By Aiden McLaughlin
‘To see the ball, to run after it, makes me the happiest man in the world.’
Last week, I watched a repeat of ‘George Best: All By Himself’, the ESPN documentary on one of the greatest footballers that’s ever lived. It’s a story of a footballing genius, remembered for his incredible talent on the pitch, but also his struggles away from football, which ultimately caused his death at the age of 59. I could watch George Best footage on repeat all day if I had the time. The same applies to another footballing icon, Diego Armando Maradona, who died earlier today at the age of 60, exactly 15 years to the day since Best passed away.
Raised in the Buenos Aires shantytown of Villa Fiorito, Maradona was a child prodigy, making his professional debut in October 1976 at the age of 15 for Argentinos Juniors, becoming the youngest player in the history of the Argentine Primera Division. Just four months later, having now turned 16, he made his full international debut against Hungary. Despite that, he was left out of the World Cup squad the following year, when the tournament was held in Argentina, with coach César Menotti feeling he was too young.
Instead, he starred at the 1979 World Youth Championships in Japan, scoring six goals in the tournament, which resulted in Argentina defeating the Soviet Union in the final.
After five years at Argentinos Juniors, Maradona signed for Boca Juniors, who won the league title that season. The following year, 1982, saw him play in his first of four World Cups. Just before the expanded 24 team tournament started, Maradona signed for Barcelona for a then world-record GBP 5 million. Arriving in Spain as the defending champions, Maradona was keen to make an impact on the biggest stage of all. But it wasn’t to be his time, with a second round group involving Italy and Brazil unravelling in the worst possible way. Firstly, in the match against the Italians, a legendary man marking job by Claudio Gentile
(he committed 23 fouls on Maradona) suffocated Maradona and his team as they lost 2-1. In the next match against Brazil, Argentina found themselves 3-0 down when, in the 85th minute, Maradona’s frustrations got the better of him
when he lashed out, resulting in a red card. With political turmoil back home (the Falklands War playing as a significant backdrop) this was a proud footballing nation defeated, their leading man unable to take the starring role, so many assumed would be his.
In September that year, Maradona made his debut for Barcelona, scoring in a 2-1 defeat against Valencia. It was the first of six goals in his first thirteen league games for the club, before he was diagnosed with hepatitis in December. Before he returned to action in March, they had been knocked out of the European Cup Winners Cup and coach Udo Lattek had been sacked, and replaced by César Menotti, the Argentine manager who had left him out of the 1978 World Cup squad. Although they could only finish fourth in La Liga, they won two domestic cup competitions that year. Injuries played a part in his second season at the club, as he scored eleven goals in just sixteen league appearances, with Barcelona finishing third in the league. However, Maradona would finish his Barcelona career in that season’s final of the Copa del Rey, when he lashed out at Athletic Bilbao’s Miguel Sola, which saw him banned for three months.
A move to Napoli in Italy’s Serie A followed, where he scored 81 goals in 188 appearances over seven years, during which they won two league titles and a UEFA Cup; when he left, in 1992, Napoli officially retired the No 10 shirt in recognition of his contribution to the club.
During those seven years, Maradona appeared in two further World Cups. Mexico, in 1986, saw Maradona at his most influential. After wins against South Korea and Bulgaria in the group stage (with a draw against Italy seeing them top their group), they beat a strong Uruguay side in the last 16, before heading to the Azteca Stadium in Mexico City, to play England in the quarter final. England, after a slow start in their group, had found form, with a 3-0 win over Poland to make the last 16 and the same scoreline to dispatch of Paraguay to make the quarter finals. Goalless after 51 minutes, Maradona weaved his way through the English midfield before passing the ball to Jorge Valdano just outside the box. Steve Hodge attempted to clear the ball but only managed to send it dangerously towards Peter Shilton in goal before the Argentine captain received assistance from a divine power. Despite the protests, the goal stood. Just four minutes later however, Maradona scored one of the great goals of all time, one that defines him much more that the first.
Despite an England reply through Gary Lineker, Argentina would go on to the semi-final, where two more Maradona goals accounted for a win over Belgium, before they secured their second World Cup win in a dramatic 3-2 win over West Germany in the final. At the age of 25, Argentina’s captain had fulfilled his potential and achieved his dream.
The two teams would meet again in the final four years later, where, having been the best team in the tournament, West Germany got their revenge in a disappointing, ill tempered finale, winning 1-0. Maradona, hampered by a lingering ankle injury could not impose himself in the same way he had four years earlier.
In the USA four years later, a 33 year old Maradona played two group games before testing positive for drugs , which brought an end to his 17 year, 91 appearance career for his country. At the same time as his drug problems, there were alleged ties to crime syndicates and tax problems; his personal life was in crisis.
A return to Boca Juniors followed in 1995, where he played 30 games before retiring from football in 1997. Weight problems became apparent in the years that followed, resulting in gastric bypass surgery, before, in 2008, came the comeback, as he was appointed manager of Argentina as they attempted to qualify for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. Despite a 6-1 defeat to Bolivia, he got them there, where they made the quarter finals before being beaten 4-0 by Germany. The last decade of his life saw short lived managerial stints in the Middle East and South America, where he finished his career in charge of Argentine Primera Division club Gimnasia de la Plata.
As we look back at an incredible life, the talent, the skills, the achievements will live long in the memory as another legend of the game departs, again, far too soon.
The last word goes to Lionel Messi, the second best Argentinian to ever play the game:
‘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.‘
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