The world of football lost a legend — a legend in every sense of the word. On Nov. 25, 2020, Diego Armando Maradona passed away at the age of 60 after a heart attack, and the whole world mourned. Maradona leaves this world as one of the greatest to ever kick a ball. He inspired entire generations of future footballers with his eye for goal, enigmatic dribbling skills and speed — as well as his success with Argentina, Napoli, Barcelona, Boca Juniors and many other teams, scoring over 300 goals and winning 12 major trophies. The most memorable skill he possessed, though, was his desire to win and his will to do whatever it took to help his team win.
A controversial character, both on the pitch and off of it, “El Pibe de Oro” was a hero to many, but also a villain to others. While many argue about his personality or ethics, one thing that no one can deny is that Maradona was an amazing soccer player. The greatest of all time in the eyes of many. But to some people, he was more than simply a great footballer. He was an inspiration to all those who felt downtrodden or defeated. He was the ultimate rags-to-riches story, the true underdog and a symbol of rising above life’s obstacles. Many politicians claim to represent “the little man,” but Maradona was truly the champion of the little man, as he was one himself (both literally and figuratively, standing at only 5’5″).
On Oct. 30, 1960, Diego Armando Maradona entered the world. Spending his childhood in Villa Fiorito, a poor slum in Buenos Aires with dirt roads and no clean water, Diego had an extremely humble upbringing. As a teenager, Maradona signed for Argentinos Juniors in Argentina’s top division, quickly becoming a sensation across the country. He used his newfound fortune to lift his family out of poverty and from there on, he gained the mentality of always being the hero as the pressure of constant success had now taken hold of his life, for better or for worse. Maradona later transferred to Boca Juniors, the biggest team in Argentine club football before leaving for Barcelona FC in Spain a few years later. While Maradona had already tasted success, the best was yet to come. The ethos of Diego Maradona can be perfectly represented in two parts of his playing career: his tenure at Napoli and Argentina’s victory at the 1986 World Cup.
It may be hard to conceptualize in the current football landscape, but Napoli was far from the strong team they are now. For the past few years, Napoli has easily been the second- or third-best team in Italy and are the current Coppa Italia champions. But throughout the early 1980s, they were struggling financially and were far from winning anything. In the 1983-84 season, they were almost relegated even. Financial struggles aside, Napoli was historically not a great team regardless, having never won a league championship either. So, after Maradona’s time in Barcelona came to a climactic end, Napoli gambled everything they had and brought the greatest player in the world at the time to Serie A.
The pressure was immense, but Maradona thrived on the pitch. Not only was he individually exceptional, but he also inspired his teammates to bring out the best in them, culminating in the best team the city of Naples has ever possessed. The transformation was not overnight, but each season Napoli got better and better. In the 1984-85 season, Maradona’s first, they finished eighth on the league table. In the next season, they finished in third place, only 6 points behind Juventus in first. But in 1986-87, the unthinkable happened. Now the team captain, Maradona and his newly beloved Napoli side overcame all the greatest clubs in Italy and won the Serie A title, the city’s first-ever. From that point on, the citizens of Naples fell in love with the Argentine madman, and he clearly loved them back. Napoli cemented themselves as part of Italy’s elite, finishing in second place in the following two seasons before winning the title yet again in 1989-90. As of 2020, these are Napoli’s only league victories. Beyond the Scudetto, Napoli also won several major trophies with Maradona such as the 1987 Coppa Italia, the 1989 UEFA Cup and the 1990 Supercoppa Italiana.
The glory Maradona brought to the Southern Italian city of Naples was also significant for other reasons as well. Outside of football, Naples was a city facing economic crisis along, the devasting effects of a 1980 earthquake as well as mafia violence. Italy was a country split by regional discrimination, with the citizens of rich Northern cities often looking down upon the Neapolitans. This bigotry was seen most flagrantly in the football stands as the Napoli players and fans were often bombarded with insults, racial slurs and prejudice. Therefore, when Maradona came and flipped the Italian football culture on its head, ending the Northern hegemony, Naples then adopted Diego as one of their own. He became the hero who inspired the entire city. What Maradona means to Naples is impossible to describe in words. Murals on the sides of buildings and paintings on bedsides across the city often depict Diego Maradona alongside San Gennaro, the patron saint of Naples. And while Maradona has humbly denied this comparison on several occasions, some passionate Neapolitans even equated the footballer to the ultimate Messiah himself, Jesus Christ.
If the 1987 Scudetto title win was when Diego Maradona captured the heart of Naples, the 1986 World Cup was the moment when he captivated the entire country of Argentina. By the mid-80s, the Argentine people were broken and humiliated. Following a failing economy and a military coup, the junta dictatorship invaded the Falkland Islands, (known as las Islas Malvinas in Argentina), a disputed territory between Argentina and the United Kingdom. The junta wanted to reclaim the islands in order to rally the people against a common enemy, even though the citizens of the Falklands overwhelming wanted to remain part of the U.K. Thus, the Falklands War, or la Guerra de las Malvinas, started; the Royal Navy dealt a devasting blow to the Argentine military forces, forcing them to surrender. Amidst the national defeat and the remaining economic problems, the Argentine people often looked to football to forget their troubles. In steps Maradona.
Heading into the 1986 World Cup held in Mexico, Argentina had a decent squad but there were far from favorites. However, after Maradona scored against Italy, the reigning world champions, to ensure a 1-1 draw, people started to have faith in this Argentine side. Argentina then topped their group after wins against South Korea and Bulgaria before narrowly eliminating eternal rivals Uruguay, the current South American champions, in the Round of 16. This set up a quarterfinal match with none other than England.
If I could choose just one match in Maradona’s entire career to summarize who he is, it would be this one. The match was tense and by halftime, it was stuck at 0-0. Early into the second half, Maradona took hold of the ball and ran straight at the heart of the English defense before attempting to play a quick one-two with Jorge Valdano. But the ball flicked up, and the defender, Steve Hodge, accidentally cleared the ball into his own penalty box. Maradona then leaped into the air, out-jumping the goalkeeper, Peter Shilton, heading the ball into the English net, wheeling away in celebration as Argentina went 1-0 up. However, upon viewing the replays, it became apparent that Maradona had not used his head. Instead, he blatantly punched the ball into the net with his hand. The English players were understandably furious, but in the era 30 years before Video Assistant Refereeing was even a thing, the referee did not see the handball and called a goal for Argentina. After the match, Maradona famously said in an interview that it was “a little with the head of Maradona and a little with the hand of God” which led to the goal being dubbed the “Hand of God.” While Maradona was probably joking, many understandably took this literally as for the 5’5″ Maradona to outleap the six-foot Peter Shilton in goal, and for the referee not to see his hand, must have been divine intervention allowing for Argentine revenge against the English.
If the legitimacy of his first goal was questionable, his second was certainly not. Only three minutes later, Maradona was on the ball again and starring in his own half. With an extra spring in his step, Maradona covered 60 yards in under 10 seconds, weaving in and out of the English defense with the ball glued to his feet. The words of Spanish-language commentator, Victor Hugo Morales, will be forever etched into the memory of all Argentinians as he screamed “Arranca por la derecha, el genio del futbol mundial…!” as Maradona made the best defenders in England look like amateurs. One, two, three, four defenders were left in his wake before Maradona came face-to-face with Peter Shilton again. With a cheeky feint and deft touch of all the ball, Maradona shifted to the right and Shilton fell on his backside. Falling to the ground, Maradona was able to poke the ball into the net, sending Argentina 2-0 up. As tears fell from his eyes, Morales exclaimed “Gracias Dios, por el futbol, por Maradona!” Eventually, this goal would be dubbed, the “Goal of the Century” and would be commonly regarded as the greatest goal ever scored in World Cup history.
Gary Lineker was later able to score one for England, but it was not enough, and Argentina booked a place in the semifinals. Both goals scored by Maradona perfectly encapsulated his entire career. Some hate him, some love him, but overall he had skills like no other.
In the semifinal match against Belgium, Argentina comfortably won 2-0, with Maradona scoring both goals, setting up a World Cup Final between Argentina and eventual rivals, West Germany. Argentina outplayed the Germans and scored twice but a late spirited comeback saw the Germans equalize 2-2. With less than 10 minutes left in the match, Maradona played a perfect pass to his teammate, Jorge Burruchaga who outran the German defenders and slotted the ball past the goalkeeper, sealing Argentina’s second-ever World Cup title. With five goals and five assists, Maradona made 10 goal contributions, more than any other player at a single World Cup, making this possibly the greatest ever individual performance across a lone tournament.
Following the late 80s, Maradona would guide Argentina to another World Cup Final in 1990 but unfortunately, they would narrowly lose to West Germany in a rematch of the 1986 Final. Maradona would eventually leave Napoli for Sevilla in Spain, before winding down his career back in Argentina with Newell’s Old Boys and Boca Juniors again, retiring in 1997 and later entering a career in management.
While Diego Maradona had a career topped with high highs, there were definitely many low lows, and Maradona’s time as a footballer had a dark side embroiled in controversy. Never one to shy away from the limelight, Maradona had no qualms speaking his mind on any issue no matter the consequences. Whether it be his alleged ties to an Italian mob family, vocally supporting brutal dictators like Fidel Castro, Hugo Chavez and Nicolas Maduro, or publicly insulting Pele, Maradona never failed to make headlines, even after he stopped kicking a ball.
Ever since he was 15, Maradona always had the pressure on him to be the sole hero, whether it be lifting his own family out of poverty or dragging his entire country to a World Cup, he constantly felt the pressure which ultimately took a toll on his mentality turning him to his vices. For a large part of his life, Maradona struggled with cocaine addiction and alcoholism. Sadly, this had a hugely negative effect on his playing career as his time at Napoli as well as his stay in the 1994 World Cup would be cut short due to failed drug tests. Maradona overcame his addiction in 2004, but one suspects that if he never had his drug problem, he could’ve spent another five to 10 years at the top of football. Unfortunately, Maradona’s hero mentality that was permanently forced into his mindset stopped him from showing any weakness or asking anyone else for help.
Despite his detractors, Maradona truly was a hero to many and that was seen in the beautiful outpour of adulation following his death. Everyone in the football world stood in consolation with the fans in mourning Maradona. Matches across Italy stopped and applauded in the 10th minute to congratulate the famous number 10, and players offered a moment of silence of remembrance. The Argentine heir-apparent to Maradona, Lionel Messi, offered a special show of gratitude. After scoring a wonderful goal in Sunday’s match against Osasuna, the Barcelona star removed his shirt to show a Newell’s Old Boys shirt underneath, the same one Maradona wore when he played for the club. Possibly the greatest tribute to Maradona was in his beloved city of Naples, though. On Sunday, a sullen Napoli side thoroughly defeated rivals, Roma, 4-0, dedicating each goal to the late great legend. The fourth and final goal was scored by Matteo Politano, who dribbled past multiple Roma defenders before rounding the keeper and slotting the ball home, evoking memories of Maradona’s solo goal against England.
Maradona’s faith has been a contentious issue over the years. Born and raised Roman Catholic, he famously became disillusioned with the Church after a falling out with Pope John Paul in 2000. But after a heartfelt meeting with Pope Francis in 2014, Maradona rediscovered his faith. While millions of prayers for Maradona have likely reached the heavens in the past few days, Gary Lineker said it best on Twitter, “…After a blessed but troubled life, hopefully he’ll finally find some comfort in the hands of God.”