern Italian club to win the Serie A title. Napoli fans were convinced they were in the presence of divine intervention. It is said that as fans celebrated their league victory they adorned gravestones with scarves and newspaper cuttings exclaiming "Wake up! You don't know what you are missing"
Prior to leading Napoli to league victory he also guided Argentina to World Cup triumph in Mexico. Prior to the finals he turned out for Tottenham Hotspur in a testimonial match for Ossie Ardilies. He and Glenn Hoddle struck up a telepathic relationship and the crowd gave the superstar a thunderous reception. With the shadow of the Falklands conflict fresh in the memory Martin Tyler asked the player if he anticipated any problems if Argentina were to meet England at the World Cup. Maradona was confident there would be no issue. His genius and talent contrasted in such sharp relief with his darker side. He used his hand to prod the ball beyond the outstretched England goalkeeper and to the astonishment of the England players the goal stood. It was to become known as "The Hand of God" after he was quoted as saying "it was a little with the head of Maradona and a little with the hand of God". His second goal was of excruciating excellence as he dribbled through five outfield players and feinted Shilton to the floor to score a quite extraordinary solo effort. England players in the match and fans have struggled to forgive the diminutive talent for the flagrant cheating, creating the Jekyll and Hyde persona for Maradona in England that was soon to haunt him on a global scale. Despite this blemish, his performance in the '86 tournament is widely considered the most virtuoso solo World Cup finals performance in history. It is often argued Argentine did not win the World Cup, Maradona did.
On the pitch he continued to deliver success to Napoli, two league titles, a UEFA cup success, Coppa Italia and a Super Coppa Italia after taking Argentina to World Cup success. Yet,away from the bright lights of the stadia problems were becoming harder to deny. Connections to the Naples mafia and a full blown cocaine addiction alongside a son, Diego, from an extra marital affair all fuelled by a deification on an unimaginable scale.
The 1990 World Cup in Italy saw a more subdued Maradona who still was able to guide his team to the final only for West Germany to avenge their 1986 final defeat.
Maradona finally left Napoli in 1992, and the club retired the number 10 shirt in his honour. He was promptly banned from football for 15 months for failing a cocaine test before then playing for Sevilla and then returning to Argentina to turn out for Newell's Old Boys. He captained Argentina at the US 1994 World Cup but was sent home in disgrace after a positive test for banned substance ephedrine and retired from international football considered a pariah everywhere except in Argentina. Maradona played for Boca Juniors until the 1997/98 season but to limited effect and he finally retired having scored 259 goals in nearly 500 matches in three countries.
After hanging up his boots he became seriously overweight and was treated for a cardiac arrest in 2004 from suspected cocaine abuse. It was in 2004 that his divorce was finally confirmed after the relationship had broken down due to infidelity in his time in Naples. He underwent surgery to implement a gastric band in 2008 and was then asked to take the role of the Argentina head coach. His time in charge of his country included a 6-1 humiliation at the hands of Bolivia and his contract was not renewed after a 4-0 World Cup Quarter Final elimination by Germany.
He spent time as manager in Argentina, two spells in the UAE and in Mexico but his talents as a coach did not reach any where near the heights of his mercurial on pitch presence. It was his demons that dominated his post playing career, the brightness of his star as a player faded in the shade of his drug addiction and foul mouthed tirades.
Despite his complicated personality and litany of offences, he was still revered as a god like hero by ordinary Argentinians. He allowed the poor man on the street the chance to taste glory and greatness. His divinity gave so many joy, but his success never seemed to be enough to tame his quest for fulfilment. A generation of England football fans will forever struggle with the schadenfreude of his physical decline and eventual disgrace. Football observers will forever dismiss the narrow mindedness of taking one moment of cheating to frame the career of one of the world's most gifted players, but in those five minutes in the Azteca stadium in Mexico, Maradona demonstrated the sublime and the ridiculous, the villain and the hero, the most controversial and most applauded moments in a global sport. A vignette of absurd theatre at the hand ,and feet, of one man.
He underwent brain surgery at the start of November but then died of a heart attack at his home in Buenos Aires on Wednesday 25th November. Argentina announced three days of national mourning as Maradona died 15 years to the day after his boyhood idol, George Best, another gifted individual footballer who lost his battle with addiction. He is survived by his two daughters Dalma and Giannina, and his son, Diego.