Diego Armando Maradona
is one of the greatest players in the history of the game – many even regard him as the greatest. He was a brave and natural born leader on the field, a streetwise character who could pull a rabbit out of the hat at any stage of the game. Short, stocky and left-footed with awe-inspiring ball control, dribbling, passing and playmaking skills, made him almost impossible to contain at his best. And the world got to see him at his peak in the 1986 World Cup. His tournament contribution to Argentina’s triumph has been generally accepted as the best in history by a single player of any World Cup.
He was born in Buenos Aires and grew up in the shantytown of Villa Fiorito in a large family as one of eight kids. Playing for Los Cebollitas (The little onions), Maradona quickly made a name for himself as a wonderboy with unbelievable ball skills. He received national recognition as a 10 year-old entertaining crowds with ball juggling at half-time breaks. A television crew once interviewed him during those years and he said: “I have two dreams: To play in the World Cup and to win it.”
Maradona was still only fifteen when he made his debut in top flight club football for struggling Argentinos Juniors, and only sixteen when he won his first cap for Argentina against Hungary in 1977. The career sky rocketed at Argentinos and Maradona was top scorer five times in the Argentinian league, twice in the Nacional tournament and three times in the Metropolitano. He was voted South American Player of the Year in 1979 and 1980.
His first major disappointment was to be dropped from Argentina’s World Cup squad for the tournament on home soil in 1978. Coach Cesar Luis Menotti felt Maradona was too young at 17 to cope with the pressure of this occasion. Reputedly, he was the last player to be cut from the 22 man roster which originally had a bunch of other names. The following year Maradona lead Argentina to the World Youth Cup title in Japan instead.
A £1 million transfer to Boca Juniors in 1981 helped Maradona win his only Argentinian league championship, and soon Europe beckoned. FC Barcelona broke the world transfer record fee when they paid £5 million for his services from the start of 1982/83.
By then, Maradona’s reputation had been marred by his actions in the 1982 World Cup in Spain, which saw him get sent off in frustration for a vicious foul on Brazil’s Batista. Against Italy in the previous match, Claudio Gentile was allowed to foul Maradona time and again and get away with it. Argentina bowed out in the second phase.
His spell in Barcelona lasted only two seasons and both were hampered by illness, injuries and other scandals. First he was sidelined for months with hepatitis, and then more months out the next season after a broken ankle caused by Andoni Goikoetxea, “The Butcher from Bilbao”. There was also the ongoing disputes with Barcelona’s president Nuñez. However, inbetween the problems Maradona also had some memorable performances for Barca, including one away to Real Madrid where he received a standing ovation from the Bernabeu crowd, but his period in Spain ended on a sour note with the mass brawl in the Copa del Rey-final against Athletic Bilbao where Maradona played his part in what reminded more of kung-fu fighting than football.
SSC Napoli, who barely avoided relegation each of the two previous seasons, decided to splash out a world record £6.9 million for Maradona in the summer of 1984. On the day of his presentation, there were 75 000 people packed at San Paolo. In the years that followed, Maradona was the cornerstone as the club transformed itself from a bottom team to a powerhouse in the world’s strongest league at the time – Serie A.
Right in the middle of those build-up years at Napoli, there was the 1986 World Cup in Mexico. The crowning moment of Maradona’s career. Against England in the quarterfinal he showed both sides of himself within few minutes; the clever cheater and the genius talent. A cheeky handball goal which he later said was the Hand of God, and then his amazing dribbling run of 60 yards regarded as the greatest World Cup goal in history. Two more goals by Maradona against Belgium in the semifinal was followed up by a 3-2 win against West Germany in the final, including an assist to Jorge Burruchaga’s deciding goal. Maradona was voted Golden Ball winner as best player and even World Athlete of the Year 1986 by United Press International.
Success followed at club level in Italy as Napoli captured their historic first league championship in 1986/87 knocking Michel Platini’s Juventus off the throne and adding Coppa Italia at the same time. Celebrations in the chaotic southern city reached new heights. In 1989, the UEFA Cup was won and another league championship in 1990 before the World Cup in Italy.
Maradona carried an injury going into Italia ’90 and was not on the same level as four years earlier, neither was his team. His most memorable moment in the World Cup was the assist to Claudio Caniggia’s match-winning goal against Brazil in the second round. Argentina beat hosts Italy on penalties in a very hyped semifinal match played in Naples, but couldn’t prevent West Germany winning the World Cup. Maradona was still voted the tournament’s third best player.
After failing a drug test for cocaine in March 1991, the career went on a downward spiral. He was suspended for 15 months, made comebacks for Sevilla and Newell’s Old Boys later and looked to have things sorted out after promising performances at the 1994 World Cup in USA, only to be tested positive again, this time for ephedrine.
Diego Maradona finished his rollercoaster career with Boca Juniors.