Outstanding, legendary, one of the two greatest footballers of all time, one of the rarest of talents, but controversial… The emergence of such a character on a football ground is not a common sight! Perhaps, the World of Sports would remember Diego Armando Maradona (October 30, 1960 – November 25, 2020) this way! It is said that at Maradona’s feet, the ball always seemed to obey his command like a pet!
His journey to success was not so smooth, as Maradona became a legend only after overcoming hardships faced due to poverty in his early days. Although he has left the world, the eternal argument shall exist: Who is the greatest… Pele or Maradona? Some believe Maradona is the greater, as he scored 259 goals in 491 matches. Once, the Argentine star had defeated the Brazilian legend in popular votes. Pele had also lost to Maradona in the votes for the Best Footballer of the 20th Century. However, FIFA had honoured both of them.
Maradona started showcasing his amazing talent from an early age. He helped his childhood team Los Cebollitas remain unbeaten in 138 consecutive matches… a feat that is considered to be incredible! In 1977, he made his international debut for Argentina at the age of just 16 years and 120 days. Although he was 5ft-5inch tall, Maradona had a strong body. The indescribable art, combined with his strength, made the midfielder irresistible on the ground. Skill, dribble, agility, superb ball control, great passing… he had all the qualities as a player. These qualities helped him easily cover up the habit of gaining weight due to uncontrolled activities at times. Despite defeating all the strongest defenders in the world, he never got out of the controversy mainly because of this carefree lifestyle. His reported addiction to drugs became fatal in the end!
Maradona scored 34 goals in 91 appearances for Argentina. However, the impact of his presence in the National Team cannot be measured by mere numbers. Practically, the playmaker single-handedly helped Argentina win the 1986 FIFA World Cup in Mexico. Four years later, Argentina, under Maradona’s leadership, reached the final of the World Cup in Italy.
His Hand of God goal against England in the quarterfinals of the Mexico World Cup is considered as one of the most controversial events in the World of Sports. Ahead of that match, the diplomatic ties between Argentina and England deteriorated because of the Falklands War. Six minutes into the second half of the match played at the Azteca Stadium in Mexico City on June 22, 1986, Maradona took the ball out of the box with his left leg and passed it to teammate Jorge Valdano. Valdano tried to take on several English defenders, but the ball was intercepted and thrown back and forth and eventually cleared towards England’s goal by English midfielder Steve Hodge. Due to the position of the players, Maradona would have been caught offside, but as the ball came off an opponent, he was onside. Alone inside the penalty box and with the ball dropping down, Maradona contested the ball with England custodian Peter Shilton, who stood 8-inch taller than Maradona. Shilton jumped forward with his right hand, while Maradona did so with his left arm outstretched. Maradona’s fist, which was raised close to his head, touched the ball first and pushed the ball into England’s goal. Maradona began to celebrate while glancing sideways at the referee and the linesman for confirmation. He, then, fully celebrated the goal when it was allowed. Later, he said that the goal was scored “a little with his head, and a little with the hand of God“. However, the theatre did not end with The Hand of God.
Four minutes later, the genius scored the Goal of the Century. At the stroke of the 55th minute, Peter Beardsley, under pressure from Jose Luis Cuciuffo, gave the ball carelessly away in the Argentine half. Two passes later, the ball had found its way on to the feet of Maradona. He was hovering just inside his own half, and the moment the ball landed at his feet, it was as if a switch had been flipped. Gary Stevens took a swipe at him, and Maradona pivoted and pirouetted like a ballerina to avoid him, ball glued at his feet. Terry Butcher had his sense of direction and understanding of physics decimated in a split second as Maradona effortlessly transferred the ball from his right foot to his favoured left and set off on a sortie that was to eventually become a legendary adventure. Terry Fenwick, already on a yellow card, tried to offer some resistance, but it proved woefully inadequate to stop a galloping Maradona. On Argentine radio, Victor Hugo Morales – whose commentary of these moments would become as immortal as the goal itself – was already screaming: “Genius! Genius! Genius!” Now, Maradona only had Shilton in front of him, and the warp speed chess that is the mind game between a goalkeeper and an attacking midfielder sizing each other up one-on-one in football, was on. Maradona pressed on trying to get as close to the goal as possible, the delay only allowing Terry Butcher to be humiliated a second time when he tried to slip in a challenge after Maradona had scooted past Shilton, but it came in too late as the ball had already been slipped through to goal by a stumbling Maradona, who somehow lost neither sight nor control of the ball even for a fleeting moment.
It is to be noted that Maradona had broken the world club transfer record, twice! He had done it for the first time in 1982 when he left Boca Juniors for Barcelona FC, and then when signed for Italian club Napoli in 1984. Nearly 80,000 fans were present at the airport when he arrived in Napoli by a helicopter. He played the best club football in Italy, as he guided Napoli to win the Italian League in 1986 and in 1990. Napoli also won the UEFA Cup in 1989. People in Napoli celebrated their first League Victory for five days! Maradona, too, fell in love with the city.
Maradona’s post-Napoli life was marred by Drug Addiction and an unrestrained lifestyle. Soon after an investigation into his links to a crime syndicate began, the cocaine controversy erupted and he also faced legal action over paternity. In 1990, Argentina lost 0-1 to Germany in the World Cup Final! The following year, Maradona failed a dope test and was suspended by the FIFA for 15 months! He arrived in the US to take part in 1994 FIFA World Cup. However, he was expelled from the mega event of football for consuming a banned substance, called Ephedrine! Maradona announced his retirement on his 37th Birthday after testing positive for dope for the third time…
Even after his retirement, the legendary player triggered various controversies. Once, he shot a journalist with an air rifle! His name repeatedly made headlines for consuming cocaine and alcohol. After suffering a heart attack in 2004, he became the Manager of the National Squad in 2008. However, Argentina failed to perform well in 2010 FIFA World Cup under his coaching.
Maradona used to roar in protest, whenever anyone made negative remarks about Argentina or Fidel Castro. Once, one of his close friends was heard mentioning: “Diego’s biggest enemy was his emotion! Despite being such a big star, he could not change himself. I told him many a time that people worshipped you as God… you should control yourself in public… you should talk carefully. He gave me a tight hug and said that one should not change himself after tasting success! He also said that he was a great fan of Che and Fidel (Castro), and protest was in his blood. He would always by the side of those who fought!”
Coincidentally, the God of Football left this world on the 4th Death Anniversary of Fidel Castro! He died from a heart attack days after turning 60. Perhaps, he has taken shelter in the Hands of the Almighty! However, football has lost its joy, passion and verve with Maradona’s passing away.
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