The FIFA World Cup in Qatar this month will be the first in 40 years not to feature one of the greatest footballers in history as a superstar or exuberant fan.
Argentinian Diego Armando Maradona died two years ago this month aged 60. His sublime performances in leading Argentina to the 1986 World Cup trophy were matched only by Garrincha’s dominant performances in Brazil’s 1962 triumph.
Diego Maradona was born on October 30, 1960 in the poor slum of Villa Fiorito in Buenos Aires. His father Diego Sr. was a bone-meat factory worker of Guaraní Indian descent, while his stay-at-home mother “Doňa Tota” provided a strong Roman Catholic upbringing. Diego grew up with his seven siblings in a cabin without running water.
Football provided the young boy with an escape from poverty after his uncle gave him a leather soccer ball for his third birthday. He played obsessively in the slum’s potrero (meadow), spending hours juggling the ball in the air. Maradona joined Argentinos Juniors aged 16, scoring 116 goals in as many games.
At 20, he joined Boca Juniors, scoring 28 times in 40 appearances to lead them to the Argentine Primera División Metropolitano title in 1982. The 5ft 5in attacking midfielder had incredible vision, dazzling acceleration and skill close dribbling.
Maradona moved to Spanish giants Barcelona in 1982 for a record fee of £5m, spending just two years in Catalonia.
He was often the target of abuse from defenders determined to stop him with tackles that in today’s game would receive red cards. He won the Copa del Rey with Barca, scoring 38 goals in two seasons. However, he got into a fight with club president José Luís Núňez.
During an explosive confrontation, he entered the club’s trophy room and proceeded to smash cups until his confiscated passport was returned to him. Diego embodied “player power” long before the term entered popular parlance. In 1984 he moved to Napoli in another world record transfer of £6.9million.
Naples was in the poorer south of Italy and turned out to be much better suited. Here Diego reached his peak for six glorious years in which he won two Scudettos (league titles) in 1987 and 1990 – the first by a non-northern Italian team – and the UEFA Cup in 1989.
Maradona made his debut for Argentina aged 16. His biggest disappointment was being cut from César Menotti’s World Cup squad in 1978, which hosts Argentina went on to win. A year later, Diego led his country to win the Youth World Cup in Tokyo. Maradona’s first Senior World Cup was in Spain in 1982.
During a match against Italy, he felt the weight of hatchet man Claudio Gentile, who nearly stripped him naked. Maradona’s World Cup ended in disgrace when he was sent off for kicking a player in the loss to rivals Brazil. Although it was an overwhelming experience, the tournament made him more determined to succeed.
The 1986 World Cup in Mexico cemented the legend of Maradona in the Football Hall of Fame. In the quarter-final against England, he showed both his slyness and his genius. Pretending to direct the ball, he instead punched it into the net without the referee seeing it.
He later described the goal as having been scored by “the hand of God”. Like the trickster in Third World folk tales, he felt he had “taken England’s pocket”, dismissing bitter British claims of cheating. Moments later, Maradona received a pass in his own half. He turned quickly and launched into a dazzling 70-yard slalom run in which he dribbled past six England players before scoring what a FIFA poll later dubbed ‘the goal of the century’ .
Maradona had publicly presented the match against England as just another football match. Privately, however, he was desperate to avenge Argentina’s loss to Great Britain in the Falklands War in 1982. Like Holland’s Johan Cruyff against Germany in the 1974 World Cup final , Maradona didn’t just want to beat but humiliate England.
He scored two more spectacular goals against a giddy Belgian side in the semi-finals, before providing the assist that saw the Albicelestes overcome a strong German side 3-2 in the final. Diego has scored 34 goals in 91 appearances for Argentina.
Becoming the world’s first superstar in the multimedia age, Maradona found fame suffocating. As his Spanish biographer, Guillem Balagué, notes: “Diego never accepted half measures, he embodied excess, a messianic character who often spoke of himself in the third person, a man who had no limits .
Maradona’s relentless hedonistic passion for sports cars for two decades continued, even as he became addicted to cocaine and alcohol, after becoming embroiled in the Camorra Mafia of Naples.
His fall from grace came at the 1994 World Cup in the United States, when he was kicked out of the tournament for using the performance-enhancing drug ephedrine. The trickster was finally out of tricks. For years he had surreptitiously carried a plastic penis and a clear urine sample to fool drug testers.
Maradona received another 15-month ban for cocaine use in 1991, before playing his career with Sevilla, Newell’s Old Boys and Boca Juniors. He had scored 259 goals in 491 club appearances. While coaching old-fashioned teams in Argentina, the United Arab Emirates and Mexico, Maradona had become sickly. The death of his parents in 2015 denied him the non-judgmental anchors that had tried to steer him away from the path of perdition.
During the last two decades of his life, Maradona constantly suffered from obesity; heart, lung and liver problems; the Depression; anemia; and dehydration, eventually succumbing to cardiac arrest after brain surgery. His long-suffering and devoted wife Claudia (with whom he had two daughters) finally filed for divorce in 2003 after 20 years of a frustrating marriage in which her husband fathered nine more children.
Paradoxically, Maradona represented both accomplished and wasted genius. South African journalist Carlos Amato dubbed him “the horned angel”. He coached Argentina for two years, guiding his country to a creditable quarter-final at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.
Diego liked to portray himself as a rebel with a cause. He read extensively about his country and his continent, and had a tattoo of the Argentine revolutionary, Che Guevara, emblazoned on his arm, and another of the Cuban leader, Fidel Castro, on his calf. He would later find refuge in Cuba as a guest of Castro.
Only Brazilian Pelé can be considered a better player than Maradona, having scored 1,279 career goals, winning three World Cups and being more consistent over a longer period. But while the Brazilian played in brilliant Santos and Brazil sides, what made Maradona’s achievements so remarkable was that his individual genius turned ordinary Napoli and Argentina sides into world champions. .
Today, Maradona is still revered as a god in his native Argentina, where he embodies a nostalgic golden age his country long lost. The cult of “El Diego” is firmly embedded in the national psyche in the 45 films and documentaries; 50 pounds; hundreds of university courses; and countless musical tangos.
After his death, Diego lay in state at the presidential palace, with three days of national mourning declared. His Buenos Aires home was turned into a museum, while Newell’s Old Boys named their stadium after him. In Italy, Neapolitans still revere Diego as a deity: the Napoli stadium bears his name and the club has retired its number 10 shirt, while his image is ubiquitous on murals across the city.
Argentina’s current talisman, Lionel Messi, unlike Maradona, grew up largely in the protected environment of Barcelona’s academy. His embrace by the Argentines has therefore never been as symbiotic as that of Maradona: a true son of the land who offered victory in the World Cup and restored national pride. Diego was a man of the people who understood the suffering of the masses from lived experience in a way Messi never could.
Messi, 35, is arguably the world’s greatest player of his generation, and Qatar will be his last chance to win a World Cup, having lost a final to Germany in Brazil in 2014. The world is wondering if Argentina’s current number 10 can finally replicate his idol’s heroism during that long, hot and glorious Mexican summer 36 years ago.
Professor Adebajo is a Senior Research Fellow at the Center for the Advancement of Scholarship at the University of Pretoria in South Africa.