Illustration by Federico Manasse
There are certain footballers that transcend the beautiful game; mere mortals who watch football see them as ethereal beings. These are the players who elevate the game to an exalted level, irreversibly changing what is possible within the sport. They become the barometer by which all future players are judged.
Diego Armando Maradona made his professional debut at 15 years of age for Argentinos Juniors. The boy from Buenos Aires scored his first goal in the top flight of Argentine football only 25 days later, having just turned 16. Maradona would spend five years at Juniors, from 1976 to 1981, during which time the teenage sensation would score 116 goals in 166 appearances. Although there were no club honours in those formative years, Maradona’s prodigious talent enabled him to be the club’s leading scorer in every full season he played for the club, as well as being voted South American Footballer of the Year in 1979 and 1980.
Following the sensational start to his club career, the 20-year-old secured a dream move to his boyhood club Boca Juniors, scoring twice on his debut and finishing the season with 28 goals in 40 appearances. During that single season at La Bombonera, Maradona secured his only domestic honour, winning the Argentine Primera División Metropolitano. Following this domestic success, world record transfers would take the Argentine to the Old Continent.
First to stump up for the services of the fantasista were the Catalan giants Barcelona, who paid Boca £5 million in 1982. Thirty-eight goals, hepatitis, a horrific career-threatening injury following a challenge by Andoni Goikoetxea, a Copa del Rey winners medal and a mass brawl in front of the King of Spain were the highs and lows of two years spent in Catalonia.
With his reputation tarnished and hushed rumours of off-pitch activities circulating, the Spanish side elected to offload the number 10. Provincial Serie A side Napoli secured the funds to pay a new world record fee of £6.9 million for Maradona’s mercurial talents. This time a symbiotic relationship formed almost immediately. The Neapolitan fans fell in love with their star player, and Maradona felt that love and repaid in kind. What followed was a love affair lasting seven years.
Maradona’s reputation was built in a city filled with art and culture, but where malevolence and darkness is always in peripheral view. The Argentine captain took Napoli to the very pinnacle of Italian football and broke the hegemony of the northern powerhouses of Serie A.
Original Series | The 50
Maradona would lead Napoli to their first Serie A title in 1986/87 as well as the Coppa Italia in the same season. A first European trophy followed in 1989 with victory in the UEFA Cup, with a second Serie A title the season after. Maradona was Napoli’s leading scorer in every season he played for them as well as finishing Serie A’s leading scorer in 1987/88. Unfortunately the darkness and malevolence in Naples could be found if you looked hard enough and Maradona looked too hard.
Maradona’s impact on Napoli went beyond the silverware; he gave Neapolitans a sense of pride and respect. He took an average team and made them into a side feared and respected throughout Europe. After leaving the Italian club, Napoli made the ultimate gesture in respect of Maradona and retired their number 10 shirt.
Following drug issues and numerous additional vices Maradona’s club career took in a brief spell at Sevilla, before a spell at Newell’s Old Boys. Finally, to complete the circle, Maradona retired with his first love, Boca Juniors.
The 1986 World Cup was the closest either before or since that the tournament has been won single-handedly. In Mexico, Diego Maradona’s performances went beyond what was deemed possible at the highest level. La Albiceleste’s captain dominated the tournament, his contribution of five goals and five assists out of Argentina’s tournament total of 14 goals highlighting his historic impact.
Not content with winning the tournament, Maradona scored the greatest ever goal in the infamous quarter-final against England. A mere 10.8 seconds, 44 strides and 12 touches is the physical description of that goal; its beauty and artistic merits are beyond comprehension.
The same game saw the Hand of God contribute to Argentina’s cause; Argentine fans are torn between which goal they prefer. Their talisman had robbed the English before then humiliating them with his second goal. Maradona was a man who played with passion and for the people. He excelled in leading average teams to extraordinary achievements.
Maradona’s international peak was reached and couldn’t possibly be surpassed. He had made his international debut at 16 and led Argentina to the 1979 FIFA World Youth Championship, but on a personal level his other major tournaments were somewhat tainted. A sending off against Brazil in 1982 saw his first World Cup end in disappointment, another final appearance in 1990 proved to be a game too far for his injured body, while USA 94 ended in a positive drug test and disgraced expulsion.
It is impossible to define the indefinable. To the Argentine population, Diego Maradona is a celestial deity. To neutral observers and lovers of the beautiful game, he is the player we all secretly wish we could have been