Let me begin with an anecdote that shows Diego Maradona, so gifted, so explosive, in a particularly enduring light. The year was 1978, the place the football stadium of the little Latina club. The occasion: a friendly match that had been arranged between Latina against the mighty Napoli, at that time with an incomparable Maradona, good enough to win two Italian championships.
Maradona approached the game with unusual charm and modesty. When he took the field, it was to a trail of delighted small boys. He played practically the whole game, showing his remarkable arsenal of tricks and free kicks. After the game, I went down to the dressing room hoping to speak to him – we had never met – and the door was opened by his press officer, a young journalist whom I’d known in Buenos Aires when visiting his magazine, El Grafico . I found Maradona friendly and cheerful, amused when I told him what a contrast my two visits to the stadium had been.
Diego Armando Maradona was born on October 30, 1960, at Lanus, the fifth of eight children in an impoverished family. Short but stocky with powerful thighs, he stood only 1.68 metres tall and weighed just 70 kilogrammes as an adult. He would always name as the two benign influences of his career Francis Cornejo, the man who discovered him in boyhood, and César Menotti, the manager of the Argentine national side. This even though Menotti surprisingly dropped him from the 1978 World Cup squad in which his precocious talents would surely have shone.
Maradona’s original club, Argentinos Juniors, wasn’t among the powers of the country’s football, but having made his debut for the them in 1970, he stayed with them for five seasons, scoring 43 goals in 45 games in the last season there before moving to Boca Juniors. Strangely, Sheffield United could have bought him for a mere GBP 400,000 but couldn’t raise the money. Barcelona wanted him badly and were prepared to pay a fortune, but he didn’t join them till after the 1982 World Cup. Maradona was hardly prolific there, and he found life more congenial when he became the idol of Napoli.
A precocious talent
Maradona’s World Cup history is curiously contradictory, but of his huge talent there can be no gainsaying.
A precocious talent, Maradona combined finesse and strength to a phenomenal degree. His mastery of the ball was absolute, his power enabling him to shake off those tackles that he could not evade with his masterly technique and his speed. His use of the ball was deft and inventive.
Maradona’s first World Cup in Spain was not a propitious one. In Argentina’s opening game, the modest Belgians decided not to man-mark him but broadly to pass him on from one defender to another; and it worked. Overall, he accomplished very little and the Belgians won by the only goal of the game.
In Argentina’s next group game, however, against Hungary, Maradona was at his irresistible best and toyed with the Hungarian defence. Hungary had scored 10 goals against the hapless El Salvador, but now they could score only once. Argentina got four, two of them from a rampant Maradona.
After a win over El Salvador, next for Argentina, now in the second group stage, came Italy and the appalling maltreatment of Maradona by Claudio Gentile, largely ignored by an abysmal referee, the Romanian Nicolae Rainea. Arguably, Menotti was wrong to use Maradona so far upfield, thus making him a victim, but there was no excuse for the treatment so crucial to the Italians’ victory.
Brazil, with a glorious midfield were then too good for Argentina, and close to the end, a frustrated Maradona committed a reckless wild foul on Batista that had him properly sent off. Brazil prevailed 3-1.
Four years later, in Mexico, we would see what might be called the two faces of Maradona: the eternal Buenos Aires urchin who punched that shocking goal against England at the Azteca, and the magically elusive virtuoso who would score both against England and then against Belgium two goals of astounding mastery. The goal that Maradona provocatively attributed to la mano de dios might well have been properly disallowed by a more experienced referee than the Tunisian who awarded it, though he had no help from his linesmen.
In Argentina’s opening feature, Maradona made light of the bruising attentions of the South Koreans, setting up all his goals in a comfortable 3-1 victory. By now, he had been transferred to Napoli, where he would become a legendary figure, inspiring them twice to win a championship to which they had never come close before.
Next at Puebla came Italy again. Maradona would be closely marked by Salvatori Bagni but with none of the ferocity of Gentile. Italy led from a penalty after only six minutes, but they never subdued a Maradona in his very best elusive form, and on thirty-three minutes, exploiting a cross by Jorge Valdano, Maradona, with delicate skill, slipped in to score with an insidious shot into the far corner. A draw.
The second round saw a South American derby against Uruguay. There were fears of violence, but only the skies would be eruptive, the game visited by a thunderstorm. In the event, not even the storm could subdue Maradona’s refulgent skills. Miguel Bossio tried to mark Maradona in vain. He was irresistible.
Disciplined by FIFA, the Uruguayans behaved themselves; and Maradona took them apart, even though there was only one goal, by Argentina’s Pedro Pasculli, in the game. Maradona’s swift and sudden spurts, his inspired passing, his effortless control were paramount. Maradona’s run set up the only goal. He struck the bar with a dipping free kick and had what looked like a good goal disallowed. Unable to kick him, Uruguay could only endure him.
The shadow of the recent Falklands War hung over the quarterfinal at the Azteca between England and Argentina, a game forever tarnished by Maradona’s Hand of God goal. Of Maradona, England centre-back Terry Butcher opined, “You’ve just got to play him the way you see it on the day. You can’t possibly say do this, do that, because he can improvise, he can get out of a hole. No matter how many people are around him, he can somehow come out with the ball. You can try to crowd him out, but that might leave other sectors weak. They’ve got other class players.”
Bobby Robson, the England manager, said, “I’ve got twenty-four hours to devise a way to stop Maradona. It won’t be easy. Other teams have already tried everything. They’ve assigned one man to mark him, they’ve closed down space, they’ve let him go while attempting to cut off his service. To no avail. Let’s just say that without Maradona, Argentina would have no chance of winning the World Cup. That’s how great he is.”
'Hand of God'
Surprisingly, the appointed referee was the inexperienced Tunisian Ali Ben Nasser, who looked explicably out of his depth. Maradona was quiet in the first half, but five minutes into the second, he emerged and dubiously triumphed. England’s Steve Hodge hooked a ball over his head meaning it for his goalkeeper Peter Shilton. But when Shilton jumped for the ball, so did Maradona, whose upstretched hand got there first, diverting the ball into the net. Blatantly. But neither the referee nor his linesman saw anything wrong and the goal scandalously stood. Maradona cynically called it “the Hand of God.” Later he would score a genuinely exhilarating goal, dribbling past a list of defenders. Him team would win 2-1.
Gianni Melidoni, a leading Roman reporter, observed afterwards that the England defenders had been in a state of shock, like a man who has just had his wallet stolen.
So, in the semifinal it would be Belgium again and this time Maradona would be far too much for them. On a greasy pitch, Belgium held out until half time. Six minutes after the break, when Jorge Burruchaga crossed, Maradona glided into the penalty area and scored. The second goal was a thing of sublime inspiration that left no possibility of dazed defenders to tarnish it. He didn’t run as far as he had against England, but the shortage of space made the goal the more remarkable. Swerving, dashing and dummying past four perplexed defenders, he finally beat Jean-Marie Pfaff in the Belgian goal.
So, to the final at the Azteca against West Germany in which Maradona was not as ebullient.
Franz Beckenbauer, the West German manager, disputable assigned the marking of Maradona to Lothar Matthäus, thereby weakening their midfield. It would be Matthäus’ ugly foul on Maradona that led to Argentina’s opening goal. Eluded by Maradona’s back heel, he chopped him down. When ’keeper Harald Schumacher botched the free kick, Argentina scored.
On eighty-two minutes, the Germans surprisingly managed to equalise at 2-2. But with six minutes left, an exquisite pass by Maradona sent Burruchaga clear to score the winner.
Meanwhile, at Napoli, Maradona worked wonders. Twice he inspired them to the first titles they had ever won, in 1987 when he played 29 games and 1990 when he played a nurturing and galvanising role to the little Sardinian Gianfranco Zola. But he fell into bad company in Naples and pursued for high taxes, he was obliged to live outside the city – and Italy.
Near-triumph in Italy
The 1990 World Cup in Italy saw Argentina dramatically beaten in their opening game at the San Siro by a ruthless Cameroon, who consistently and painfully fouled Maradona. Mistakenly deployed as a central striker, Maradona, who had just been made an honorary ambassador, dropped deeper in the second half but to no avail even when an expulsion reduced Cameroon to 10 men. François Omam-Biyik then scored for Cameroon, and despite another expulsion, they held on for a 1-0 win.
Back in Naples, Argentina went through 2-0 against a Russia reduced to ten men, then drew with Romania. Placed third in their group, Argentina still went through to the round of 16. In Turin, playing with a swollen ankle and reduced to a trot, Maradona still had the will and skill to make a late winner for Claudio Caniggia against Brazil. In the quarterfinal in Florence against Yugoslavia’s ten men, Maradona missed a penalty in the shootout, but Argentina scrapped through.
Back in Naples, Maradona’s erratic attempt to induce the crowd to support Argentina against their own Italy backfired. Italy led, but Maradona cleverly set up an equaliser, and the game went to extra time and penalties. This time, Maradona scored and Argentina squeezed through to a displeasing Rome final against West Germany. Depleted by suspensions, Argentina all but scored on thirty-three minutes. Obsessed with Maradona, the Germans gave too much room to the other attackers. After half time, things turned unruly. West Germany should have been given a penalty but were denied. Pedro Monzón was expelled twenty minutes later. In the eighty-fifth minute, the Germans were awarded a penalty, which Andreas Brehme converted for the winner.
After the World Cup, Maradona left Italy in disgrace after testing positive for cocaine and being suspended after being accused of supplying drugs and being involved with the Camorra, the Italian Mafia-style crime syndicate.
Before the 1994 World Cup, Argentina had to play off against Australia to qualify, and Maradona looked ponderous in the game. But by the time it came to the Finals in the USA, he looked fit and sharp. Maradona shone at the Foxboro against Greece and Nigeria, both wins. But alas, he was obliged to take a dope test and failed it catastrophically. His urine contained five variants of ephedrine and his federation quickly removed him from the tournament.
When Maradona did eventually manage Argentina in the World Cup Finals in 2010, it was disastrous. He was constantly at odds with the media and was suspected of envy when he stuck the supremely gifted Lionel Messi out on the left wing rather than giving him a free rein. Later, his behaviour would grow increasingly erratic.
But at his playing best, Maradona was a refulgent star.
(This article was first published in 40 Years of Sportstar, 40 Superstars.)