Dec 4, 2020 | SPORTS | By Joshua Kalenga | Illustration by Patil Khakhamian
Every soccer fan worth their salt has heard the story.
June 1986 (FIFA World Cup quarter final) — a poor clearance by an English defender sends the ball flying back towards their own goal. One of the shortest players on the pitch, Diego Maradona of Argentina, leaps into the air and, with his left hand, illegally guides the ball into the back of the English net. The iconic image — the “hand of God” — becomes inscribed in the soccer history books forever.
Four minutes later, the same culprit picks up the ball from behind the halfway line, skips past one English player, then another, and then another, as though he’s a ghost, until eventually he has nothing but an empty goal into which to slide the obeying football. Fans later declare this to be the “goal of the century” — scored by Maradona’s feet of gold.
When the sad news broke that Maradona had passed away on Nov. 25 2020, several fans must have thought back to that famous game in 1986. It epitomized his career: the genius and the madness; the exceptional and the controversial; the feet of gold and the hand of God; the “Diego” and the “Maradona”.
Born in October 1960 to a poor family in Lanús, Buenos Aires Province, Maradona’s talent with a ball shone from a young age. At age eight, he was spotted by a scout while playing in his neighborhood club, Estrella Roja. By his sixteenth birthday, he had already made his professional debut, becoming the youngest player in the history of the Argentine Primera División.
Operating in the classic No. 10 position, Maradona would go on to light up some of the world’s most famous clubs — Boca Juniors, Barcelona and Napoli. His transfer fee of £5 million ($7.6 million) from Boca to Barcelona set a new world record. At Barcelona, such was his brilliance that he became the first player to be applauded by the rival Real Madrid crowd. In Naples, Maradona served as team captain and led the club to its most successful era in history.
At the 1986 World Cup, Maradona captained Argentina to victory. He played every single minute of every Argentina game, scoring five goals (four with his feet, one with the “hand of God”) and contributing five assists. By this time, Maradona had not only earned a cult-like following in his homeland, but all over the world.
To the typical soccer lover, Maradona was not just a soccer player, he was an artist. Weaving intricate patterns with his feet, carving space where there was none, delighting his audience with little tricks and flicks, Maradona was loved perhaps because he played not only with a touch of genius but also with so much freedom and joy.
Both on and off the pitch, however, Maradona’s life was not free from trouble. There was the “hand of God” incident, for which he was dubbed a cheat. The French soccer magazine L’Equipe went as far as to describe him as “half-devil.” But much more damaging to Maradona’s career was his drug abuse.
According to BBC Sport, Maradona was addicted to cocaine from the mid-1980s until 2004. By the time he was playing for Napoli, his addiction interfered with his ability to play soccer. He left Naples in 1992 after serving a 15-month ban for failing a drug test for cocaine.
At the 1994 World Cup, he was sent home after failing a test for ephedrine doping. Maradona continued to struggle with addiction after his retirement. In 2007, he was treated for hepatitis and effects of alcohol abuse.
“His life shows how nice life can be when you are a world-class footballer, and how difficult it can be as well,” said Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp. “Football will miss him, I will miss him, and you can see that with the reaction all over the world.”
Argentina, Maradona’s homeland, declared three days of national mourning once his death was announced. Tributes poured from all over the soccer world and beyond. Like the other greats — Pele, Messi, Ronaldo — Maradona’s name is synonymous with soccer itself.
Though Maradona was not an uncomplicated individual, he will always be adored by many in the soccer world. To the kids who go to bed every night dreaming about soccer, Maradona is undoubtedly a hero (albeit a flawed, human one). To his most devoted fans, perhaps Maradona’s struggles give him a resonance that goes far beyond soccer.
On the pitch, his talent and skill were virtually unprecedented. His passion and love for the game, always evident.
“If I was in a white dress at a wedding and a muddy ball arrived,” Maradona once said, “I would stop it [with my] chest, without thinking about it.”