Since I’ve been old enough to appreciate his wizardry, El Diego has fascinated me. The fact he even made one, albeit testimonial, appearance for Tottenham Hotspur made me fall in love with him. I’ve read several biographies documenting his life, but I was too young to ever see him play live, one bumbling appearance in a charity match at Old Trafford aside, at which I still got excited when he slotted home one of the worst penalties of all time. Despite this there is a certain aura that lingers around the names of players such as Pele and Maradona and until recently they were widely regarded as the greatest players ever to grace this earth, one was regarded as the model professional, the other a passionate, raw talent. A comparison summed up best by Maradona himself.
"If Pele thinks he's the Beethoven of football, then I'm the Ronnie Wood, Keith Richards and the Bono of football, because I have so much passion.”
The modern day debate is of course Ronaldo vs. Messi and this got me thinking again, not to debate, but just to reflect upon the talent, the ‘passion’ and the life away from football of the man behind ‘the hand of god’.
Maradonas professional career started ten days before he was even 16, he’d been entertaining crowds at Estadio Argentinos Juniors, incidentally now renamed Estadio Diego Armando Maradona, since the age of 12 as part of Los Cebollitas (The Little Onions), the junior team of Buenos Aires's Argentinos Juniors. Juggling and showing off tricks at half time in senior games. In October 1976 as a 15 year old he made his full debut and stayed with the club for 5 years, before moving to Boca Juniors for £1million in 1981, Boca were more than willing to pay the fee after he’d scored 115 goals in his time at Argentinos Juniors and had made his international debut with Argentina 4 years earlier as a 16 year old. Despite a sending off in the world cup one year later, Diego engineered a move to Barcelona for a then world record fee of £5million. Maradona's career at Barca was short lived after illness, injury and a falling out with members of the board.
The one period in his career that fascinates me most is the period between winning a world cup in 1986 to failing a drugs test after the 1990 world cup. From the beginning with ‘The Little Onions’ via Buenos Aires and Barcelona, Maradona found himself in Naples and arriving at Napoli in 1984 for a record fee of £6.9million, a club whose only major honours had been 2 Coppa Italias, the latest of which being 10 years earlier. 80,000 people turned up at the Sao Paulo to see him juggle a ball and show off a few tricks that years earlier had earned him fame with Argentinos fans. Within 3 years some gradual rebuilding, and the supreme talent of the robust Argentine had led the club to a double winning season, he became a hero amongst the Neapolitans, stating, “I consider myself a son of Naples,” but he was embedded in more than just the football club now in Naples. The Camorra were a Mafia clan in Southern Italy and had deep roots in Naples, Maradona was now the biggest celebrity in the city and with all this fame and fortune it wasn’t long before friendships with the Camorra were built and he became involved with cocaine. Some have said that his problems with drugs dated back to his time at Barcelona when he was sidelined through injury, but after being spotted in a Jacuzzi with members of the Giuliano family rumours of affiliation with the Neapolitan mafia were rife. One could be forgiven for excusing Diego's brush with crime and drugs being down to his upbringing from the shanty towns of Argentina, but other such South American stars have risen from the dust of these crime ridden, poverty stricken cities and managed to stay on track.
In his last few years at Napoli, the Camorra played an increasingly bigger part in not just Maradonas personal life, but also with the clubs involvement and success. Napoli missed out on the 1988 Scudetto after accusations of match fixing and illegal betting had thrown what had promised to be a successful end to the season into turmoil. The same accusations rose again and conspiracy theories regarding the Camorra where roused when Napoli regained the title in the 1989-90 season, this time inconsistent and rash refereeing decisions turned results in the Azzuris favour, with Milan having several players sent off in one of their last fixtures denying them a win they needed to climb above Napoli. Paolo Maldini recently referred to the game as the biggest scandal of his 25-year playing career.
As with all things Diego, his demise was just as dramatic as the success he’d brought to the club for over half a decade. Having been a major player in the 1989 UEFA Cup win and of course the 1990 Serie A winning side, it was written that in a world cup hosted in Italy, the home nation and the ‘son of Naples’ would meet. As if this was not dramatic enough, Maradona called upon the people of Southern Italy to ditch their allegiances to their homeland and support him, and the Argentina team he captained, instead. A majority of fans understandably rooted for the Italians, despite holding banners showing their love for El Diego. This seemed to be the nail in the coffin for Maradona, his NapoliCamorra and even an illegitimate child now thrown into the occasion, culminated with Maradona testing positive for cocaine just 8 months after that world cup semi final. He was ushered out of the club as the vultures in the press dived in to tear apart their prey that had given them such exciting spectacles to throw superlatives at in the past.
Brief spells at Sevilla, Newells Old Boys and a final fling at Boca Juniors all came and went, as well as another drugs fuelled world cup in 1994. Scandal seemed to surround arguably the world’s greatest ever player, who could have ended up in the red and white of Sheffield United had a transfer bid from the Blades been accepted whilst he was at Argentinos Juniors, undoubtedly his finest years as a player came in Naples, where at the same time he was setting the world alight for Argentina, scoring what has been voted by FIFA as the greatest goal in the history of the world cup against England en route to winning the tournament in 1986. He even donned Glenn Hoddle's prized no.10 Tottenham shirt for Ozzie Ardiles’ testimonial. The man brought success to a city that had never scaled such footballing heights, with the number 10 shirt being retied in his honour after he departed. This was also where his life was scrutinised, and for good reason, by the worlds media. Far from the energetic 15 year old making his debut in the Argentine top flight, the grey area between El Diego and Don Diego leaves many to agonise over what could have been for the 5 foot 7inch genius, he quite literally had the world at his feet, it shows how adored he was at the fact we despair at him only conquering it once.