On Wednesday 25 November 2020, the world lost one of its most influential figures. Diego Armando Maradona, arguably the greatest footballer of all time, suffered a heart attack just days after undergoing successful brain surgery. He was sixty years old. No footballer has, or ever will, have such a profound impact on people’s lives across the world.
Diego Maradona’s career saw extremes of joy, success and adulation. Raised in Villa Fiorito, a notoriously rough slum located in the suburbs of Buenos Aires, he escaped a life of poverty and crime to achieve his dreams. In the 1986 World Cup, with the best individual performance ever seen at an international tournament, he gave millions the right to dream. A right they didn’t think they had. By single-handedly dragging an otherwise average Argentina side to World Cup glory, he carried the hopes of a nation on his shoulders. He elevated a fractured, hurting nation, one in which personal identity and belonging is intrinsically linked to football, to a collective state of pride and fulfillment.
In the quarter-final win against England, Maradona scored what was later voted as the goal of the century, weaving past three, four, five players before rounding the goalkeeper and slotting home. “What planet did you come from?”, exclaimed Uruguayan commentator Víctor Hugo Morales, fighting back the tears. It came just moments after he had scored perhaps the most controversial goal of all time, ‘The Hand of God’, which sees him to this day regarded as nothing more than a cheat, by an admittedly small yet toxically bitter minority. In truth, that moment showed that the need to dream, to elevate a nation, to make life better for others, goes far beyond the rules of any game.
In Naples, Diego Maradona is a God. When he arrived in Southern Italy in 1984, having left Barcelona after an underwhelming two seasons, Napoli were not a particularly good team. They were mid-table regulars, even relegation candidates, not a club anyone expected one of football’s best young talents to go. Three years later, in 1987, he led Napoli to their first ever Serie A title. On a purely footballing level, Maradona was simply sublime. At the time Serie A was the best league in the world, and week in week out, Dios came up against the toughest defenders in the game: Baresi, Maldini and Scirea, to name but a few. Games often took place in bog-like conditions and the scope of what defenders could get away with was far wider. Often, Maradona would return to the dressing room black and blue. Yet every Sunday afternoon, he took to his stage. And on that stage, he danced.
In seven years at Napoli, Maradona won two Serie A titles, one UEFA Cup, one Coppa Italia and one Supercoppa Italiana. But, like in Argentina, it wasn’t the promise of silverware and accolades that drove him. “I am a player who has given people joy and that is enough for me”, he once said. That is what made him so special; he always viewed his achievements and success within the context of the social development of the people he served.
He identified with the struggle of Neapolitans. A poor city in the south of Italy, Naples was, and still is, looked upon with scorn by the wealthy, affluent north. Whenever Napoli played in the cities of Turin, Milan and Verona, they were spat at, labelled “cholera kids”, told they were African immigrants that weren’t welcome in their own country. Hailing from the slums of Buenos Aires, Diego knew what it meant to be discriminated against, to be ridiculed, to be tossed aside. Every weekend he fought for the honour of his adopted people, to try and make their miserable lives that little bit better. For this, and the unprecedented success that he brought to the club, he was revered. Shrines were erected after the 1987 scudetto win, babies were named after him, street murals were created in his honour. There is even a bar in Naples’ historical centre with a shrine containing a single strand of Maradona’s dark, curly hair, and a vile of his tears. He is worshipped on a level akin to Saint Januarius, the patron saint of Naples.
But if there is a sincere lesson to learn from the life of Diego Maradona, it is that our heroes are only human. The highs of his career were punctuated by crushing periods of despair, isolation and addiction. Perhaps it was only to be expected that he was worshipped for what he did, but reverence that intense was unnatural. Ultimately, it contributed to his darkest moments. In Naples he could not leave his home, live freely or do as he pleased for fear of being mobbed by his disciples. He allowed himself to fall into bad circles, surrounded by people who promised to look after him but in reality just exploited him. He became tangled up in Camorra (Neapolitan mafia) crime, and his cocaine addiction spiralled out of control.
Naples is a complex and hectic city, an environment that brought the best out of genius with a big heart, but the worst out of an egotist with an addictive personality. There, he cemented his footballing legend and did more for the city than any politician in Rome ever did. But he became trapped by his fame, and the pitch became his only escape. Eventually, that place of solace escaped him too. “For Diego, I would go to the end of the world. But for Maradona, I wouldn’t take a step”, his personal trainer and friend Fernando Signorini once remarked. While the process started long before, it was during his final years in Naples that the cheeky, happy kid from the slums, Diego, was lost, and the unpredictable, explosive superstar, Maradona, took over for good.
For students of our generation, who were born after the Argentine’s retirement and years after his heyday, it can be difficult to comprehend just how good a player Diego Maradona was. In an age where stats trump all else, where goals scored and titles won seem to be the only acceptable barometers of success, it’s hard to quantify just exactly what he meant to people. But if it wasn’t obvious before, it is now. The outpouring of grief from millions across the world, from Buenos Aires to Naples and beyond, is testament to his cultural significance. Boca Juniors fans wept outside La Bombonera, Neapolitans flocked to the multitude of Diego murals and shrines, and players past and present have paid their respects.
It’s hard to put into words just what Diego Armando Maradona meant to football. He is the greatest player that’s ever lived, but it’s important to remember that he offered much more than that. He is eternal.