“The most human of immortals” is the headline of Diego Maradona’s obituary by Rory Smith of The New York Times. French sports magazine L’Equipe went with “Dieu est mort” on the cover of their November 26 issue. Journalist Ewan MacKenna tweeted that Maradona was “like most true geniuses, a deeply flawed, human, and tortured soul”. One does not need to look too far or do too much digging to understand the legacy of “El Diego.” If your parents are of a certain age and have at least a passive interest in football, even they will have memories of Maradona at the 1986 World Cup. They may have even been at Lansdowne Road in 1980 to see a 20-year-old Dieguito play in an international friendly against Ireland.
That they never experienced first-hand the Argentinian superstar in his pomp is the sort of thing that makes later generations green with envy. It belongs with Italia ‘90 and Ireland’s Eurovision glory years — in that collection of magical moments you feel you missed out on by being born too late. Of course, there is far more to the Maradona narrative than his on-field brilliance. His extravagant lifestyle — dubbed “samba y caramba” by Colm Toibin — was subject to plenty of criticism, and his drug abuse, his short fuse and his friendships with Mafia figures left a sour taste. However, the tragedy of El Pibe de Oro (‘the golden boy’) was ultimately caused by the tendency of the public to see figures as representative of something larger, a notion alluded to in the headline on the front page of Argentina’s La Nacion: “[Maradona], metaphor of a poor nation”.
Argentina’s intriguing and messy political situation served as the backdrop as Dieguito took his first steps into the world of international football. He made his senior debut for Argentina in 1977, aged 16. A year earlier, the military had seized power after two years of unrest in the country. Led by General Jorge Rafael Videla, the junta was ruthless in silencing its opponents; thousands of men and women who did not adhere to its ideals were made to “disappear”. According to Esquire, 30,000 people were killed during the junta’s seven-year reign. With Argentina set to host the 1978 FIFA World Cup, there was growing international concern that Videla’s regime would use the tournament for political gain.
“There were some questions raised about Argentina’s 6-0 win over Peru, with some speculating that the match was fixed.”
The 1978 World Cup remains one of the most controversial in the competition’s history. Under the stewardship of Cesar Luis Menotti, who left then-17-year-old Maradona out of his squad for the finals, the hosts won their first World Cup, but their triumph is mired in allegations of cheating and corruption. There were questions raised about Argentina’s 6-0 win over Peru, with some speculating that the match was fixed due to an economic deal between the two countries. But the circumstances around the final were especially suspicious. Argentina’s opponents, a heavily tipped Holland side, fell prey to a range of intimidation tactics. Their team bus was mobbed by Argentinian fans en route to the stadium, and their opponents emerged from the dressing room five minutes late, leaving the Oranje exposed to the vitriol of the home crowd.
Whether these allegations are true or not, the damage had been done, and the national side’s triumph had been tainted. Add to the World Cup scandal the catastrophe that was the Falklands War and one begins to see why Argentina’s international reputation was in tatters by the time the junta had been ousted from power in 1983. Safe to say, the country was in dire need of a reason to be cheerful by the time of the 1986 World Cup in Mexico.
During all the political turmoil, the national football team was going from strength to strength. Carlos Bilardo replaced Menotti in 1982 and began to shape a team at the cutting edge of tactical innovation, with Maradona employed as an attacking midfielder. There were some teething problems at the start — when presented with such an outstanding footballing talent, the problem that plagues many coaches is how you set up a team to best facilitate that player’s abilities. As Jonathan Wilson notes: “[Presenting] one of the most system-driven managers of all time with arguably the greatest individual player of all time could have been one of football’s greatest jokes.”
Bilardo made it work, and when Mexico ‘86 rolled around, he had adopted what he termed viveza, an ultra-attacking style of play designed to give Maradona “freedom to roam” as a second striker. After a reasonably comfortable path through the first two rounds, it was the infamous quarter-final against England that came to define the Maradona and Argentina of that tournament. The first goal — yes, that one — was, in Wilson’s words, “viveza at its worst”; the second goal, sublime. Maradona captained his side to the final and, with five minutes left and surrounded by three West Germans in the centre circle, he knocked the ball through to Jorge Burruchaga, who would run on to score the cup-winning goal.
“Mexico ’86 is remembered as ‘the Maradona tournament’, establishing Dieguito’s place alongside Pele, Johan Cruyff, and Ferenc Puskas as one of the greatest to ever play the game.”
Mexico ‘86 is remembered as “the Maradona tournament”, establishing Dieguito’s place alongside Pele, Johan Cruyff, and Ferenc Puskas as one of the greatest to ever play the game. These comparisons were where the trouble started. Returning to Italy for preseason training with his club side Napoli, he guided them to the first-ever Serie A league championship in 1986/87. But Maradona had been using cocaine since his time at Barcelona, and by the late 80’s, it was beginning to affect his playing abilities. Moreover, he had played a major role in a violent brawl between Barcelona and Real Madrid players during the 1984 Copa del Rey final and had developed a thuggish reputation.
Meanwhile, Maradona was rapidly falling out of favour back home. Colm Toibin was sent by Esquire to Argentina for a piece on Maradona’s deteriorating popularity among his country’s people. From his correspondence with locals in Maradona’s hometown of Buenos Aires, Toibin was beginning to understand the Argentinian perspectives on their one-time hero, and that the criticism of their Pibe de Oro often had racial undertones. “Words started to come in, like the word negrito, or ‘a little black guy’,” he revealed on RTE Radio 1 in 2019. According to Toibin, Maradona’s extravagant lifestyle was also becoming a problem: “Some people were talking about his wedding as the most vulgar event to have ever taken place in the history of Argentina.”
Perhaps Maradona was a victim of his own footballing success. Being compared to other legends of the game meant that Maradona’s flaws were thrown into sharp relief. As Toibin notes: “There’s a sort of great melancholy in those years especially because they realised what the Falklands War had looked like to the rest of the world and what the ‘disappearances’ had looked like, and now here was Maradona, who was supposed to be a sporting hero. And people looked at Pele as an example – ‘look at the dignity of that man, look at how he comports himself, look at how respectable he is compared to this guy’.”
Maradona ran into a similar problem at Napoli. The Neapolitan public could empathise with Maradona’s status as an outcast; theirs was a city in the deprived Southern part of Italy, looked down upon by the wealthier North. Writing in The New Yorker, Daniel Alarcon explains that Naples was “thought of as backward, barely part of Italy at all”. The fans showered their cult hero with adulation, which was brilliantly captured in Asif Kapadia’s 2019 documentary, Diego Maradona.
However, they also turned on him. During the 1990 World Cup, Argentina faced hosts Italy in the semi-final in Napoli. Seeking to exploit their feelings of disenfranchisement, Maradona implored his Neapolitan fans to back Argentina instead. This did not go down well, and Maradona became a persona non grata in his adoptive home city. Alienated, Maradona increasingly sought comfort in his drug habits and, in Alarcon’s words, “his partying spun out of control”. A doping scandal and the ensuing 15-month ban from football was the final straw, and Maradona returned to Argentina in disgrace.
It’s the occupational hazard of being an unparalleled talent; the eagerness of people to cast you as a symbol of something grander. It is unfortunate that Maradona came along at a time when Argentinians were desperate for a brief respite from fear and shame. Their subsequent depiction of him as a messianic figure was inevitable. Sport is defined by its characters, those whose personality shines through in their performances. However, it is often the most compelling characters that make poor role models; indeed, one could argue that the two are mutually exclusive. Pele was a role model. Maradona was a character.
This closing tribute is going to sound strange, given that it is written by someone far too young to have seen Maradona play football live at all, let alone in his pomp – trust me, it wasn’t my decision. But perhaps that is the beauty of Dieguito; merely watching that second goal against England in 1986 is pure joy for any fan of the beautiful game. That image condenses the transcendental figure into his purest form, unburdened by symbolism.
Diego Maradona was an exceptional footballing talent, possibly the finest player that has ever played and will ever play the game. Having read the obituaries following his death it rightly seems to have been enough.