There are few names that have graced this mortal plane more evocative than that of Diego Armando Maradona. When the news broke on the 25th November that he had passed away from a heart attack aged just 60, the outpouring of grief from around the globe was more than that of just a regular celebrity death. No matter the place or person, the footballing world stopped in it’s tracks to remember, mourn, and celebrate the life of one of the beautiful game’s most beautiful artists, with tributes paid, memorials constructed and tears shed from South America to the Far East and everywhere in between. El Pibe de Oro may have been Argentina’s hero, but he was the world’s legend.
It is testament to the man’s impact on the very core of the game of football just how far and wide his death would be felt, but nowhere was the outpouring of grief and heartbreak more than in his native land. Argentine president Alberto Fernandez declared three days of national mourning, Boca Juniors postponed their Copa Libertadores clash with Internacional, and the all new Copa de la Liga Profesional would be renamed the Copa Diego Armando Maradona in his honor. It mirrored scenes in Naples, Italy, the land where Maradona arguably made his biggest mark, his former club Napoli renaming their stadium to honor their former captain and murals, memorials and tears being seen across the city in equal measure. Wherever the man’s story took him, he left a legacy unlike anyone else before him, one littered with trophies, goals and some of the most magnificent football the world has ever seen. But it was a story that began far from the glitz and glory of World Cups and league titles, Maradona instead beginning life in the inauspicious Buenos Aires shanty of Villa Fiorito.
Born to a poor family in a Lanús hospital, the young Diego was gifted a football aged just three, and became instantly infatuated with the game. Honing his burgeoning skills on the streets, he joined neighborhood club Estrella Roja to play in the youth teams, and quickly garnered a reputation for being a stylish player, small, nimble and electric on the ball. Maradona was taking on boys twice his size and age and coming out the victor, be it through skill, speed or sheer tenacity. To all who watched him, one thing was clear from the start – the boy was born to play football.
Buenos Aires club Argentinos Juniors agreed, and after scouting Estrella Roja in 1968, brought a then 8-year-old Maradona to their youth setup, transfixed with the natural talent the young Diego had flowing through every vein in his body. Looking to refine the youngster into a more complete player rather than just a bag of impressive tricks, the club made a point of training Maradona both on and off the field, giving him a role as a ball-boy during senior games when there was no youth tournament being played that week. Maradona, in a beautiful bit of foreshadowing, would use these as opportunities to amuse and dazzle spectators with his on-ball flair.
Regardless of how seriously he took it, the coaching worked, and 10 days before turning sixteen, Diego Maradona would make his senior debut for Argentinos, becoming the youngest player in Primera Division history as he came on against Talleres de Cordoba. It took him just four minutes to make headlines, nutmegging Juan Domingo Cabrera in an emphatic premiere that announced that this wasn’t just any-old 15 year-old schoolboy, but El Pibe de Oro, the Golden Boy, quite possibly the greatest talent the nation had ever seen. Still unrefined but evidently gifted, the four years Maradona spent at Argentinos Juniors would yield 115 goals in 167 appearances, an otherworldly total considering the attacking midfielder was just that, a midfielder, and a teenager at that. Playing as a hybrid of a classic number 10 and a shadow striker, Maradona was given essentially free reign to play as he pleased, and rewarded his club with an astonishing 43 goals in 45 appearances in the 1980 season, a performance so good it proved to be his last with El Bicho.
While Maradona’s contract belonged to Argentinos, his heart belonged to Boca Juniors. A fan since boyhood, Diego had harbored dreams of playing at El Bombonera his entire life, and after his phenomenal goal return and electric style of play captured the attention of every Argentinian from Ushuaia to La Quiaca, he would get his chance. Turning down an offer to become arch-rivals River Plate’s best paid player, he joined his boyhood club in 1981, making his debut on the 22nd of February, and promptly scored twice against the same side he made his senior debut against five years prior. In a season defined by incredible performances, including a goal in a Superclassico that saw Maradona dribble past two of River’s finest defenders as if they were not even there, Maradona’s forty appearances would go down in Argentinian footballing folklore as some of the finest the Primera Division had ever seen, and despite a strained relationship with first team manager Silvio Marzolini, Boca won the title, the first top-flight silverware of Maradona’s career. Such displays did not go unnoticed, and after a disappointing snub four years prior, the now 21-year-old Maradona was included in his first ever World Cup squad for 1982, poetically to be held in Spain, joining the likes of Mario Kempes, Alberto Tarantini and Osvaldo Ardiles as Cesar Luis Menotti’s Albiceleste looked to defend the title they won on home ground in the tournament’s last edition.
But before the World Cup even kicked off, Maradona was already grabbing headlines. His electrifying performances for Boca had garnered international attention, and capitalizing on his fractured relationship with Marzolini, FC Barcelona swooped in and signed the Argentine on the 4th June 1982, for a world-record fee of five million pounds. The Blaugrana had had their eyes on El Pibe since a 1978 visit to Buenos Aires by vice-president Nicolau Casaus, who after watching the then 17-year-old play and subsequently meeting him, attempted to convince the Barcelona board to sign him, whatever the cost. Fatefully, the board refused, citing the unproven nature of the playmaker, and after almost moving to then second division side Sheffield United – seriously – Maradona would join Boca. Given that he was now arguably the best playmaker in the world, Barcelona pulled the trigger after seeing what Maradona could truly do, and paid a hefty price for their hesitance.
Just over a week after putting pen to paper at the Camp Nou, Maradona lined up with his international teammates for their inaugural game against Belgium in the very same stadium, but it was not to be the fairytale introduction many had hoped for. A lackluster team performance against the Europeans saw the defending champions lose 1-0, and despite convincingly beating El Salvador and Hungary, whom Maradona netted twice against, it was clear something was not right within the Argentine camp. Drawn against Italy and Brazil for the second group stage, Argentina were blown out, losing both games as internal tensions blighted the team and removed any semblance of cohesion. For Maradona however, these games showcased another side of his game that few had seen up until this point.
Being the Argentine star, the number 10 was plagued with rough tackles and cynical fouls throughout the whole tournament, only exacerbated by questionable officiating from the referees. After a full game being aggressively man-marked by Italy’s Claudio Gentile, things came to a particularly violent head against Brazil, frustration getting the better of Maradona as he scythed down Batista in retaliation five minutes from time and was promptly sent off. It was an unfitting end to his debut World Cup, and certainly one unbecoming of the world’s most expensive player. He may have had all the talent in the world, but the first signs of Diego Maradona’s demons had begun to rear their ugly heads.
Nevertheless, El Pibe donned the famous shirt of Barcelona for the first time in September, debuting in a 2-1 defeat to Valencia, and began a two-year tenure in Catalonia that would be marked by some of his highest highs, and lowest lows. In the 1983 Classico at the home of arch-rivals Real Madrid.
Maradona would put on his finest display to date, scoring a goal in which he feinted out defender Juan Jose and sent him crashing into his own post. For the first time in history, the Santiago Bernabeu gave a Barcelona player a standing ovation, and no-one else was more fitting of such an honor. To this day, only Ronaldinho and Andres Iniesta have repeated the feat.
But Maradona’s time at the Camp Nou would also see possibly his lowest point to date. Plagued by illness and injury throughout his tenure, including a near-career ending foul from Bilbao’s AndoniGoikoetxea, El Pibe began to grow just as frustrated with his performances as the fans who had only seenglimmers of his true quality. Things came to a head in the Copa del Rey final of 1984, where, in front of a crowdof 100,000 and with the King of Spain in attendance, Maradona responded to provocations from bothBilbao’s players and fans, and initiated a near-60 person brawl on the pitch. Despite his undeniable qualityand world-class stature, his time in Barcelona was up, his reputation blemished by an underwhelming stint atthe very top defined more by ill-temper and injury than by the magic he was known for.
As history would have it, however, this would probably be the greatest development of his career.Leaving Barcelona for another world-record fee, Maradona joined the rich but troubled S.S.C Napoli for an eye-watering 6.9 million pounds. The Napoli of 1984 was not like the Napoli of today, instead a team that had fallen in the space of a decade from title contenders to relegation strugglers. Signing Maradona was the definition of a make-or-break decision, literally staking the club’s survival on one man. For the 75,000 supporters who came to witness El Pibe’s unveiling, however, this was no man, but a god Back at full fitness and away from the pressure and politics of Barcelona, Maradona shone in Naples brighter than he ever had before. In an era plagued by economic hardship in the south of Italy and a north-south inequality evident both in real life and on the football pitch, the fans flocked to the stands of the San Paolo to watch their superstar play, week in, week out, as an escape from the everyday hardships they faced.
One local newspaper even remarked that even though the city had no “mayor, houses, schools, buses,employment and sanitation, none of this matters because we have Maradona” Fit once more and firing on all cylinders, the Argentine was once more included in the national team squad for the upcoming World Cup, this time determined to reach glory. In the tournament that would come to define his legacy, Maradona put on one of the single greatest performances not just in football, but sport as a whole, winning the biggest trophy in the game almost singlehandedly, and claiming the Golden Ball on a unanimous vote to boot.
Mexico’s hallowed turf was his canvas, and the cup was his magnum opus, finally putting a performance in on the world stage that justified the tag of ‘best in the world.’ Nothing summed up Maradona better than the now infamous quarter-final against England. The Albiceleste had maintained a rivalry with the Three Lions dating back to the mid-sixties, but the situation had never been fierier, owing to the recent Falklands war between the two and political fallout that followed.
Against this backdrop, in front of a packed Estadio Azteca, Maradona would score his two most famous goals, polar opposites that embodied his Jekyll and Hyde reputation perfectly. The first was one bathed in controversy, the 5 foot 5 inch Argentine out jumping the 6 foot 1 inch Peter Shilton to ‘head’ home a mishit clearance, a goal that stood despite El Pibe’s use of, in his words, “the hand of god.” Not even five minutes later, Maradona sprinted 60-yards, dribbled expertly past four English defenders, feinted Shilton into falling backwards and slotted into an empty net, making the score 2-0 with what has come to be known as the ‘goal of the century.’ It was a poetic display, one that mirrored the man to the letter. In truth, even the most cliché of script-writers would scoff if it weren’t played out in front of half of the world’s eyes.
Returning to Naples as a world champion and arguably the best player on the planet, Maradona would waste no time architecting the best season in Napoli’s history, winning their first ever Scudetto and the first for any team in the south of the nation. It was a monumental achievement, venerating Napoli’s risk taking him in and cementing their superstar as a hero of the club, their savior, their messiah. Maradona was emblazoned onto ancient buildings and babies were named in his honor, as the carnival-like celebration for their title win stretched well into it’s second week. The club and its talisman would repeat the feat two years later, winning Scudetto number two as Maradona became Napoli’s all-time leading goal scorer, a record that would stand until 2017. In the eyes of the Neapolitans, he had transcended man, and become god.
But as Maradona’s on field success reached its zenith, so too did his off-field turmoil. His now well- known use of cocaine was beginning to spiral out of control, and he was fined extensively by the club for missing training and even matches. A scandal broke surrounding an alleged illegitimate son, and even ties to the mafia, before everything came to a head in 1992, when Diego Maradona failed a drugs test and received a 15-month ban from playing. Despite leaving Napoli in relative disgrace, in honor of all he had built there, his iconic number 10 shirt was retired forever.
Maradona returned to the field with Sevilla, playing 29 times for the Spanish outfit, before returning to his homeland with Newell’s Old Boys. Despite just five appearances for the Lepers in the 1993/94 season, El Pibe, now nearly 34 and clearly struggling with his weight, was selected for the 1994 World Cup in the United States. He played twice, against Greece and Nigeria, scoring a goal against the former that caused him to sprint over to the cameras and celebrate so emphatically he was given a drug test after the second game.He failed, and was dismissed from the tournament, ending a national team career that contained some of history’s greatest performances in much the same way he ended his iconic Napoli one. With a drugs ban.
Now without a club, overweight and evidently beset by his demons, there was one place left for Maradona to turn. La Bombonera. Despite being past his best, his tumultuous personal life catching up to his on-field one, he was welcomed back to his boyhood club with open arms, Boca fans turning up in droves to watch their idol play regardless. In truth, this was the power of Diego Armando Maradona, a man so special that no matter what was happening on or off the field, the footballing world still flocked to see him play, hoping to catch but a glimpse of the magic he could seemingly turn on at any moment.
After three years with Boca, Maradona retired from playing on October 25th, 1997, a veteran of 694 professional appearances and scorer of 354 goals for both club and country. By closing the book on a remarkable playing career, El Pibe would embark on a relatively lackluster managerial one, taking charge of clubs in his homeland, Mexico, the UAE and even his nation for the 2010 World Cup, losing in the quarter finals. He won a host of domestic cups, two Serie A, the Argentine Metropolitano and crucially, the World Cup, but numbers and trophies do not tell you the full story.
The legacy of Maradona is one of wonder, one of beauty. A player so gifted he was regularly compared to a god, El Pibe set the world alight in a way no man had done before, igniting the passion for the game in many of football’s future legends and setting the standard for greatness. He is the bar all other players are measured to, the man that a whole generation of superstars grew up wanting to be, wanting to be compared to.
His numbers were staggering, but they are nothing compared to the sheer delight of watching the man play, an elegance and artistry with a ball that is often imitated, yet never matched.
Every blade of grass his boots touched became hallowed ground, every goal he scored the stuff of legend, and in the minds of those who had the sheer luck to see him play, Diego Armando Maradona will live on forever as the man who turned football into art.
He cut a controversial figure his entire life, plagued by demons just as any mortal human can be. But despite the bans, the controversy, the bad press and the ill-temper, Maradona built a club on his back, and lead a country to greatness they have yet to replicate to this day. The scenes upon the announcement of his death tell the half of his story that his numbers don’t – he was more than just a footballer, to many, he was a god. Rest easy, El Pibe. You will be missed.
Written By Daniel Castella on behalf of Spire Vintage Apparel.