DIEGO MARADONA: THE BOY FROM BUENOS AIRES WHO CONQUERED THE WORLD
The incomparable Diego Armando Maradona, one of the greatest to ever play our beautiful game, passed away on Wednesday leaving the entire footballing world in mourning.
But how did this genius rise from a Buenos Aires shanty town to become the foremost player in world football? utilised than to describe the inexplicable talents of Diego Maradona.
Maradona’s wizardry spellbound spectators whose jaws were left transiently glued to the floor of the stands as he danced around the pitch that ultimately belonged to him.
It was futile to even contemplate suggesting otherwise.
But how did this genius rise from a Buenos Aires shanty town to become the foremost player in world football?
Humble Beginnings and Emergence
Diego Maradona was born on 30 October 1960 to Diego ‘Chitoro’ and Dalma Maradona in Buenos Aires, the fifth of seven children, with all of whom he would share a bedroom.
The family resided in the Villa Fiorito shanty town in the south of the capital, where modern sanitation was non-existent and abject poverty rife.
Jose Trotte, a resident of this squalid shanty town said of the young Diego in a Guardian piece: ‘He had nothing else but football.
‘He was not educated, he had no sophistication. He was shirtless and barefooted. He was just this street kid with a gift from God.’
His talent was obvious and at eight he was scouted to play for Argentinos Juniors’ junior side, where he would dazzle the spectators during the half-time break of the seniors’ games with his exceptional ball skills.
Nicknamed, ‘El Pibe de Oro’ or ‘The Golden Child’, young Maradona’s ability to glide past opposing players with consummate ease was similar to that of his childhood heroes George Best and Brazil’s Rivelino.
By 15 and 355 days he was deemed ready to take his professional bow and in true Diego Maradona style it was a debut to remember.
He had barely been in professional football ten minutes when he nutmegged Juan Cabrera in impudent fashion.
Cabrera had been tasked with pressing the fifteen-year-old but made the fatal error of leaving the smallest of gaps between his legs, through which Diego decided to push the ball through in nonchalant fashion.
This nutmeg, in many ways, sums up the player Maradona was, dazzling, yet fearless.
He took to life in the Primera Division with ease and notched an obscene 115 goals in just 167 appearances during his five years with Argentinos Juniors which prompted the giants of Boca Juniors to capture his signature in 1981 for a record-breaking $4 million.
Just five months after his debut he earned his first full international debut against Hungary but he missed out on a place in the 1978 World Cup squad due to manager Cesar Menotti’s perception that he was too young.
Nevertheless, he inspired the under-21 side to glory in the 1979 FIFA World Youth Championship where he made many onlookers sit up and take note of his precocious talent.
His eighteen months at Boca Juniors were successful as he helped the club to the 1981 league title but his time at La Bombonera was marred, slightly, by the uneasy relationship between him and manager Silvio Marzolini.
His title with Boca would be the only thing he would win in Argentina and soon after this triumph, he would be heading for Europe.
By the spring of 1982, it had become clear to the footballing world that Argentina and Boca Juniors had a mesmerising talent in Diego Maradona.
Catalan giants Barcelona were privy to this conversation on the genius of Maradona and in June of that year, signed the 21-year-old for a world record fee of £5 million from Boca.
Maradona was able to settle into his new surroundings immediately as no sooner had he signed for Barca, he was joining up with the Argentina squad for his first World Cup, which was held in Spain that year.
He and Argentina kicked off their tournament with a shock defeat to Belgium in front of a rather disappointed Camp Nou crowd, with Maradona uncharacteristically subdued.
El Salvador and Hungary, the latter of whom he notched a brace against, were brushed aside but the internal tensions that had grown steadily during the first group stage took its toll on performances.
The defeat against their South American neighbours Brazil was a lowlight as the aggressive marking of Maradona, led him to lash out at Batista which earned him a red.
The Italy clash saw Claudio Gentile’s rather pugnaciously man-mark and, subsequently nullify him as the Italians availed 2-1 in Barcelona, leading to Argentina’s premature exit.
The chagrin of a poor defence of the World Cup crown, was followed by an equally troubled spell in Catalonia.
His first year with Barca was, however, a success.
Under former Argentina boss, Cesar Menotti, Maradona enjoyed a stellar first season with the Catalans, winning both the Copa del Rey and the Spanish Super Cup.
In that season’s El Clasico at the Bernabeu, Maradona exhibited his masterful skill with the football.
He had picked up the ball just inside the Real Madrid half before scampering into open space and upon meeting Los Blancos’ onrushing goalkeeper Agustin, he just effortlessly dribbled the ball around the helpless keeper.
In typical Maradona fashion, he played the next phase in slow motion.
As Madrid defender Juan Jose came sliding in, in a rather futile attempt to rob him of the ball, Maradona deftly touched the ball inside which sent Jose crashing into the post.
He then calmly slotted the ball into the empty net with an entire terrace of fans behind him, stunned by what they had seen.
His second, and final, season in Catalonia was marked by controversy and injury.
A horrific ankle injury kept him out for three months but to compound the situation he was constantly at odds with the Barcelona board.
So, when a mass brawl in the Copa del Rey Final was sparked by him, it gave the board a perfect excuse to sell the Argentine and spelled the end for Maradona.
Whilst his time in Catalonia was marred by on- and off-field issues, he still scored an outstanding 38 goals in 58 games.
Lobo Carrasco, a teammate said of Maradona: ‘He had complete mastery of the ball.
‘We all thought ourselves privileged to be witnesses of his genius’.
Napoli: The Second Coming
On a scorching July afternoon, 75,000 Neapolitans packed themselves into the Stadio San Paolo to see the arrival of the man they saw as their saviour.
As Maradona walked up the steps from the darkened tunnel into the blinding midday sunlight, as he was swarmed by a swathe of photographers before being smacked by a cacophony of adulating cries from an adoring crowd, who believed the messiah had walked onto their pitch.
Such was the gravity of his arrival that a local newspaper stated that even without ‘houses, schools, buses, employment and sanitation, none of this matters because we have Maradona’.
When Diego Maradona arrived in Naples in 1984 for another world record fee, Italy was experiencing a crescendo in north-south tensions due to, primarily, the economic disparity between the two regions.
This disparity spilled into football as clubs in the north tended to dominate the Italian game with the Milan sides and Juventus holding an oligopoly on calcio at that time.
Many southerners bitterly resented this so for Neapolitans, who had borne the brunt of the economic (and footballing) disparities for years, to have one of the world’s best at their club was something to treasure.
This translated into adoration for the Argentine that bordered on him assuming a deity-like presence in Naples.
His status as a living god grew thanks to the vast improvement Napoli had made since his arrival, as the Azzurri jumped from mid-table to the top three in two years.
By 1987, Italian football’s northern status quo had been shoved aside to make way for Diego Maradona’s Napoli who, that year, blew away the rest of the peninsula to claim an historic league and cup double.
Neapolitans celebrated in rapturous fashion, with the city engulfed in a football-induced carnival which lasted for over a week.
Mock funerals were held for Juventus and Milan with their death notices reading: ‘May 1987, the other Italy has been defeated. A new empire is born.’
Murals of Maradona adorned Naples’ ancient buildings and there was a surge in new-born children named Diego.
During his time with the Azzurri, he became the focal point of Napoli’s devastating attacking trio, alongside Bruno Giordano and Careca, nicknamed the ‘Ma-Gi-Ca front-line’.
The trio’s potency ensured that Napoli were one of Europe’s foremost sides of the late 1980s.
Successive second-place finishes were to follow the title success but triumph in the UEFA Cup came as recompense for this in 1989 before a second Serie A title was won in 1990.
Although he was deployed in a creative number 10 role, he consistently finished at the top end of the scoring charts and his perennial knack of finding the net meant he left the club as its record goal-scorer.
In six years, Diego Maradona had driven Napoli from mid-table obscurity to sitting at world football’s top table and, in the process, cast a spell on the city.
Maradona, through his magical ability to manipulate a football had, after years of economic misery and torment from their northern compatriots, given the Neapolitans their dignity back and they repaid him with an unconditional affection that is still omnipresent to this day.
Although his time in Italy was not without its controversy, the joy he gave to so many means all of this is forgiven and forgotten.
His contribution to the city will never be forgotten by Neapolitans.
Conquering the World
It’s the summer of 1986 and the spectre of the Cold War, much like the sun over the Azteca Stadium, continues to loom large as talks between Reagan and Gorbachev stall.
Meanwhile, the eyes of the world are diverted from Moscow and Washington to Mexico for the World Cup.
Tears for Fears rode high in the charts with a re-worked version of Everybody Wants to Rule the World and it is apt that such a song featured so prominently that summer.
Whilst the world seemed divided, it united in its applause for the genius of Diego Maradona, who did rule the world in the summer of 1986.
After helping Argentina navigate a less-than-straightforward group that included World Champions Italy, La Albiceleste scraped through the round of sixteen, with a narrow victory over Uruguay to book their place in the quarter finals.
Maradona’s quarter-final opponents represented part of a nation with whom his country had been at war just four years prior and, whilst hostilities were over diplomatic ties between the two nations were still badly severed.
This match had all the ingredients needed to be feisty, and feisty it was.
Certain players looked on their opponents with a real hatred but Maradona was not interested in the history others had made, he was only interested in making it at the Azteca that afternoon.
England had held their own in the first-half and went in at the break still level but the rocketing temperature was clearly getting to Sir Bobby Robson’s men who were more accustomed to a cold, wet afternoon in Sunderland than the merciless heat of Mexico City.
For all his genius, five minutes after the restart Maradona exhibited an extremely questionable act of sportsmanship that England fans have struggled to come to terms with for over thirty years.
Receiving the ball mid-way inside his own half, he skipped away from Glenn Hoddle before lending his football to Jorge Valdano who had it nicked by Steve Hodge.
However, Hodge inadvertently sliced the ball onto the penalty spot, where an unprepared Peter Shilton failed to punch it clear as Maradona had punched the ball first… into the England net.
The England players, as well as their manager, were naturally incensed by the awarding of the goal but referee Ali Bin Nasser was unmoved and allowed the goal to stand.
Maradona would later excuse himself by claiming it was in fact the ‘Hand of God’.
Bobby Robson would later dispute this by pointing out ‘it was the hand of a rascal.’
With the game back underway, Maradona was in impudent mood and toyed with the England midfield before, just under five minutes later, scoring the ‘Goal of the Century’.
Picking up the ball in his own half he spun away from Peter Reid and Steve Hodge and set off towards goal.
Though he was arguably one of Europe’s best midfielders, Reid was unable to get anywhere near him as he scampered forward, gliding past Terry Butcher and Kenny Sansom as if they weren’t there.
Other players would have then squared the ball to the on-rushing Valdano once they reached the penalty area but Maradona was not just another player he was the best player in the world so he continued his run, rounding Shilton and passing the ball into the net.
The Goal of the Century, without question.
The Azteca pitch was far from a carpet, it was dry and unforgiving but Maradona skated round it as though an Olympic ice-dancer
Gary Lineker provided England with a consolation goal but it was too little too late and Diego Maradona had gone from the questionable to the sublime to drag his side through.
He was, again, up to his description-defying stuff again in the semi-finals when his brace secured Argentina’s place in the final.
The final proved to be one of the most exciting of all time as Argentina blew a two-goal lead with fellow Serie A stars Karl-Heinz Rummeniege and Rudi Voller scoring to equalise for West Germany.
It had been another feisty affair with six yellow cards dished out in total, albeit two were given for time-wasting.
However, with four minutes to go Maradona got his foot on the ball and evaded his captor Lothar Matthaus to play a quite beautiful pass through to Jorge Burruchaga who slotted home the winner.
Argentina held on to win the game and lift the World Cup for the second time in three tournaments.
Diego Maradona had been central to this triumph and was rightly named player of the tournament which had belonged to him.
He had conquered the world.
Later Life and Legacy
After 1990, his career began to nosedive and after an unproductive final year at Napoli he moved on to Sevilla before returning to Argentina to see out his playing days with Newell’s Old Boys and former club Boca Juniors.
The 1994 World Cup proved to be a lowlight as he was sent home in disgrace after failing a drugs test, which was brought on by an infamous celebration following a goal against Greece in which he ran to the cameras with eyes bulging and a face somewhat distorted.
He had long suffered from multiple off-field issues, notably, drug problems which took their toll as his career wound down and would slightly marr his retirement.
Health problems persisted as he entered throughout his fifth and sixth decades but he was able to lead his country as a manager at the 2010 World Cup.
A string of managerial roles came and went during the 2010s as he struggled to find his feet in management.
But through all of this, he continued to be loved and treasured by millions around the world.
Which is why, when his passing was announced on Wednesday it was met with an outpouring of grief, but most importantly adoration for arguably the greatest player of all time.
Stripping away all the excesses, Diego Maradona was a man, who possessed a unique gift for manipulating a football and adored the game he was just so inexplicably extraordinary at.
He truly had risen from nothing to conquer the world.
The greatest there ever was. Rest in peace El Diego.