THE recent passing of Diego Maradona at the age of 60, has been met globally with much sadness and reflection by the world of sport and the general public.

A football maestro, a once in a generation player.

Considered by many as the greatest footballer of all time, his only true rival for the accolade one Brazilian Pele. Both received the FIFA Player of the 20th Century award.

“One day, I hope, we will have a kick about together in heaven,” Pele said after learning of Maradona’s death.

Revered as a saint in his native Argentina, a country where football is as important as religion. If there was a way towards beatification, then surely it will be found.

Over a million grieving fans have assembled at the Casa Rosada, the presidential palace in Buenos Aires, an appropriate setting for a nation’s icon.

For three days, they gather to mourn, cry and suffer as they remember the man and his achievements and pay their respect in their own way.

The coffin draped in the Argentina flag and his No. 10 national shirt.

Former Argentina teammate Osvaldo Ardiles said:

“To be Diego Maradona was incredibly beautiful.”

“But on the other hand, it was not easy at all. Right from a really early age, he was subject to the press all the time. He didn’t have a normal childhood, he never had normal teenage years.

“Everybody wanted to be with him, everybody wanted a piece of him, so it was incredibly difficult.”

Maradona was often referred to as a “flawed genius,” but what does this mean?

To understand the complexity of the man, we must first understand the simplicity of his youth.

Maradona was born at the Policlinico Evita Hospital in Lanus, Buenos Aires province to a Roman Catholic family living in poverty. His early childhood was in Villa Fiorito, a notorious shantytown on the southern outskirts of the capital.

Diego was the first son after four daughters, followed by two younger brothers. His father, who died in 2015, was Guarani; his mother, who died in 2011, was of Italian descent.

Both parents were born and raised in Esquina in the north-east province of Corrientes. In 1950, they left to settle in Buenos Aires. He received a football at age three, and by eight his exploits were spotted by a talent scout. He played for the Argentinos Juniors, by 12 showing his prodigious skills to all and sundry.

Maradona made his senior debut for Argentinos Juniors 10 days shy of turning 16. Two weeks later he scored his first goal.

As an adult, Maradona was short and stocky measuring just 1.65 meters (5ft 5in). Presumably, he was also small in his youth, likely subjected to personal insults by others. He countered this with a fierce skill and determination to be the best, to succeed at all costs and find a way out of poverty for both him and his family.

The obsession to succeed came with sometimes bending the rules, if not flaunting them. No doubt also fuelled by the recognition and adoration of millions following his every move, both on and off the pitch.

Failure was not an option.

By now the tenets of a narcissistic and obsessional personality had taken hold, with a touch of hysteria. Basking in the adulation from others, at times demanding it. An entitlement that turned to aggression when it was not received, or worse, when criticised. The obsessionality drove him towards perfectionism, with no room for mistakes.

Issues with authority, control, self worth and trust were played out throughout a turbulent life. Often defiantly and grandiosely, with consequences for himself and those associated with him.

But being human, mistakes were inevitable. He found ways to counter these, often justifying his decisions to himself and others, negating any moral conflict.

As his physical prowess and powers declined later in his career, the cracks began to appear in the man. Desperate to maintain his previous exploits and success, chaos, drug abuse and ill health ensued as he tried to seal over the cracks.

Driven by the internal fear of the loss of his grandiosity and its recognition. His youth. His masculinity. Inevitably, what it means for all of us to be human.

Early in his career, Maradona spent five years at Argentinos Juniors, from 1976 to 1981, scoring 115 goals in 167 games before his transfer to Boca Juniors in 1981 which was a childhood dream. He scored twice in his debut, before securing the title that season, the only one he achieved domestically.

Following the 1982 World Cup, Maradona transferred to Barcelona for a record fee. He achieved great success with the Spanish club. The highlight came with being applauded by rival Real Madrid fans after scoring a memorable goal against their rivals in 1983.

Maradona’s time at Barcelona soon became troublesome after contracting hepatitis and then a broken ankle in September 1983 following a dangerous tackle by Athletic Bilbao’s

Goikoetxea. This resulted in a three month lay-off. The dangerous tackles had become part of every defender’s repertoire as the only way of stopping Maradona’s brilliance.

The perfect storm happened in 1984 against the same opponent in the Copa Del Rey final in Madrid. Tackled by the same defender, and racist taunts about his father’s Native American heritage, he confronted player Sola after the game.

Sola responded with a xenophobic phrase. Maradona headbutted him, elbowed then kneed two other players in the head. Defender Goikoetxea retaliated with a high kick to Maradona’s chest, before an all in brawl erupted. Maradona was seen attacking as many Bilbao players as he could connect with.

Fans followed suit throwing objects at players, coaches, photographers and officials. Many were injured. It sealed his fate and he sought a transfer.

Maradona arrived in Naples as a Napoli player in July 1984. He received a messianic reception. He was their pathway to glory normally reserved for both Milan clubs and Juventus.

Maradona played the best football of his career at Napoli and became captain. Napoli have not reached the same success since then. They won their first Serie A title in 1986-87. The response from an adoring public was one of absolute adulation.

A second title followed in 1989-90 and runners up in 1987-88 and 1988-89. Several other trophies were garnered: the Coppa Italia in 1987, UEFA Cup in 1989 and Italian Supercup in 1990.

Gradually, problems arose for Maradona personally. Cocaine use was rife, tardiness in attendance for training and missing games resulted in US $70,000 in fines. There was a scandal involving an illegitimate son and purported links to the Camorra, a mafia-style criminal organisation.

Maradona left Napoli in 1992, once again a virtual fugitive, after completing a 15 month ban for cocaine use. He went to Sevilla for one year. In 1993, he played for Newell’s Old Boys then in 1995 returned to Boca Juniors for two years.

In 2001, Maradona was granted a testimonial match between the Argentina national team and an all-star World XI.

Maradona also achieved great success with the Argentina national team, scoring 34 goals in 91 matches. He debuted at just 16 against Hungary in 1977. He was not included in the successful 1978 World Cup team for being too young. But at 18, he did play and star in the FIFA 1979 World Youth Championship, with 6 goals in 6 matches.

It was in 1979 that he scored his first senior international goal against Scotland. Only he and compatriot Lionel Messi have won the Golden Ball at both the FIFA U-20 World Cup and FIFA World Cup. Maradona in 1979 and 1986, Messi in 2005 and 2014.

In the 1982 FIFA World Cup held in Barcelona, Messi played for Argentina but struggled initially. There were reported problems within the team between players. The talented side was defeated in the second round by Brazil and eventual winners Italy.

Maradona had been subjected to numerous vigorous challenges throughout the tournament. Losing 3-0 to Brazil, he finally snapped and was sent off for a retaliatory foul.

The 1986 FIFA World Cup in Mexico offered Maradona a chance to atone. This time he was captain and embraced the responsibility and challenge.

However it was the game against England that cemented his reputation as both brilliant and a cheat. Win at all costs, no matter what it takes.

Perhaps in the moment, he thought he was back in the streets of Argentina where cheating would be seen as clever, intelligent, mischievous.

After scoring two goals reflecting the differing facets of his personality in the 2-1 quarter final against England, French newspaper L’Equipe dubbed him “half-angel, half-devil.”

Recall the game occurred with the tension of the Falklands War which Great Britain won just four years before.

The game was goalless after 51 minutes. Maradona, unable to reach the ball legitimately against the taller goalkeeper Peter Shilton, proceeded to punch the ball into the back of the net.

Perhaps it was something a physically challenged Maradona did as a child against taller opponents.

Perhaps because it was against England. A hollow victory that was crucial to restore the reputation of a humiliated Argentina in the aftermath of the Falklands War.

Indeed, Maradona himself noted in a 2000 biography:

“Although we had said before the game that football had nothing to do with the Malvinas (Falklands) War, we knew they had killed a lot of Argentine boys there, killed them like little birds. And this was revenge.”

No one truly wins in war. There are casualties and losses for eternity on both sides. It is one of the more primitive examples of the human psyche imaginable.

It is why we have sport instead to channel our collective and individual aggressive impulses.

Maradona defended his action later in his life, describing it as “a little with the head of Maradona and a little with the hand of God.”

It is that one sentence that describes the man and his identity and grandiosity. Referring himself to God, divine intervention, as it was his hand that resulted in the goal.

If the sin came first, then redemption and penance soon followed.

Four minutes later, Maradona scored what has been called “the goal of the century.” Taking the ball in his own half, before embarking on a mesmerising run of sheer power, class and brilliance passing players at will before rounding a hapless Shilton to score.

In the final match, West Germany tried in vain to contain him. Argentina won 3-2, with Maradona lifting the cup in front of 115,000 adoring fans at the Azteca stadium as captain.

In 2014, Roger Bennett of ESPN FC described it as “the most virtuoso performance a World Cup has ever witnessed.”

Kevin Baxter of the Los Angeles Times opined, “one of the greatest individual performances in tournament history.”

Other accolades followed. In 2018, John Molinaro in Sportsnet said “The brilliant Argentine artist single-handedly delivered his country its second World Cup.”

In 1990, Maradona captained his country to another World Cup final. However, his star was beginning to fade, struggling with injuries, and missing a penalty against Yugoslavia in the quarter-final. In the final in Rome, it was Germany who won the match 1-0.

The decline accelerated by the time he took the field for the 1994 World Cup in the United States. It was during this tournament that he scored his last goal for Argentina and played his last game at international level.

FIFA expelled him midway through the tournament after it was found that he had ingested the banned substance ephedrine. He blamed his personal trainer for switching an energy drink from Argentina with the US version.

His international career was ignominiously over, after 17 years, 34 goals from 91 games, one FIFA World Cup winner’s medal and one runner’s up medal.

In retirement Maradona struggled to maintain relevance and meaning for his existence, as many former great sports people do.

Soon after retirement, he was given a suspended jail sentence of two years and 10 months for shooting an air rifle at journalists.

He managed the Argentina national team in 2008 and took the side to the FIFA World Cup quarter-finals two years later before resigning after a 4-0 defeat to Germany.

Several brief managerial roles followed, but his life continued to be defined by controversy, division, adulation and repulsion.

In the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia, Maradona unveiled a banner of himself, danced with a Nigeria fan, prayed to the heavens before the game, wildly celebrated Lionel Messi’s opening goal, then promptly fell asleep. He then gave a double middle finger salute after Argentina’s second goal.

It was Maradona himself who gave fans an insight into his character in 2019 documentary.

He would “play a game on Sunday, going out until Wednesday, then hitting the gym on Thursday.” His regime reflected his personality; chaos and laziness mixed with periods of incredible focus and determination. His body subjected to extremes, much like his personal life.

Maradona regarded it as a sense of balance. But between extremes. He had a personal trainer and a separate training regime. Not easily acceptable by teammates, but tolerated as a sign of eccentricity that is bestowed on genius.

A flawed genius.

Notorious for his poor diet and bohemian lifestyle personally, including illicit drugs and alcohol. Gradually, he descended into a personal hell with lack of fitness, weight gain, injuries, and pain medication.

His personal life was also in turmoil. Which one fell first from grace is a moot point. Personal or professional, inextricably linked, feeding ravenously off of each other to an inevitable conclusion.

His marriage to Claudia Villafane in 1989 ended in divorce in 2004, with two daughters from the union. The best solution for all, his wife said.

He admitted being the father of a son born in 1986, meeting for the first time in 2003.

Maradona admitted cocaine addiction for over 20 years until 2004, beginning with his time in Barcelona in 1983. This followed him to his time at Napoli, affecting commitments to training and matches.

In later years, his weight ballooned to a massive 130kg. Gastric surgery followed in 2005 to take control of his obesity. It helped.

But in 2007, Maradona was readmitted to hospital in Buenos Aires where he was treated for hepatitis and alcohol abuse. He was subsequently admitted to a psychiatric clinic specialising in Drug and Alcohol Addiction.

His health struggles continued and in January 2019, Maradona had surgery for stomach bleeding and a hernia repair.

Politically, Maradona sympathised with left wing ideologies. Not surprising given his poor background.

He supported, among many things, an independent Palestine, was friends with communist leader Fidel Castro, tattooed on his left leg. He supported Bolivia’s ejected president Evo Morales and Venezuelan president Hugo Chaves.

Maradona condemned any form of right wing capitalism and imperialism. He protested the US led war in Iraq in 2004, taking umbrage with George W. Bush. He was more enamoured by the subsequent Barack Obama and his policies and vision.

Despite his Roman Catholic faith, Maradona also took aim at Pope John Paul II at the Vatican in 1987.

“I argued with him because I was in the Vatican and I saw the Church was worried about the welfare of poor kids. Sell your ceiling then amigo, do something!” he told the Pope.

However his faith was restored by Pope Francis who he met in 2014.

“We should all imitate Pope Francis. If each one of us gives something to someone else, no one in the world would be starving,” he declared.

Maradona was admitted to a La Plata hospital on 2nd November 2020, for purportedly psychological problems. The following day, he underwent emergency brain surgery for a subdural haematoma, usually following blunt force trauma or a severe fall. He was discharged on the 12th November 2020 in an apparently stable condition.

On the 25th November 2020, Diego Armando Maradona died of an apparent heart attack in Tigre, Buenos Aires province, Argentina.

The mourning and question marks surrounding his death had begun. Three days of mourning were declared, soon to be extended due to the overwhelming crowds wanting, demanding to pay their respects to a national hero.

On the 26th November 2020, Maradona was finally laid to rest in a private ceremony with his parents at the Jardin de Bella Vista cemetery in Bella Vista, Buenos Aires.

Not a flawed genius, just a human being with flaws.

Ludo Aequitas – Equality Through Sport – bids you farewell and hopes you find peace.

 

Image via bbc.co

« Back to Articles