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It’s a tribute to Diego Armando Maradona that the statistics record he won multiple, timeless individual awards, that he started in twenty one consecutive matches for Argentina in four World Cups (1982, 1986, 1990, 1994) appeared sixteen times as captain of the national team in World Cup Finals tournaments, broke world transfer-fee records and won FIFA’s ‘Player of the twentieth century’ (shared with Pele), but he was one of those very few players you had to see in the flesh truly to understand what genius is.
He won comparatively few medals, but the words lavished on him by current- and former players tell us everything we need to know about the player he was.
There have been multiple references by ex-team mates, and individuals that include Johan Cruyff, to his ‘complete mastery of the ball’ and the ball appearing to be tied to his boots when he ran with the ball.
AC Milan and Italy’s Franco Baresi and Paulo Maldini agreed that ‘when on form, there was almost no way of stopping him, that he was the best (they) ever played against.’
Another contemporary of Maradona’s, Michel Platini, summed him up with,
‘Diego was capable of things no one else could match. The things I could do with a football, he could do with an orange.’
His technical ability was complemented by his street-fighter ruthlessness and refusal to accept defeat, hating the very idea of losing, shared by all-time greats in every sport. Jorge Valdano, Maradona’s team mate at the 1986 World Cup, described him as ‘the guy...in charge of making the miracles happen, that's something that gives team-mates a lot of confidence.. the scope of his celebrity was such that he absorbed all the pressures on behalf of his team-mates: you slept soundly the night before a game not just because you knew you were playing next to Diego and he did things no other player in the world could do, also because unconsciously we knew that if we lost he would shoulder more of the burden, would be blamed more than the rest of us.’
Lionel Messi’s take on Maradona: ‘Even if I played for a million years, I'd never come close to Maradona. Not that I'd want to anyway. He's the greatest there's ever been.’
Gary Lineker, part of the England team eliminated by Argentina in the Quarter Finals of the 1986 World Cup: ‘When he scored that second goal against us, I felt like applauding... It was impossible to score such a beautiful goal. He's the greatest player of all time, by a long way.’
The Houston Chronicle summed up the extent to which Maradona hated to lose: ‘..one has to conjure up the athleticism of Michael Jordan, the power of Babe Ruth and the human fallibility of Mike Tyson. Lump them together in a single barrel-chested man with shaggy black hair and you have El Diego...’
And film maker Asif Kapadia, described the ‘leader’, the ‘little guy fighting against the system... willing to do anything, to use all of his cunning and intelligence to win.’
El Pibe de Oro - The Golden Boy - was born on October 30th 1960 to Diego Maradona ‘Chitoro’ and Dalma Salvadora Franco 'Doña Tota', the first son of three, with three sisters, in Lanus, Buenos Aires Province.
A coach who watched Maradona playing in an Argentine national tournament at the age of eight in 1973 described him as having the physique of a child but the game of an adult.
Maradona joined Los Cebollitas - ’The Little Onions’ - the junior team of Buenos Aires's Argentinos Juniors when the family moved to Estrella Roja. He cited Brazilian Rivelino and Manchester United’s George Best as his inspirations.
In October 1976, Maradona moved up to Argentinos Juniors and made his professional debut aged fifteen. After 167 appearances and 115 goals he was transferred in 1981 Boca Juniors and made his debut two days later, scoring twice. Boca won the league title at the end of 1981-82 season.
At the end of the 1982 World Cup, Maradona moved to Barcelona for £5 million. The club went on to win both the Copa del Rey and the Spanish Super Cup against Real and Athletic Bilbao respectively in 1982-83. In the June Barcelona defeated Real Madrid at the Bernabeu, in one of Maradona’s finest individual performances. The remainder of his on-pitch time at the Camp Nou was limited by illness and injury.
Following the 1984 Copa del Rey final defeat against Athletic Bilbao and one of the more violent games in Spanish football history, witnessed by 100,000 at the Bernebeu, including King Juan Carlos, and a television audience of over thirty million, Maradona was transferred from Barcelona to Napoli for £6.9m, having scored 38 goals in 58 matches.
Napoli had never won Serie A before 1984. Maradona accrued more silverware at Napoli than at any other club, was appointed club captain soon after joining, the club winning Serie A for the first time in 1986-87, again in 1989–90, finishing runners-up twice, in 1987–88 and 1988–89, the Coppa Italia in 1987, the UEFA Cup in 1989 and the Italian Supercup in 1990. Maradona was Serie A’s top scorer in 1987–88 with 15 goals, and Napoli’s all-time leading goalscorer with 115 goals, until 2017.
Maradona’s off-field life became increasingly complicated, including dangerous narcotic addiction and involving a 15-month ban following a failed drug test. He signed for Sevilla for one season in 1992, moved to Newell’s Old Boys, briefly, in 1993 and returned to Boca Juniors for two years in 1995, his playing career coming to an end in 1997.
Maradona had recently moved to Spain when he played in his first World Cup tournament there in 1982, with Argentina, the holders, going out to defeats by Belgium, Brazil and Italy.
He was his country’s captain and the tournament’s outstanding player in the 1986 World Cup Finals in Mexico, which Argentina won 3-2 in the Final against West Germany. His second goal in Argentina’s 2-1 victory against England in the Quarter Final has been described by many as their ‘goal of the century’. Maradona was involved in ten of the fourteen goals scored by Argentina during the tournament.
Maradona captained Argentina again in the 1990 Finals in Italy, Argentina again reached the Final, played the same opponent - West Germany - but this time were defeated 1-0.
Maradona’s last appearance for Argentina came in the 1994 World Cup Finals in the USA against Greece, in which he scored, before being sent home by FIFA for drug abuse. His seventeen year long international career included 91 caps, scoring 34 goals.
His managerial career includes jobs in Argentina, the UAE, Mexico and for the Argentine national team, but it is on him as a player, who, like the world’s best in every field, you had to be in the same place to understand how good ‘the best’ is, that our Maradona memories should remain.