The first of four articles that form my tribute to the unique flawed genius, the late and great Diego Maradona.
There have been few figures in football, let alone sports or other domains more broadly, that have divided fans as much as Diego Armando Maradona. By many, he is revered to the point of being elevated to the status of a quasi god-like figure (as demonstrated by his nickname “D10S“), while others scorn him as a needlessly dishonest individual in a sport that is already rife with corruption. Despite the controversy that surrounded his career and difficult personal life, what cannot be denied, however, is the fact that Maradona is truly synonymous with football; he will always remain one of the greatest and most brilliant players that the game has ever witnessed, and will undoubtedly be forever remembered as a legendary figure in football history. With an incredible, mercurial talent, a mythical aura surrounding him, a distinctive trademark “mop of unkempt” dark hair, and a larger than life persona that belied his diminutive stature (which was both paramount to his success on the pitch, and equally detrimental to his problematic life off of it), he was a highly recognisable figure both on and away from the field of play. Being simultaneously supremely gifted and highly temperamental, it is difficult to find another player who arguably illustrates the dichotomy, namely both the glamour and the problems, of the so-called “beautiful game” better than Diego himself.
At the San Paolo Stadium in Naples, there was a well-known chant that the Napoli spectators used to sing: “Ho visto Maradona!” (I have seen Maradona); a song that was sung by the fans who came to see him when he was first presented to the club in 1984 (note, while the source I found claims this, I have a friend who attended the presentation who stated that the chant actually originated later, during a match against Bologna). As someone who unfortunately never really saw Maradona play, except for his final appearance, a testimonial match in honour of his career, in which his hedonistic and undisciplined lifestyle off the pitch had evidently taken a physical toll on him, it seems strange to be writing my first blog post about him. Indeed, I am someone who firmly believes that, despite records of title victories, statistics, and youtube compilations of historic players being readily accessible to everyone today, one cannot truly judge a player that they have not witnessed themselves with their own eyes. As such, I do not know if I will be able to elucidate what exactly makes Maradona such a fascinating and enigmatic figure. After all, no player, not even the most popular figures of their generation, including Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo at the moment, or Zidane, or Ronaldo, or even Pelé beforehand, have ever garnered the level of adoration or the cult-like following that Diego received. However, his career, his talent, and his story have always intrigued me, and have led me on a pursuit through the years to learn more about him, and what made him so special. Through discussions with friends and family members who watched him play, by rewatching his games myself, and through personal research, I have attempted to understand who he was and how he came to be such a mythical yet controversial figure. In this article, I hope therefore to analyse the complex character that is Diego Maradona, to remember not only his career achievements and greatness as a player, but also recount his personal failures, and possibly even re-examine what it was that ultimately led to his fall from grace through a somewhat more sympathetic lens, without being an apologist or attempting to justify his actions. I realise that doing this effectively, and attempting to illustrate both sides in a manner that appeases and is satisfactory to both fans and critics is almost impossible, especially when with someone like Maradona, people either seem to love him or hate him, but nevertheless, I will try my best to take on this seemingly insurmountable task! This is the first of four articles on Maradona, and will serve primarily as an introduction to him, and will also examine some aspects that cemented his status among the Olympians of football.
Although I am an avid Juventus fan from Modena, my father is a supporter of one of our main rivals, his hometown club Napoli, the team with which Maradona is most associated. Although my father enjoyed football, and appreciated Maradona’s talent and the success he brought to Napoli, he was probably one of the few people from his hometown who was not obsessed with Maradona. Indeed, still to this day, Diego exudes a quasi-religious influence across the Campanian peninsula; fans still create street-art inspired by him, or even dedicate shrines to him. In Argentina, astonishingly, a church was even founded in his honour! I have many Neapolitan and Argentine friends and relatives who witnessed him play, and who still speak fondly of him and Napoli’s glory years. I still remember the dismissive responses I received from them in the run-up to the 2010 World Cup, when I suggested that Messi could surpass Diego (coincidentally, something even Maradona himself implied, if he would have gone on to win the trophy); they simply retorted: “No, Massimo. Diego is unique and unattainable; he did things you could never believe unless you actually witnessed them. We saw him do incredible things every week.” I later felt almost foolish for even implying this! For them, there is no question: Maradona is the greatest. Although there have been many players who have been lauded as the best ever, this notion that Maradona is the greatest male player of all is something that appears to be a recurring sentiment among numerous fans who saw him play, as well as esteemed former players and managers who either faced, coached, watched, or played alongside him, including the likes of Paolo Maldini, Ruud Gullit, Franco Baresi, Ciro Ferrara, Giuseppe Bergomi, Eric Cantona, Fabio Cannavaro, Arrigo Sacchi, and Gabriel Batistuta. It also brings to mind Andrew Murray’s quote on Diego being included at number one on FourFourTwo‘s “100 Greatest Footballers Ever” list:
“Pelé scored more goals. Lionel Messi has won more trophies. Both have lived more stable lives than the overweight former cocaine addict who tops this list, whose relationship with football became increasingly strained the longer his career continued. If you’ve seen Diego Maradona with a football at his feet, you’ll understand.”
Today, in an era of athletes, with an increasingly faster, more physical, and tactical game, medical advancements and increasing attention to once ignored aspects such as diets, psychology, and physiotherapy, have extended players’ careers significantly, not only in football, but in other sports as well. During this time, two figures in particular have undoubtedly dominated their generation with their incredible achievements, not only in terms of the number of both team an individual titles that they have won, but also in terms of the goalscoring records that they are constantly breaking, namely Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. If one were to compare Maradona’s goalscoring record and the career honours he won to theirs, his achievements almost seem to pale in comparison, and his slower, more artistic brand of football seems almost out of place in today’s game. But with Maradona, there was certainly more than met the eye; statistics alone do not suffice to illustrate his influence on game…football is not a sport like baseball after all. While Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo are different players with contrasting styles and physiques, who have played in a number of positions throughout their career, without wanting to oversimplify their position (this article is not about them at all, but I plan to analyse their roles in the future), it can be argued that they are both essentially goalscoring inverted wingers in their team’s front-line (even though they each interpret this role differently, with Messi being more technical and creative, while Cristiano Ronaldo is more of a finisher and aerial specialist, known for his movement). While Maradona certainly was a good goalscorer himself, one must remember that he was not a true forward, but first and foremost a number ten – a creative advanced playmaker who operated in a free role in between the midfielders and forwards – whose primary responsibility was to orchestrate attacking plays and create chances for teammates; as such it is futile to compare these players to one another when their role is not the same. This number ten position is also known as an enganche in Latin American football, as a fantasista or trequartista in Italian football, or as a meia atacante in Brazilian football. The role is usually occupied by an attacking midfielder, as this was initially the shirt number held by players in this position in the time before fixed numbers were assigned to players on a particular team; however, it would be reductive to equate the two terms, as classic number tens are not confined to one fixed role, and sometimes operate in different positions. In this sense, Maradona very much resembled a left-wing anti-establishment symbol on the pitch, such as the political revolutionary figure Che Guevara, whom he so deeply admired. Although many players in this position were loved by fans, and are considered to be among the best players in the history of the game, this quasi-anarchistic role has often created somewhat of a tactical conundrum for managers, as they were usually not known for their defensive skills or work-rate, and as their role was not always suited to certain formations. Nevertheless, it was these talented players who often made the difference, and on whom their teammates relied to resolve games.
Each iconic number ten – whether it was Pelé, Michel Platini, Roberto Baggio, Ruud Gullit, Michael Laudrup, Gheorghe Hagi, Rui Costa, or Zinedine Zidane, among many others, had their own individual style and idiosyncrasies, in part due to their different physiques, heritage, and playing positions. While each of these players combined superior technical qualities with exceptional vision and creativity, some were more offensive-minded, dynamic, and prolific, or more direct in their creation of chances, while others were more pace–setters who influenced the game by pulling the strings in midfield. However, if one were to attempt to choose one player as the archetypal number ten, it would undoubtedly be Maradona. He truly had all the qualities you would want in a player in his position: unparalleled dribbling skills; exceptional flair, technique, creativity, timing, and awareness; total vision; tremendous passing and striking ability with his magical left foot; an incredible prowess from set-pieces; an eye for goal; blistering acceleration; a low centre of gravity; nimble footwork; surprising physical power for a player of his meagre stature (owing to his sturdy build); contagiously charismatic leadership qualities; tactical intelligence; and lastly the ability to carry his team to victory by delivering in key moments. If there were any weaknesses to Diego’s game, it would be the fact that he was predominantly one-footed, that he was not always disciplined or hard-working enough in his physical conditioning during training (while he practised meticulously to refine his technical game and worked strenuously with a personal trainer – Fernando Signorini – during his peak years in order to stay fit and combat his unfortunate natural metabolic tendency to put on weight, he was often fined for missing training sessions during the latter part of his Napoli career), his lack of ability in the air, and the fact that his fiery temperament would sometimes see him involved in altercations with other players, leading to some rather regrettable incidents, which tarnished his reputation and led him to pick up unnecessary cards. These factors did not limit him significantly on the pitch, however.
“What Zidane could do with a ball, Maradona could do with an orange.”Michel Platini
Secondly, one must remember the context surrounding Maradona’s achievements. Although football’s athletic demands were less strenuous during Maradona’s career than they are today, it is imperative to remember that Maradona also played in a time where pitches were often not the well-kept, even, lightly wet carpets of lush green grass that we see across the globe today. The fields he played on were usually muddy, patchy, and uneven, and he played with leather balls that were far heavier, and which were not as easy to bend, cross, or strike from distance. On top of this, regulations tended to favour goalkeepers and defenders, including a stricter offside rule that was in use at the time, the back-pass rule still being incorporated, and the fact that tackles from behind had not yet been outlawed. Indeed, Maradona was often viciously kicked, pulled, shoved throughout the course of matches. Any football fan will be familiar with Claudio Gentile’s infamous defensive performance and physical man-marking of Maradona at the 1982 World Cup. However, he also had to deal with many other intimidating opponents, such as Pietro Vierchowod, Andoni Goikoetxea, or a highly aggressive defender like Pasquale Bruno, who often took aim at talented players, and whose challenges usually went unpunished (fans are quick to criticise the frequency of simulation during this era, but they also forget the fact that talented players also resorted to it as a means to protect themselves). Every era has its difficulties, which makes it impossible to compare them (I almost find these endless debates on whether Messi, or Zidane, or Maradona, or Pelé were the greatest players of all time to be useless, especially when many of us have not seen all of them play), but talent clearly transcends any generation, and in this regard, Maradona was almost unmatched. One only has to observe his famous warm-up ahead of the 1989 UEFA Cup semi-final, or to listen to Gary Lineker’s poignant tribute, to get a glimpse of how gifted he was with the ball, and how naturally football came to him.
As I had mentioned earlier, from speaking with friends and relatives, it is also difficult to truly comprehend Maradona’s greatness unless you actually saw him on the pitch. For example, my father always believed that the semi-final of the 1970 World Cup between Italy and West Germany – the so-called “Game of the Century” at the Azteca stadium (coincidentally the same stadium in which Diego would score “Goal of the Century” 16 years later) was the greatest game of football he had ever seen. When I rewatched it myself, however, although I admit it was exciting due to how tightly it was fought , and due to the amount of goals that were scored in extra-time, it did not strike me as being a remarkable match, and I wondered whether its status was somewhat exaggerated out of nostalgia. But people who witnessed it explained to me that I never experienced the tension while watching that game live, almost feeling the intensity and the pressure that the players were facing at that very moment, and the elation when Gianni Rivera came back to score that late winner after being at fault for the equaliser only moments earlier. Thinking about this made me realise how true this is. Part of what made the semi-final match between Italy and Germany at the 2006 World Cup so incredible to me, for example, was how closely it was contested, and because of all the excitement at both ends, the stress and emotions I experienced throughout, and feeling the moment of ecstasy when Fabio Grosso finally netted the winning goal only two minutes from the end of extra-time. When I rewatched the match during the pandemic, however, I was surprised that, although both teams played good football, it was not, however, as stylish a performance as I remembered, or that one would expect from one of Pep Guardiola’s teams, for example. But then again, the whole context surrounding Italy’s victory in the tournament, after coming back from the ignominy surrounding the disgraceful Calciopoli match-fixing scandal that rocked Italian football…it is difficult to understand what it meant unless you actually lived those moments. This only goes to show how one cannot truly grasp the greatness of a player or match that they have not seen themselves. One should remember this when considering Maradona’s achievements as well. The audacious skills he pulled off at a given moment, or the decisive goals he scored or created in important and tightly-contested matches, they might not always seem as remarkable in hindsight, when players today are observed more closely and are required to deliver on a consistent basis (although, at the same time, the lack of widespread broadcasting and media coverage during Maradona’s career might also limit our ability to assess his abilities appropriately retroactively and do his reputation justice). However, we do not really know what it was like to see him do all of those incredible things in the moment, unless we actually witnessed him do them live; we did not experience the pressure he was being put on from the media or the fans at the time, or the real-time emotional intensity of a particular match, or the feeling of incredulous awe when he won a crucial game for his teams. This should not be overlooked.
Moreover, one must remember for which teams Diego played. He was not the star of the Barca “Golden Era,” as was Messi, or the front-man of the new wave of multi-million dollar “Galacticos,” as was Cristiano Ronaldo. While his Argentina and Napoli sides certainly were not weak teams by any means, without Maradona’s presence, it would have been difficult to genuinely conceive them as potential title contenders. Yet, that is exactly what Maradona turned them into. He not only had the ability to resolve games through his leadership and win titles virtually by himself, but he also made those around him better. He inspired confidence and gave his team and the fans the impression that with him on the pitch, no opponent was unbeatable; this is what made him such a heroic figure to football fans.
This article is by no means intended to be a hagiography; often Maradona’s failures as a person are overlooked because of his incredible talent and achievements. The truth is that Maradona was deeply flawed; beyond his controversies and altercations on the pitch, his lengthy struggles with a serious cocaine addiction, his alleged use of illicit substances at the 1994 World Cup, and his frequent acts of adultery (including being caught in a prostitution scandal), mistakes that today with a different mindset around these issues could possibly be glanced over, it is most shocking, however, that he did not acknowledge the paternity of his son Diego Junior, whom he had fathered through an extra-marital affair, until far later in life; he was also investigated for tax evasion (which almost seems contradictory given his far left-wing political views, and his admiration for figures such as Fidel Castro, Evo Morales, and Hugo Chávez, although, as is the case with many footballers who lack extensive formal education, I honestly believe that many of them are evidently ignorant of this and have unfortunately simply put their affairs in the hands of the wrong people, and go on to face the consequences themselves…this is not equivalent to someone privileged like Donald Trump, who was born into wealth, consciously evading taxes in a textbook example of white-collar crime). Most egregiously, however, he had ties to the Camorra, who supplied him with the cocaine on which he had become dependent.
Without wanting to be a revisionist, or attempt to diminish Maradona’s often at the very least questionable behaviour, we must, however separate the player from the man. One can appreciate Diego as a supremely gifted footballer, while also acknowledging his shortcomings as a person, as is often done with a controversial composer such as Richard Wagner, for example (although to compare their faults or equate them would be a false equivalency given Wagner’s deeply troubling and explicit anti-semetic views; Maradona’s flaws were quite different, as they were not born out of malevolence, but rather, they were often exposed through the many mistakes he made). However, given greater awareness today of prevalent social issues such as mental health, income inequality, and lack of universal access to education, one must also try and understand what made Diego who he was, and one wonders, if he had been around today, whether the world would have been kinder to him, and whether his career and life might have been different. After all, today addiction is now understood as a mental health issue; although Diego was known for having a reputation for enjoying life, this was not a question of excess and indulgence, or of perfidy or malicious intent, but of attempting to fill an emotional void, and cope at any cost with the pressure he was facing, as well as deeply rooted issues stemming from his difficult childhood spent in sheer poverty, which could have potentially destroyed him as a player, and which ultimately did regardless of his attempts to suppress them through substance abuse. His alcoholism is also unfairly frowned upon, and his cocaine usage in particular is often brought up by detractors as a stain on his career, and as another example of his purported dishonesty as a player. However, although I fully understand why cocaine is on the list of banned substances for athletes, considering the health risks associated with its consumption, the argument that it has performance-enhancing qualities, and that it would have given him an advantage is rather tenuous (more than likely, it would have had the opposite effect). I am therefore quite dismissive of the arguments that suggest that even Maradona’s career victories are shrouded in controversy. As such, it does seem rather cruel in hindsight that Maradona was ultimately banned and subsequently shamed because of an addiction he could not curb, which arose from problems for which he was not responsible. The punishment does not fit the crime; if anything, it could be argued that he was one of the numerous victims of the senseless and insidious culture that arose from the “war on drugs,” and someone who needed to be helped through his struggles, not cast aside. Taking away what he loved most in life – namely football – only did him more harm than good, and the price he paid for this particular mistake was excessive.
I will elaborate more on Diego’s life and career in the second part of this series of four articles, which I will release in a few days. In the meantime, thank you for reading, and I hope you enjoyed this introduction to my tribute to Maradona! If so, I ask that you please leave a comment or share it with others, and make sure to read the next three articles on him as well!