The Hand that beat God
Diego Armando Maradona was born October 30, 1960 in Buenos Aires, Argentina. His nicknames include ‘El Diego’ and ‘Hand of God’. He was the fifth of eight children and grew up in a poor household. From an early age he learned that sometimes fighting for what you want is the way to get it. For his third birthday he received the gift of a soccer ball from his father and there followed a devotion to the sometimes brutal and sometimes beautiful game.
Aged 10 he joined Argentinean youth team Los Cebollitas, one of the biggest clubs in the country, he led them to a 136 unbeaten streak and then turned professional for the senior team at Argentinos Juniors just before his 16th birthday in 1976. Four months and one week later he would debut for his country in a friendly versus Hungary.
Whilst playing for the Juniors, the young Diego was told he wasn’t tall enough to be a footballer. However, his speed with the ball at his feet and a low centre of gravity, which made him difficult to tackle, would ensure a career in the game he loved.
The 19 year old Maradona was part of the squad that won the 1979 Youth World Cup in Japan beating USSR 3-1 in the final. He won South American Player of the Year then, and again in 1980.
He left Argentinos Juniors in 1981 and signed for Boca Juniors, where he would stay for just one season. Albeit their Championship winning season. There followed a dream move (and at that time World Record transfer fee) to Barcelona for £5m.
Standing just five feet and five inches tall, Maradona’s stance is mighty. The midfield maestro known on the pitch for abilities to turn a game with his creative flair is revered off the pitch for his militant beliefs. He has remained outspoken throughout his entire life and has gone to war with words (and sometimes weapons) against some huge opponents including; George W Bush, the media and (former FIFA President) Sepp Blatter, who he described in June 2015 as ‘the dictator who has ruined world football’.
In 1982 he said, ‘Diego the soldier would rise up and take arms to defend his country as he is first and foremost an Argentine’. However, during the Falklands War between his country and Great Britain, he did not join his comrades, as he was training for the World Cup.
The 1982 tournament in Spain was his first of four for Argentina. He played in 21 World Cup games in total and still holds the record for the most number of appearances as captain of any country in a World Cup, with 16. He also holds some more dubious records on the World stage; the most fouled player during a World Cup (53) during the infamous 1986 tournament and the most fouled player in one match (vs Italy in 1982) – fouled 23 times.
Argentina, defending champions at the 1982 Championship, were dumped out in the second group round and Maradona playing in front of his new domestic team’s home fans at the Camp Nou, spectacularly failed to perform. They needed a win against Brazil to qualify for the quarter finals but lost 3-1. And in the 85th minute Diego saw red, literally, after a well aimed kick to the groin of João Batista.
His arrival in Barcelona marred with a World Cup sending off. Club football there would be just as tumultuous.
Maradona spent two seasons at Barcelona, helping them to the Copa Del Rey and the Spanish Super Cup along the way, but the bad outweighs the good from his time in Spain. He suffered a bout of hepatitis and then endured a broken ankle in a mis-timed tackle by Athletico Bilbao’s Andoni Goikoetxea. For anyone else this could have been career ending. For Maradona it was a lengthy stay in hospital and a 3-month spell on the sidelines. Some accredit his time in Spanish hospital as the catalyst that kick-started his addiction to drugs. This could explain his on-pitch mood swings, but as yet, remains unproven.
Sadly for Maradona his career is plagued with his split persona. He was an incredible footballing genius when he decided to be, but the childish tantrums would sometimes overtake him. His temper was ferocious and the soldier in him would inevitably rise to the surface. “I am Maradona, who makes goals, who makes mistakes. I can take it all; I have shoulders big enough to fight with everybody.”
At the end of the 1983-84 season, Barcelona faced Athletico Bilbao in the final of the Copa Del Rey. The high profile game was attended by King Juan Carlos of Spain and watched by a television audience of tens of millions around the world. The man who’d broken Maradona’s ankle the previous year went in hard again, wounding his leg. Xenophobic insults were hurled at Diego from the stands and throughout the ill-tempered match Goikoetxea continued to foul him. As the whistle sounded for full time, Barcelona had lost 1-0 and Bilbao’s Miguel Sola mimicked a gesture from the crowd toward the fiery Argentinean and Maradona went into battle. Following a war of words (mostly expletives) Maradona head butted Sola; he elbowed one player in the face and kneed another in the head, knocking him out cold. The Bilbao players surrounded Maradona. Goikoetxea managed to high-kick him in the chest before the rest of the Barcelona squad came to his rescue and a mass brawl erupted. Maradona led his troops like any general would, kicking and punching anyone in a Bilbao shirt.
Sixty people were injured in the fight.
Unsurprisingly this was Maradona’s last game in a Barcelona shirt. He was transferred to Napoli in 1984 for £6.9m (which at the time was another World Record transfer fee and his second).
He was at Napoli from 1984-92. He helped them win their only two Serie A titles to date in 1986/87 and 1989/90. During his time as the Napoli no 10 they also lifted the Coppa Italia (1987), the UEFA Cup (1989) and an Italian Super Cup (1990). They were also the league runners-up in 1987/88 and 1988/89. The most successful era in Napoli’s history just happens to be those years they had Maradona ruling the midfield. These were also the most documented years in his international career too, most notably the World Cups in 1986 (Mexico) and 1990 (Italy).
His visit to Mexico as captain of his country must be the career highlight. The ‘86 World Cup elevated him to ‘Best Player in the World’. And in Buenos Aires they founded a religion for him.
Diego Maradona captained his national side to the 1986 World Cup final where they eventually beat West Germany 3-2. He played every minute of every game in the championship. He scored five goals and had five assists. He won the Golden Ball for being the tournament’s outstanding player, though England fans and the England team may disagree…
It was that quarter final victory over England: The diminutive midfielder rising above six-foot tall Peter Shilton to score a memorable first goal in the match ‘a little with head of Maradona, and a little with the Hand of God.’ His second though, was no fluke; dribbling past five defenders before lashing the goal home. FIFA called this the Goal of the Century. He ran half the length of the pitch, gliding effortlessly past Glenn Hoddle, Peter Reid, Kenny Sansom, Terry Butcher and Terry Fenwick, before beating Shilton again. He spent most of the movement on the right hand side of the pitch but never touched the ball with his right foot.
In his words, echoes of 1982 and The Falklands, “It was as if we had beaten a country, more than just a football team.”
Four short years later, the World Cup crossed back in to Europe for Italia ’90. Maradona was now very much at home with Italian giants Napoli, having just won the UEFA Cup the previous year. He was injury free and ready to lead his country once again on the international stage. Aside from their shock 1-0 defeat in the opening match against Cameroon and qualifying as best third-placed team it was pretty straight forward for the blue and whites and they cruised to the final for a rematch of 1986 against West Germany. This time the Europeans came out on top 1-0 with a controversial penalty in the 85th minute.
It was a relatively quiet World Cup for Maradona, but he still managed to steal the headlines. At half time in their Last 16 match against Brazil, Maradona offered Branco water spiked with tranquilisers in a bid to slow him down. He also missed a penalty in the quarter final shoot-out with Yugoslavia.
In 1991 El Diego’s crown slipped once more. He tested positive for cocaine and was made to leave Napoli and serve out a 15 month ban from football. He went to Spain to play a year each at Sevilla and Newells Old Boys then returned to Argentina in 1994.
He was captain in his fourth World Cup campaign in June that year in the USA – it would end in disaster. After two games he’d scored one goal (against Greece). The celebration showed a wild-eyed Maradona screaming into the television cameraman’s lens. The clip being played the world over as he tested positive for Ephedrine (a weight loss drug) was suspended from international football and sent home in disgrace.
He continued playing at Boca Juniors until he retired in 1997. In a career spanning 21 years he played 680 games, scoring 345 goals (an average of 0.5 goals a game in domestic club competitions). He scored 34 times for his country, eight of them at World Cups.
But Maradona is not the type of man to fade away. In 1998 he was in court for a shooting offence that happened just four months before the USA World Cup. He was given a two year suspended jail term for firing an air rifle at reporters outside his home
Over the next few years he struggled to control his weight and his addiction to drugs got worse until he was hospitalised in 2000 and 2004 with heart problems. Between 2002 and 2005 Maradona spent most of his time in Cuba, supposedly to detox from his cocaine addiction. He stayed with his great friend (Cuban Leader) Fidel Castro and was outspoken about the imperialism of the United States. In future years he would attend public rallies and protest against George W Bush and U.S capitalism.
Following a Bush protest in 2007, he appeared on Venezuelan President, Hugo Chavez’s weekly TV show saying “I hate everything that comes from the United States. I hate it with all my strength.”
Maradona has always been proud of his country and its people. He displays his politics for all to see. On his left leg is a tattoo of Fidel Castro and on his right arm, his hero; Argentine, Marxist, guerrilla leader, cultural icon and Cuban revolutionary, Che Guevara – with whom he shares an ideology.
He has since mellowed slightly, expressing admiration for Bush’s successor, Barack Obama, holding ‘great expectations for him’.
Perhaps as comes naturally to a left footer, he will subconsciously drift toward the left wing, but the militant midfield maestro that is Maradona will still venture to the right sometimes (like in ’86) if only to show his troops the way to victory.