Forever flawed, there will never be another Diego Maradona.
His passing due to a heart attack, mere weeks after his 60th birthday, has left the soccer world and beyond in mourning.
Blessed with supernatural talent, Maradona was both hero and villain; a living representation of the duality of man.
He lived a life of excess — one worthy of a Shakespearean tragedy.
While parallels will be drawn with compatriot Lionel Messi, Maradona stands alone in Argentine eyes. He was the driving force behind Argentina’s 1986 World Cup victory, capturing the soul of his nation in the process — a level of international success that the modern-day Barcelona star has yet to replicate.
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Born into abject poverty, the fifth of eight children, Maradona escaped the slums of Buenos Aires through sheer dedication and perseverance. His only hope was the ball.
Despite the odds, he drew the interest of top European clubs, first signing with Barcelona and then famously with Napoli, helping the Italian side to its first title in 1987, followed by a second in 1990.
But it’s the journey, the ugly and the good, that made Maradona all that he was. Picking himself back up through shattered bone and suspension, he flouted the rules to become Argentina’s favourite son.
That’s Maradona’s power. A formidable entity still hailed to this day.
In Napoli, he was all but a god. It was he, the diminutive Argentine, who helped hoist the southern Italians out of the north’s shadow on the field.
While it was here that his addiction to cocaine developed, he remained true to the impoverished class that he himself understood so well.
Upon arrival to Naples in 1984, Maradona took time to play in a charity match to raise funds for a sick child. He did so against the wishes of his new club. Of course, he would score multiple goals during the match as well.
‘This was a revenge’
A devil and saint wrapped in one, Maradona was determined by hook or by crook to reach soccer’s apex — and he did. Legs pumping, lungs bursting during one of his trademark sprints, his quarter-final victory over England is now a distinct topic of footballing lore.
What the English revile, Argentines cheer.
A strike against an unfair world order, “The Hand of God” was a symbolic blow for the little guy. By getting away with an illegal hand ball, Maradona wasn’t just getting revenge, but sticking it to the rich and powerful.
WATCH | Maradona’s hand ball goal vs. England in 1986 World Cup:
After all, only four years prior, England had defeated Argentina in the Falklands War, a fact Maradona himself addresses in his 2006 autobiography Yo Soy El Diego [I Am the Diego].
“Although we had said before the game that football had nothing to do with the Malvinas [Falklands] War, we knew they had killed a lot of Argentine boys there, killed them like little birds. And this was a revenge.”
But it’s the pairing of the “Hand of God” with his second goal that truly elevated Maradona in the eyes of Argentines.
With the English still crying foul, he took on half their team to score what many still refer to as the “goal of the century.” A breathless display of talent and ingenuity.
WATCH | Maradona’s incredible run, goal vs. England in 1986:
Maradona was at his peak. And, for the moment, so was Argentina.
Atop the footballing world, the country was now a double World Cup champion having also won at home in 1978.
With Maradona leading the charge the nation returned to yet another final in 1990, but was unable to defend its crown.
Ahead of his time
Even through drug addictions, affairs, World Cup expulsions and struggles with obesity Maradona remained a prince. No sin, not even disavowing a child, could erase what he had given to the country.
Maradona acknowledged his demons during a testimonial match in 2001.
Clad in the iconic blue and yellow of Boca Juniors and speaking before a packed crowd, Maradona, in tears, humbly bid farewell, uttering the defining phrase of his career: “la pelota no se mancha” — the ball doesn’t stain — a nod to his troubled past and the resilience of his exploits.
Even in 1990 when Argentina took on hosts Italy in front of a hostile crowd at the Stadio San Paolo in Naples, Maradona was honoured with applause and banners.
“The Argentinian national anthem, for the first time in the whole World Cup, was applauded from beginning to end,” Maradona wrote in his autobiography. “For me that was already a victory. I was moved: these were my people.”
However, true to form, Maradona’s feisty side appeared in Argentina’s following match against Germany.
As the Italian crowd turned against Argentina for having eliminated Italy to reach the final, Maradona proudly continued defending the shirt.
The cameras capturing his colourful reply in a way that Messi, who sometimes won’t even sing the national anthem, never would.
FIFA had its turn at trying to silence him as well. In 2000, he and Brazil’s Pele were named co-footballers of the century. However, in a story line that mirrors modern politics, Maradona carried the popular vote.
And in Argentina, El Diez always will.