Argentina, Nov 26, 2020: Diego Maradona, who has died following a cardiac arrest aged 60, was the most talented footballer of the 1980s, and in the estimation of many the most dominant player to have emerged since Pele; in a career never lacking in drama, he also proved himself a liar, a cheat and an egomaniac.
The sense of disappointment that accompanies Maradona’s name is not the familiar one engendered by a failure to fulfil potential in the manner of a Greaves or a Gascoigne. Although Maradona did not win as many trophies as he perhaps should have done, there was no argument among his peers that, at his peak, he proved himself the best footballer in the world. Instead, the disappointment stems from what Pele described as the gulf between Maradona’s greatness as a player and his stature as a person.
That distance was most sharply illustrated, to English eyes at least, during the 1986 World Cup in Mexico, when England played Argentina in the quarter-finals of the competition. Five minutes into the second half, with the score at 0-0, the ball was hooked back by an England player towards the goalkeeper, Peter Shilton.
As he rose to claim it, he was challenged by Maradona, who used his left hand to punch the ball into the net. The infringement was not spotted by the officials and, to English disbelief, the goal was given.
Four minutes later Maradona scored one of the finest goals ever seen. Receiving the ball just inside his own half, he began to bear down on the English goal, swerving round two defenders and shrugging off two more attempted tackles before sliding the ball past a sprawling Shilton. It was a piece of footballing magic that he was to repeat in the semi-final against Belgium as Argentina moved inexorably towards winning the Jules Rimet trophy.
After the England game Maradona refused to admit that he had scored the first goal by cheating, though he did share the credit: the goal had been scored, he told reporters, “a little with the head of Maradona and a little with the hand of God”.
There were many excuses for the manner in which he had scored: the Argentine tradition of viveza (cunning play); the desire to avenge the Falklands War of four years before. But there was none that could disguise the revelation that both goals were equally accurate expressions of a brilliant yet flawed personality. He had divine skill, but many of the basest aspects of humanity, too.
Diego Armando Maradona was born at Avellaneda, across the river from Buenos Aires, on October 30 1960. His mother worked as a domestic, while his father, who was of native Indian descent, had a job crushing cattle bones for meal. The family had few means, and Diegito grew up in Villa Fiorito, one of the Argentine capital’s poorer shanties. At the age of two he was saved from drowning in the communal cesspit by the intervention of an uncle.
From early childhood it was clear that he had remarkable control over a football, and that this would offer not only himself but those who clung to his shirt-tails a way out of poverty. Inspired, he recalled, by George Best, by the age of 10 he was entertaining crowds with his tricks at half-time in First Division matches, and was coming up through the ranks of Argentinos Juniors, a well-established club.
Argentina’s triumph in the World Cup had provided a tremendous boost to the nationalist junta then running the country. While senior figures such as Menotti felt that they had the freedom to question its repressive nature, Maradona, at a sensitive time in his career, appeared broadly to support it when asked; and though he had begun to attract attention from clubs as diverse as Barcelona and Sheffield United, he at first respected the regime’s wish that the country’s best players should not take their talents abroad.