Diego: The Greatest of Them All

by | Nov 25, 2020

There’s a story about Diego Maradona that will one day be used as the opening scene for the biopic of his extraordinary life. Growing up in poverty in the slums of Villa Fiorito, a suburb of Buenos Aires about ten kilometres from the city centre, Diego was just a toddler when he fell into an open sewer, and as an uncle pulled him from the effluence into which he’d fallen he shouted, “keep your head above the shit” to his infant nephew. Diego was saved, but the lesson taught to him that day would stay with him for the rest of his life.

It rather seems as though many, many lovers of football can identify the exact moment at which we first became aware of the existence of Diego Maradona. For me, it was during the 1982 World Cup finals, in Spain. To my nine year old mind, Maradona was an idea. There’d been hushed talk in the build up to the tournament of this wonderkid, possibly already the best player in the world, but we’d seen precious little of it throughout the group stages of the tournament other than a twinkling appearance in the Wembley murk a couple of years earlier which was rather overshadowed by England beating the world champions with a degree of comfort.

The Maradona of 1982, however, wasn’t the one that we’d been promised in the breathless build-up to the tournament. Argentina had lost their opening match to Belgium, and whilst a comfortable group allowed them a safe passage to the next round with wins against Hungary and El Salvador, something wasn’t right. This defeat had sentenced them to second place in their group, and a further spanner had been thrown in the works of the FIFA seedings allocator by Italy’s failure to win their group, as well. Brazil, Argentina and Italy would be playing a round-robin to decide on a place in the semi-finals, with all three matches to be played at La Sarria, in Barcelona. The hype was enormous, with this particular group – as was very much the fashion for anything at the time – frequently being described in the media as “Star Wars.”

Italy had been similarly uninspiring to Argentina in their opening group matches – a goalless draw and two 1-1 draws saw them scrape through on goals scored ahead of tournament debutants Cameroon – but the Italian manager Enzo Bearzot had a plan. Claudio Gentile. To say that Gentile man-marked Maradona would be something of an understatement. He damn near permanently marked him, fouling Maradona no fewer than 23 times while the Romanian referee, Nicolae Rainea, looked the other way. By the time Gentile was booked shortly before half-time, he was somehow the fifth player to be so. Italy won the match by two goals to one and Maradona – who had been one of the four players to have been booked prior to Gentile – left the match a forlorn figure.

Three days later, whilst getting comfortably beaten by Brazil, Maradona’s patience snapped. With Brazil leading 3-0 and just five minutes left to play he stamped on the Brazilian substitute Batista, who’d only been on the pitch for a couple of minutes, and was sent off. Argentina’s reign as the champions of world football was over, and the sight of Maradona walking from the pitch, disheviled and unkempt, seemed to encapsulate the paucity of their defence of the title.

For the next couple of years, it looked as though Maradona might turn out to be a busted flush by the time he reached his mid-twenties. Barcelona paid £5m for him after the 1982 World Cup, but his stay in Barcelona only saw him play for the club thirty-six times, thanks to a combination of injuries brought about by the savagery of opponents and the first hints at his dubious extra-curricular activities. Maradona left Camp Nou having won the Copa del Rey, the Copa de la Liga and the Supercopa de Espana in 1983, but without having won a league or European title.

His destination was a better fit for him. Napoli are the fourth most-supported club in Italy – and the club of the biggest city in the south of Italy, and a one-club city, but that enormous support had been starved of success, with only a couple of Coppa Italias to show for their 58 years in existence. When he arrived at the Stadio San Paolo in July 1984, 75,000 people turned out to greet him. At Napoli he was loved in a way that few other players could be by their supporters, and a team was built around him. In 1987 came the zenith of his club career – a league and cup double, without precedent in the entire history of the club. Two years later they won the UEFA Cup – Maradona scored in the first leg of the final against Stuttgart, of course – and in 1990 they won their second scudetto in four seasons, having finished as runners-up in the previous two seasons. They retired his number ten shirt after his departure, of course.

By the time of Napoli’s first league title, Maradona had already scaled the peaks of the international game. Acres will be written about Argentina’s quarter-final against England over the next couple of days, so I’ll just offer these two brief thoughts: firstly, for all of those who are still angered by the “hand of God” almost three and half decades on, consider the fact that the sack of potatoes in goal for England that day was out-jumped to the ball by a player fully seven inches shorter than him. Secondly, consider the other-worldliness of that second goal, the hop and skip to free himself into a some space in a congested midfield, and a run to create the space he needed for himself, and the precision in cutting through that English defence like a hot knife through butter. “You have to say that’s magnificent.” Never were truer words spoken. Three days later he skipped through the Belgium defence to do the same in the semi-final. Argentina won a breathless final against West Germany the following weekend.

Yes, there were what we might euphemistically call “errors of judgement.” Maradona’s performance at the 1994 World Cup was a near-grotesque one-man show, in which he willingly showed the last gasps of his unbelievable talent and – unwittingly – the demons that would continue to follow him around his post-football career. Defiant, brilliant, yet ultimately ill-starred. Four years earlier in Italy, Argentina had somehow scrambled their way to the World Cup final, but Maradona’s role was somewhat muted, a pass through of the eye of a needle for Claudio Caniggia to score the only goal of their second round match against Brazil was probably the highlight. His managerial ‘career’ was more heat than light, and his personal life reportedly remained chaotic.

But really… does that matter? Diego Maradona built a legacy for himself, not through the accumulation of trophies – the modern football supporter might not even consider him the GOAT because he never won the European Cup – but through touching the souls of football lovers around the world. The outpouring of love this evening – and how much of that is coming from England is informative, in this respect – is because the way he played the game tapped into something that cannot be measured in numbers of trophies won or numbers of goals scored. Like the reasons why a piece of poetry or a piece of music might move us to tears, the beauty of his football is only really diminished by analysing it too enthusiastically. Just put on a YouTube greatest hits and wallow in it. And yes, we might well consider that 60 years old is “no age”, but the truth is that he packed more into his 60 years than most of us would fit into 160 years.

It was an honour and a privilege as a teenager to see him play, just as it was a thrill merely to know that a player such as he could even exist. 5’5 tall, slightly rotund guys aren’t supposed to be professional athletes, still less the greatest at their discipline, not only of their time but perhaps of all time. But that’s how sport reels us in and makes fools of us all, isn’t it? By upending our expectations and building extraordinary narratives, like the boy who almost drowned in an open sewer but who instead survived his brush with destiny before going on to become The Greatest of Them All. A life well-lived doesn’t begin to cover it.