“My mother considered me to be the greatest footballer in the world, and I think if my mother considers it, then surely I am the greatest footballer in the world.”
Well, this year is definitely something else. While the world has been recovering from the many losses this year, it suffered a major setback on the eve of 25th November. Something that would leave a permanent vacuum in the lives of the football fans around the world. We as a fan witness infinite sporting moments in our lifetime. But there’s only a handful which creates a long-lasting impact. And even fewer which lives beyond our lifetime for the generations to come. Diego Maradona was a legend whose heroics has been etched in time. Ronaldo and Messi got nothing on him. Maradona’s position as one of the greatest footballers who ever lived is unarguably anchored amongst the pantheon of all-time greats.
You can’t measure his greatness purely with goals and assists. He didn’t score hattricks or rack up golden boots in his trophy cabinet. Yet his impact on the game was second to none. He was different than any of his predecessors and his precocious talent was noticeable in pre-teen years. He had a knack for this game. He could dribble past the entire opposition in a single run. What he lacked in height, he more than made up for in his gameplay. His low centre of gravity game him unprecedented ball control and manoeuvring. The ball stuck to his feet like a magnet. Add to it, his vision and passing ability, you had a one-man army. He was a specialist in free-kicks especially in a close range which was later emulated by the likes of Pirlo and Messi. His technique, aptitude and skills made him the greatest asset in his team’s arsenal. It wasn’t all talent because he devoted himself to the highest standards of discipline in training.
He started his club career in Argentina playing for Argentinos Juniors and Boca Juniors. He could stamp his authority in Argentine Primera División scoring more than a hundred goals and winning the league title in 1981, his only league title in his home country. He signed for Barcelona in 1982 for world record transfer fee at the time. You remember the ovation granted by Real Madrid fans to Ronaldinho and Iniesta. Well, it was Maradona who was the first recipient of such respect. The manner in which he dribbled and scored past the keeper and patiently waited for the defender to make a last-ditch effort and ultimately pushed the ball in an empty net deserves the applause of rival fans.
Even though he won Copa del Rey, Copa de la Liga and Spanish Supercup, his stay at Barcelona was marred by his extravagant lifestyle. He missed numerous games in his two seasons at Barcelona due to Hepatitis and an ankle-breaking tackle. Partying late at night to return to the training in the afternoon while getting involved with the drugs. While no one could question his ability on the pitch, his off the court antics started to raise concerns for the Blaugrana faithful. The tipping point which would make the club part ways with the Argentine was the 1984 Copa del Rey Final loss against Athletic Bilbao. A rough tackle by Bilbao player and xenophobic and racist slurs by the fans kick-started a chain reaction after the full-time whistle. Maradona headbutted, elbowed and kneed a few opposition players in front of the Spanish king resulting in a massive brawl. It was all but certain that Maradona had played his last game in Barcelona shirt.
“I worked hard all my life for this. Those who say I don’t deserve anything, that it all came easy, can kiss my ass.”
He broke his own transfer fee record with the move to Napoli in 1984. It was here when he reached the peak of his powers. The fans embraced him as a saviour of the team sweeping all their daily life struggles under the carpet. Napoli had never won the league title before and Italian league was dominated by the teams in north and centre notably AC Milan, Inter Milan, Roma, Juventus. His impact was instantaneous, taking the club to unprecedented heights. Under his captaincy, Napoli ushered into their most successful years, winning 2 league titles, 1 UEFA Cup, 1 Coppa Italia and 1 Italian Supercup. Despite playing as an attacking midfielder, Maradona became the all-time leading goal-scorer for Napoli, a record he held till 2017.
European Club football is a check-box in the bucket list of every footballer. The best players in the world prove their mettle against the giants of the sport. Maradona never got his hands on the prestigious Champions League trophy but his accomplishments outshine every European Club competition. There have been many players who did well for their respective clubs but could not leave the same impact at the international stages. You ever wonder why Ronaldo and Messi are not as revered as Pele or Maradona. It’s one simple answer: World Cup. Ask them and they would happily swap their multiple Champions League wins and Ballon d’Or for a World Cup gold medal.
Maradona would announce himself at the international scene in 1979 FIFA World Youth Championship and eventually won the tournament. He was the best player of the tournament and was awarded the Golden Ball. Coming event cast their shadows before. To his loss, he was denied a place in the national team for 1978 world cup with the coach believing he was too young. Else, he would have become a world cup winner as a teenager. He eventually made his first world cup appearance in 1982 in Spain. This was the same year he signed for Barcelona and the Catalan crowd was eager to see what Maradona had to offer. He could not live up to the expectations but everyone surely saw the glimmer of a bright future ahead. The standout moment of the tournament: he was fouled a record 23 times in a single match against Italy. You can’t put a great man down for long.
“A little with the head of Maradona and a little with the hand of God.”
It was the 1986 world cup which would place Maradona abreast the great Pele in the history of the sport. Maradona continued his purple patch by scoring 5 goals and providing 5 assists in the entire tournament without missing a single minute of the action. There are two Maradona goals which are the most iconic world cup goals and yet could not be more different from each other. Against England in the quarter-final, Maradona cunningly scored the first goal with his hand. A goal which will be known to the world as the “Hand of God”. Argentina would have thanked God VAR didn’t exist back then. Maradona admitted in 2005 that he scored with his hand. Much to the wrath of English fans, this controversial goal is one of the greatest World Cup moments.
However, he scored a second goal which was poles apart in terms of the quality and legitimacy. He received the ball in his own half, dribbled past 5 English outfield players without even using his right foot, left the goalkeeper lying on his back and scored. For the young folks out there, you would remember a frame by frame comparison to one of the earlier goals scored by Messi for Barcelona. This is the greatest goal scored in World Cup history and was voted as “Goal of the Century” in 2002 in a poll conducted by FIFA. He scored a couple more in the semi-final and provided the assist for the match-winner in the final against Germany. He was fouled a record 53 times in the entire campaign. Maradona still went on to lift the World Cup trophy and win the golden ball for his performance. Till date, Maradona and Messi remain the only player to win the Golden Ball at FIFA U-20 World Cup and FIFA World Cup. Maradona, however, ended up on the winning side on both the occasions, unlike his apprentice.
Maradona captained the team again in 1990 world cup to take the team to the final. He wasn’t the same force anymore owing it to the ankle injury. Argentina struggled but managed to reach the final and lost to West Germany. Amidst his greatest playing days, he could not get rid of his personal demons. He went deep into cocaine addiction and regularly missed games for Napoli. Despite all the troubles, his number 10 jersey was retired by Napoli for bringing the club to the forefront of European football. Napoli’s greatest player fell from the pedestal and left the club in 1992 after serving a 15-month ban for failing a drug test. He or the fans never wished for such an ending. He followed it with a few short stints at Sevilla, Old Boys and Boca Juniors. None, worthy enough of a discussion.
Maradona was reduced to a mere shadow of his former self. He could never return to glory at the domestic or international level. At 1994 World Cup, he returned home after failing another drug test marking the end of his 17 years long illustrious international career. He was always bigger than life. Maradona would often go out for days after a match to return back to train hard and sweat it all out just in time for the next match. The drug addiction, debaucherous lifestyle beyond the pitch, poor diet, deteriorating gameplay owed to injuries and suspension led to the demise of the greatest career one could wish for.
He tried his hands in management for a few clubs in Argentina and UAE. He wasn’t the Guardiola or Ferguson of club football but his most noticeable achievement came as Sports Vice-President at Boca Juniors. His suggestion to appoint the right coach brought multiple titles to the club in the next few years. He also commanded Argentina National Football Team from 2008 to 2010. His protégé Lionel Messi was the best player in the world and everyone could dream about the fairy-tale ending for Argentina. Yet it turned into a heartbreaking reality after a loss at the hands of Germany and Maradona would soon find his way out of the team again.
“If (Pele) is Beethoven, I am the Ron Wood, Keith Richards and Bono of football all rolled into one. Because I was the passionate side of football.”
Before the Ronaldo-Messi debate, there was Pele vs Maradona. These two didn’t just rule their respective eras but topped the charts in all the record books ever made. They were your quintessential number 10. While they have been at each other’s throats on a few occasions, there’s underlying respect which traverses all the differences. In a poll conducted by FIFA in 2000 to decide FIFA Player of the Century, Maradona won the poll comfortably. But FIFA threw a second poll amidst the journalists, coaches and officials. Result: Pele and Maradona were jointly crowned with the FIFA Player of the Century award. Maradona has made it to multiple esteemed lists to go with this award:
- FIFA World Cup Dream Team: 2002
- FIFA 100 Greatest Living Players: 2004
- Ballon d’Or for services to the football: 1995
- 2nd in World Soccer magazine’s Greatest Players of 20th century (1999)
- World Soccer magazines’ Greatest XI of All Time (2013)
- Italian Football Hall of Fame (2014)
- International Federation of Football History and Statistics (IFFHS) Legends
- 2nd in L’Équipe’s top 50 South-American footballers in history
It is hard to summarize the nostalgia of Maradona. The word genius has often been used out of context but with Maradona, nothing else describes him aptly. He carried the burden of the nation on his shoulders to take them to the promised land and in return, they symbolized him as a God founding a church in his name. “Church of Maradona” in Buenos Aires. He was unabashedly and unapologetically himself without paying attention to the media and critics. But then it’s difficult to understand and easy to judge his eccentric ingenuity without putting ourselves in his foot. He might not have had the greatest work ethic for the majority of his career yet he shot down every critic with the ball at his feet. He wasn’t your regular idol outside the pitch, but he made everyone jealous on the ground wishing they could steal a trick from his book or mirror him for a game. Perfection is an imagination of the mind, hard to achieve and to be chased forever, yet he made it a reality day in day out.
It is extremely difficult to make a mark in the biggest sport in the world. Well, then imagine what it would mean to be larger than the sport itself in the eyes of a country. To have a career bigger than many’s dream and aspiration. To shine at the stage which has eluded many before and after him. To stand tall amongst the best in the business despite his literal small stature. To be the legend of the game and leave an insurmountable legacy which would live on for the eras to come. Diego Maradona, thank you for all the memories. Rest in Peace, The Golden Boy.
“If I was in a white dress at a wedding and a muddy ball arrived, I would stop it from the chest, without thinking about it.”