Adios Dios—The Maradona Story
An army of seventy thousand Neapolitans would walk through the corridors of the San Paolo stadium on the 5th of July, 1984. The stadium bore a likeness to an ancient Roman colosseum, with spectators being seated in ginormous vertical stands. The stone walls vibrated with nervous energy. The people of Naples, dressed in blue to reaffirm their pledged allegiance to Napoli SSC, resembled a tidal wave, engulfing the pitch from all four ends. They were there to see one man, their prince to-be, their messiah—Diego Armando Maradona.
Tens of thousands of voices roared as the tiny Argentinian poetically landed from the sky in a helicopter, onto the freshly cut grass and looked around. The chants, “Ho Visto Maradona, Ho Visto Maradona” (I saw Maradona!) seemed like they could be heard all the way in Milan. Diego Maradona did not disappoint his army of Neapolitans. His career may have been filled with scandals, controversy, and addiction. Still, after his unfortunate passing, we cannot help but look back at the player who defied every notion about how football is played, led his club and his country to glory, and is worshipped by an entire city.
The Shaping of Diego
“If I was in a white dress at a wedding and a muddy ball arrived, I would stop it with my chest, without thinking about it.”
Diego’s upbringing was harsh. Living with his parents, two brothers, and five sisters, he was a kid determined to drag his family from the cruel clutches of poverty. Football was his salvation. There were times where he had to sleep with his football tucked inside his shirt to prevent it from being stolen. His father worked extra shifts to support his ambition, and would “come home looking half-dead”, in his own son’s words.
It didn’t take long for people in Buenos Aires to take note of his exceptional skill. He possessed unbelievable balance, seemed like he could glide with the ball on his feet, and could point towards the goal with his eyes closed. Diego enjoyed being the underdog. His early life had instilled an unshakeable sense of grit in him, and he always chose to take the side of the people who suffered. He chose to join Boca Juniors, a team that came from the relatively poorer end of Buenos Aires over River Plate, which represented a richer neighbourhood and offered to make him the highest-paid player in their team.
His defiance and will bring out a ‘Bigger than life’ character to anyone who watched him weave a spell over them for ninety minutes in between two goalposts. His big break arrived when FC Barcelona came calling and made Maradona their costliest transfer. An injury-plagued season did not stop him from having moments that would cast an impression for decades.
Maradona’s most memorable moment in Blaugrana colours came in his last match for the club, in the King’s cup final, where he hurtled himself into the eye of a chaotic storm and threw a few punches at an Athletic Club Bilbao player, in the presence of the King of Spain. The camera panned at him in the end, as he sat on the pitch with a black eye, torn jersey, and thousands of people staring from the stands, unable to process what they had just witnessed. The costliest player in the world turned into a street fighter and did not seem to care about controversy. He revelled in it. He had a personality that shouted confidence. His inhuman footballing skills backed it up. He could put you in a trance-like state with a mere ball at his feet, something that wasn’t humanlike at all. Even his teammates have admitted to spending hours watching Diego train with a football.
The God of Naples
In the 1980s, Naples was a downtrodden city, with a majority of its citizens below the poverty line and victims of organized crime by the Camorra cartel. They were mocked by the rest of Italy, with derogatory terms like “Terroni” (Peasants) or “Cholera Sufferers.” It was; however, a place brimming with passion. The rumours of Maradona being a potential Napoli player led to hunger strikes across the city. People chained themselves to San Paolo, refusing to budge until Diego stepped onto the pitch in Azzurri colours.
The desire to dream was so intense, that people sprawled onto the streets, collecting money from everyone around to help the club fund the transfer. After an unlucky couple of years in Spain, Maradona was eager to represent the people of Naples and bring them silverware. The sporting director of Naples, Juliano, a proud Neapolitan, reportedly told Maradona, “Play your brand of football and Naples will make you its living god.” Italian football was the best in the world at those times. The richest clubs in AC Milan and Juventus and immensely talented players in Platini, Maldini, Laudrup, and Rijkaard made for a fiercely competitive league. Napoli had narrowly escaped relegation the season before Maradona arrived, and a player of his stature being signed by Napoli sent shockwaves across the country.
The disbelief is perhaps, conveyed by a question in his first press conference. “Did the mafia fund your transfer, Diego?” The question was met with fury by the sporting director, who immediately warned that such accusations would not be taken lightly. Maradona’s seven years in Napoli would be the greatest of his career. He identified himself with the people. Wild, passionate, and simple. He led them to two Serie A titles and a UEFA Cup, scoring 115 goals for the club in the process. The first Scudetto in the 1986/87 season saw Maradona terrorise the league with his agility, skill, and sheer determination. He seemed to elevate a relatively average team with a few seasoned internationals into one that the opposition planned for, weeks in advance.
The final few weeks of their title run had shops in Naples put up posters that read, “Our Maradona, Who Takes the Field, We have hallowed thy name, Thy Kingdom is Napoli, Lead us not into disappointment, But deliver unto us the title, Amen.”
After his second Scudetto, he claimed that the title was more valuable to him than his world cups with Argentina because he was celebrating it with his beloved Napoli supporters while he had to celebrate the world cup alone. Such was the mutual love between Diego and Naples. He was thronged on the streets, people named their children after him, and hundreds of songs were sung in his name. He lived up to expectations, and as promised, rose to the status of a god. Untouchable, “Bigger than the Pope for Naples”, as shouted by a wild fan in an interview after their title win.
His wizardry with the football attracted masses from across Europe and around the world. His most famous exhibition came in a pre-match warm-up in a UEFA Cup semifinal, where he enthralled thousands by juggling a ball on his head and acting puppeteer in chief by putting up a ten-minute show before, arguably, the biggest game in his career. He eventually led Napoli to their only European triumph by scoring and assisting against Stuttgart in the final.
Champion of the World
Diego was a regular for the Argentinian national team, who were starved of silverware. In 1986, the world watched as Mexico hosted the FIFA World Cup and the best player in the world, stepped foot onto the pitch in blue and white. He perhaps, set forth a strong argument of being the greatest player to have ever played the game after this world cup campaign. He seemed unstoppable. He bludgeoned through defenders, chipped over keepers, and changed direction effortlessly. The genius of Maradona was inexplicable. He was a tiny man, putting on a show that millions tuned into, to wonder if anyone would ever pull off feats like this ever again.
However, the greatness of Maradona always lies in the drama. He scored the most controversial goal in world cup history, against England, using his hand. “The Hand of God”, he termed it, as an entire country spewed rage at the act. He also forced his teammates to celebrate so that the referee wouldn’t disallow the goal. Such was his aura, Maradona scored the best goal of his career in the same game after dribbling past the entire English defence. He polarized people, made them question what they had just witnessed. He brought Argentina the world cup and won the golden ball, to seal his reputation as one of the best to have played the game. He did lead a very depleted La Albicelestes side to a world cup final in 1990 to suffer a heartbreaking defeat to West Germany.
The Fall from Grace
The controversy that is synonymous with this phenomenon’s name emanated mainly from his destructive drug addiction. He admitted to first taking banned substances at 22, and the vice only grew along with his fame at Barcelona and Napoli. He was banned by Napoli for 15 months after a positive cocaine test and was forced to retire from the Argentina squad following a positive ephedrine test. In Naples, his obsession grew when Camorra – a Neapolitan mafia crew offered him protection and indulged his desire for drugs and women because staying in the good books of someone who was worshipped by all the city was a no brainer for the mafia group.
Maradona did succumb to temptation. However, ever so mystifyingly, he maintained his extraordinary footballing standards through a physical regime that would kill most humans – he spent Sundays enthralling fans in Serie A, Sunday night to Wednesday squandered in a cocaine haze, Wednesday morning to Saturday devoted to sweating it out in the gym to get fit for the game in the weekend – repeat.
Maradona’s swansong with the city of Naples occurred in the 1990 world cup hosted by Italy, where he had morphed into a star, a legend, a myth, and very close to a god. Fate, in its uncomprehending ways, set up a semi-final clash between his motherland and Italy, and Maradona, in his equally strange ways, managed to enrage Italy by saying, “Neapolitans you shouldn’t forget that in Italy they do not consider you to be Italians. The country comes and asks for your support for just one day of the year, and for the other 364, they’ll call you Africans. It is true that wherever we travel they call us Africans.”
The Italian press wasn’t subtle while adding fuel to the fire, and polarised Naples. Would they support their country, most of which called them “The scum of Italy”, or would they support the person who expected them to switch loyalties for all he had done to the city of Naples. This reflected in the highly polarized atmosphere at San Paolo stadium. The hard-fought match dragged on to penalties, as Naples very own Maradona hammered the final nail onto the coffin holding Italy’s world cup dreams by scoring Argentina’s final spot-kick from 12 yards out and celebrated wildly, marking the beginning of the end for Maradona as a living god in Naples.
Doing justice to the crazy script that his life was, Maradona’s family life was fraught with accusations and denial. The footballer fathered two daughters with his long-time girlfriend Claudia Villafane, whom he married in 1986. In 2004, after suffering a heart attack following a cocaine overdose, he divorced his wife, and during the divorce proceedings, confirmed to have an illegitimate son named Diego Sinagra, an Italian footballer. He further disclosed having an illegitimate daughter Jana Maradona after a court battle with her mother, and in 2019 he accepted being the father of 8 children. These events only amplified the controversial bad-boy image he had created for himself.
A bloated appearance that eventually replaced the chiselled face and muscled body marked the end of the young Maradona who terrified defenders and made the fans gasp in awe. Stints, as a coach for Argentina and clubs in the UAE and Argentina, proved to be an unsuccessful venture. On multiple occasions, he was found saying things about other coaches and players that were unnecessary and brash. But this bluntness, passion, and honesty were what made him one of the biggest characters in football. He said what he wanted to without regret, he was a strong character and had no fear of losing the love of the people, because he rose to an Olympian status in the Hills of Rome by being himself. By being Diego Maradona.
The last memory we have of this iconic person is his wild celebration of an Argentina goal in the world cup. He remained true to himself, from the beginning to the end. It’s an unfortunate day, for we have had to bid adieu to possibly football’s greatest ever player. A kid from the slums of Buenos Aires who ruled the hearts of an entire city, and conquered the imagination of the entire world. You will be missed, Diego Armando Maradona.
Featured Image Credits: Mike King/Getty Images