by TONY MCKENNA
Still from “Diego Maradona.”
22 June 1986. A world cup quarter-final is about to play out in the Estadio Azteca stadium at the heart of Mexico City. Under the billowing blue skies and the streaming sunlight the pitch is shadowless and pastel green. The teams line up. The English in white. The Argentinians in blue. As the Argentine anthem plays, the camera moves across the team, before lingering momentarily on the solemn, stormy features of the captain – a small, squat man, a head shorter than his teammates, his dark, handsome features shadowed with determination. Diego. Armando. Maradona. Despite the blue, open vistas of the sky and the high sun, there is a tension in the air, a foreboding; these last, lingering moments before the whistle is blown feel more like a prelude to war than a football match. For there is a context to this game, it has a past.
Four years earlier Argentina had made the move to occupy the Malvinas/Falkland Islands which, up until that point, had been one of the lingering bastions of the vanishing British Empire. In an attempt to drum up popular support for a government which was flagging against a backdrop of economic stagnation and social decay, the British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher launched a war in order to reclaim the islands and galvanize the more noxious instincts of national chauvinism and patriotic fury on the part of an otherwise weary population. It was a war which was fought for the cameras, a depressing spectacle played out not because the Falklands were a significant economic interest to the UK but because of the political capital sought by interested parties and the need of a leader to bask in the irradiating and toxic colours of the imperial flag.
The Argentine forces were rapidly decimated by the more muscular British army and the rather sordid conflict achieved its ends; that is, it provoked an upswing in reaction among those flag-waving elements in the British population whose frustration, pettiness and lack is always compensated for by the thought of ‘the great nation’ and the destruction of lives in lands faraway. Nevertheless, to the majority of people around the world, the war appeared very much as it was; the exercise of belligerent, arbitrary power on the part of a strong state against a much weaker one – over a territory it had no business with in the first place.
And this was why the game between England and Argentina felt like something more than a simple football match, was freighted with broader meaning and significance. As Maradona himself revealed, the shadow of the Falklands conflict was cast across the game: ‘Although we had said before the game that football had nothing to do with the Malvinas war, we knew they had killed a lot of Argentine boys there, killed them like little birds’. For the Argentines, and their charismatic and volatile captain, a win here would mean ‘revenge’.
From the start the game was riven with these ramifications; even the players themselves – their physical shape and form – seemed to carry them. The English players were bigger, physically more dominant, able to impose themselves in and through crushing clashes and brutal tackles, whereas the Argentines were more mercurial – fleet-of-foot they remained just beyond the orbit of the English players, relying on quick, slipping passes to keep themselves out of trouble. Perhaps the Argentines had the better of it in the first half, but the rugged and dogged English defence consistently thwarted their attempts on goal; if the Argentines played with nomadic grace and creativity, the British defence had all the solidity of a Roman legion, moving forward in a single, organised, imperial bloc, refusing to yield ground.
The deadlock was broken in the sixth minute of the second half in what became one of the most infamous moments in footballing history. Making a deft, stuttering run, unravelling the English defence, Maradona made a pass which was interrupted by the English player Steve Hodge, but he lost control of the ball, sending it high and allowing Maradona to continue his run. At this point the goal keeper Peter Shilton runs out from goal, to meet Maradona and punch the ball away. Shilton is some 8 inches taller than the pint-sized Argentine, but Maradona leaps, and at the last moment twists his body, reaching the ball with his left hand and sending it over Shilton and into the goal. The handball is not recognised by either the linesmen or the referee, and much to the chagrin of the English players the goal is allowed to stand. When asked about his sly ruse, the Argentine infamously claimed it was ‘the hand of God.’
The level of vitriol Maradona received for ‘scoring’ this goal in the English press was perhaps unprecedented and demonstrated the rabid irrationality of unchecked, untapped patriotism. Yes, Maradona had quite clearly cheated. But such moments are ubiquitous in football tournaments. Was it so different from when, say, in the 1966 World Cup the English player Nobby Stiles had taken the legs out from under the French player Jacques Simon in a brutal and hobbling manoeuvre which opened up the way for the English to score their second goal against the French – in a tournament they, the English, would go on to win? Of course, while this incident is all but forgotten, the bile and venom toward Maradona in the UK sustains even to the present day.
Take the English defender Terry Butcher for example – a stupid slab of a man who comforts himself during the lonely twilight of his later years by putting his dull, plodding brain to work, engineering a series of banal, violent fantasies in which he is able to use ‘the fist of Terry Butcher’ in order to exact revenge on the diminutive author of the ‘hand of God’, thus restoring the honour to Albion which was stolen by the Evil Argentine on that fateful day (the same day when all the ravens went flapping from the Tower, while on some desolate, wind-swept moor an anguished moan could be heard from the cadaver of Alfred as the venerable and ancient King of England turned in his grave). In the words of the sports journalist Brian Reade commenting on the ridiculous ire of the block-headed English defender: ‘Never has a Little Englander looked so little.’
What was Maradona’s attitude to the furore? He remained unflappable but when pressed for a comment he eventually reflected that scoring that goal felt like ‘picking the pocket of an Englishman’. In this phrase, everything is captured; the powerful and pompous English gent who is fleeced by the devious wiles of a quick-thinking street urchin; here we have the perfect metaphor for both the stakes and the players in that infamous 1986 footballing clash and its controversial goal; but only moments later, subterfuge was transformed into sublimity, as Diego Maradona…struck again. The English, perhaps still disorientated from the illegal goal, lose the ball behind their own half-way line and Maradona manages to pick it up. He is, of course, surrounded by English players, nevertheless it is from this point when he begins his run. The great sports commentator, Byron Butler described what happened next live and in real time, his voice, tense and urgent, becoming ever more ominous, gradually building to its crescendo as Maradona weaves his way toward the English goal: ‘Maradona, turns like a little eel, he comes away from trouble, little squat man … comes inside Butcher, leaves him for dead, outside Fenwick, leaves him for dead, and puts the ball away … and that is why Maradona is the greatest player in the world’.
Watching that hypnotic goal, along with the gravelly gravitas of Butler’s commentary, never fails to give me shivers. I think it is because it is one of those transcendent moments in sport; all the implications – the political and cultural tensions which are being played out, the roar of the crowd, the sense that this encounter has pulled in millions upon millions across the globe – all of these worlds and experiences are suddenly distilled and condensed into ten seconds of pristine physical movement – the motion of a small, plucky figure, spiriting the ball across the bright terrain of green, and as the English players come crashing in, Maradona pivots and turns, and there is such free-flowing grace in his movements that they might as well have been pre-ordained; there is an inevitability in his run, and beyond all else, it is a moment of transcendental beauty.
Like Muhammad Ali, flitting and floating around the ring, Maradona is an athlete whose tremendous skill, in its peak moments, crosses over into the aesthetic with consequences both beautiful and sublime. The goal is quite simply breath-taking and most commentators concur that it is the greatest of all time. In the words of Byron Butler once again, ‘the first goal should never have been allowed, but Maradona has put a seal on his greatness. He’s left his thumbprint on this world cup. He scored a goal that England just couldn’t cope with, they couldn’t face up to, it was beyond their ability…it’s England 0, Diego Maradona 2.’
Those two goals – the handball and its sublime successor – are also instructive because they seem to hint at the type of duality which characterised Maradona’s existence more broadly. The first, illustrates a type of plebeian cunning and bravado; sneaky, wily, audacious, with more than a hint of corruption. The second speaks to the sense of creativity and imagination which arises from the underclass and the spirit of the streets. For Maradona was born to the most extreme forms of poverty; he grew up in Fiorito, a poverty-stricken slum on the outskirts of Buenos Aires, home to a neighbourhood of people who were, by virtue of their geography, quite literally the outsiders. As a child Maradona lived in a three roomed shack with a wire gate, a small patch of dirty earth and then the house itself. He slept in a room which measured ‘no more than two metres square’ with his seven other siblings and when it rained ‘we walked around dodging the leaks; you got wetter inside than out. Forget a sink, we didn’t even have running water.’
When skimming through Maradona’s autobiography you get a vivid sense of this debilitating poverty, but you also get a strong sense of how his footballing abilities and his future self were shaped by it. He didn’t have the money to visit the local gym because, well…there was no money and there was no gym, and yet the lack of running water provided him with a fitness programme which would help develop his upper body strength: ‘That’s how I started weight training. We would use empty twenty-litre cans of oil to fetch water from the only tap in the street, so my mum could wash, cook, everything’.
There was little to do in the neighbourhood; poverty ensured the local children’s options were limited – there was football, of course, and kite flying sometimes, but beyond that the children were pretty much left to their own devices. And sometimes there wasn’t even the funds to stretch to a decent ball. For this reason, a young Maradona, already obsessed with the game, was compelled to improvise: ‘Everything I did, every step I took, was because of the ball. If La Tota [his mother] sent me on an errand I would take with me anything that resembled a ball: it could be an orange, or scrumpled-up paper, or clothes. And I would go up the steps on to the bridge that crossed the railway, hopping on one foot, the right one, and taking whatever it was on the left, tac, tac, tac…That’s how I walked to school as well.’
Again, that strange negation, that dialectical reversal, by which Maradona’s abilities were enhanced by his lack, his deprivation; his creative powers flowing into the gaps and absences which a poverty-stricken childhood entailed. It is one thing to learn while using a brand new football, it is quite another to do so using an orange – which is that much harder to control and demands that much more skill. When you see Maradona, in his prime, warming up before an important game, he does things with the ball – flicks and tricks – which are so astonishing they would not be out of keeping in a circus performance; and in the same moment, watching the adult Maradona do this against the glorious backdrop of a great national stadium and in full view of crowds of hundreds of thousands, you can still catch, in faint outline, the ghost of the boy which once was – a solitary child who took solace and joy from kicking an orange across the dilapidated streets of the barrio, totally engrossed in his game.
If poverty shaped the character of the footballer Maradona would become, it marked him politically too. His parents were working class to the core; lives conducted with stoic dignity, shaped by relentless labour and a fierce devotion to the lives of their children, along with an ingrained sense of community – a love of the barrio and its colourful raffish character, and the sights and the sounds of the streets and rivers and land:
I understood my old man, he was breaking his back to enable us to eat and study, and that’s what he wanted, for me to study…[He] was a boat man, he worked for Don Lupo, a man who owned some animals, mostly cows. My dad would carry them over to the islands of the Paraná Delta to graze. His life was on the river and he knew all its secrets. He still knows them. He had a lot of things he liked there, things we still share today: fishing, asados or barbecues, and football…No one will ever make a tastier asado than my old man…But when La Tota called for him, he set off for Buenos Aires to get a job, and he got one. Job is a loose description, he worked in the Tritumol mill pounding cattle bones from four in the morning to three in the afternoon.
Along with the fortitude, there are moments of heartbreak. Maradona, one of eight siblings, describes how for many years he believed his mother suffered from chronic stomach pain especially in the evenings when the family sat down together for dinner. It was only when he reached the age of thirteen that he came to understand the truth: ‘She never had a stomach ache, she just wanted us to eat. Every time the food would come out, she would say “my stomach hurts”…It was because there was not enough to go round. That is why I love my old lady so much.’ It was from this brave and sometimes tragic example of his parents that Maradona derived his most essential motivation, the need for struggle: ‘I have happy memories of my childhood, although if I had to define Fiorito with just one word, it would be “struggle”. In Fiorito, if it was possible to eat, people ate, and if it wasn’t, they didn’t.’
This was the struggle of the underclass more broadly, the struggle which extreme poverty inculcates, and its corollary – quite naturally – was one of anger; the anger which develops against suffering and exploitation – the anger which expresses one’s protest at human beings living in less than human conditions. Maradona describes such anger with the colourful Argentine street-slang of his childhood, he calls it ‘bronca’, and for him this word expresses both the rage of the oppressed and the sense of solidarity and resoluteness such a feeling calls forth: ‘What nobody has understood, ever, was that our strength, our togetherness, was born from just that, from our bronca…the bronca we felt from having had to fight against everything. That’s how it had to be.’
Of course, Maradona was soon to traverse the distance from the most threadbare poverty to the most immense forms of wealth. His phenomenal capacities were more and more manifest from an early age, and it wasn’t long before he was a feature of the local team Los Cebollitas (albeit that he sneaked onto the team at twelve years old, three years younger than his teammates). Within a short time he was travelling across South America, playing in international tournaments, even appearing on local TV programmes exhibiting his skills with the ball.
A call from a premier division side swiftly followed; six days shy of his sixteenth birthday the young Maradona found himself playing his first match for Argentinos Juniors where he would go on to score 115 goals in 167 appearances, a particularly astonishing statistic for a youthful, untested player whose preferred position was mid-fielder rather than striker. His precocious performances in Latin America eventually set the stage for a lucrative offer from Barcelona – one of the wealthiest and most prestigious teams in the world and one Maradona would join in late 1982. By this point he had achieved what was one of his paramount ambitions; he had bought his parents a wonderful house to live in and had finally been able to ask ‘my old man for a very big favour; I pleaded with him to stop working. He was fifty, he had done enough for us. Now it was my turn.’
There is no doubt that the young Maradona had his head turned by the vastness of the money and fame his life had come into. In the years to come he would cheat prolifically on his wife, he would father a love-child who he would shamefully refuse to acknowledge for many years, he would become addicted to cocaine and sex with prostitutes, and thoroughly seduced by the luxury and corruption of an existence which brought him into close contact with some unsavoury figures, including several heads of organised crime.
The sheer scope of the change in his circumstances, occurring at such a formative period of his life is almost unimaginable; the cataclysmic effects it had were such that they seemed to split him asunder, and from such a separation emerged two distinct personalities. On the one hand there was ‘Diego’, the person the footballer had been – the thoughtful, brooding and introverted boy from the barrio, ardently determined to give his parents and his siblings a better life. On the other, there was ‘Maradona’, the brash, bold, creative genius who enjoyed the adulation of the world, and carried on his shoulders the hopes and dreams of an entire nation – the person ‘Diego’ was destined to become. As his long-time fitness coach Fernando Signorini would have it, ‘[There was] the insecure kid and the character he came up with. With Diego, I would go to the end of the world. But with Maradona, I wouldn’t take a step.’
The ‘Maradona’ persona was no doubts formed as a result of the money, the fame and the bloated luxury, but it was also, perhaps, the only mechanism by which a fraught and fallible teenager might generate the kind of energy and confidence to meet the expectations and hopes of the millions of people who had come to believe in him. Who more and more came to see him as a symbol of redemption and hope. Maradona’s ultimate tragedy lies in the fact that the one persona would eventually come to eclipse the other – ‘Maradona’ would come to dominate ‘Diego’. And yet, the boy from the barrio was never entirely vanquished. It is true that Maradona secured fame on a global scale when he went to Barcelona – which was an incredibly wealthy and prestigious club – but despite the numerous exhibitions of his footballing brilliance, he never really seemed at home there. The sheer physical change was unnerving – the European players were heavier, would run harder, were more ruthless and aggressive in terms of mounting physical pressure – ‘I found the transition from technique to fury very hard’.
But it wasn’t simply that. Barcelona the club was saturated with money in a way in which the previous clubs Maradona had played for simply hadn’t been. The joy and fluency of the game was increasingly subordinated to the relentless micromanagement of bureaucrats and managers whose ever expanding wealth and property portfolios depended on their ability to regard the football team as an industrial unit whose productivity needed to be maximised; whose public image needed always to be varnished through the obsequious and greasy appeals to an ever present media. In the figure of José Luis Núñez – a man who had no connection to the club before his promotion to its president and was hitherto known only as a property entrepreneur – in José Luis Núñez the supremacy of the cash mandate was personified: ‘He was such a publicity seeker. He would do anything to appear in the media. When we lost he would come weeping into the dressing room to offer us more money as if playing better or worse depended on the cash’.
Everything in Maradona’s being gravitated against such a social type; the sense he had inherited from the backbreaking labour endured by his mother and father back in Fiorito – the sense that the true source of life in any society comes from the people underneath who create the means by which everyone else lives: ‘There’s something very perverse going on with many football directors. They’re not grateful: we the players give them power, we give them fame…while they are just the money-men. Núñez may have become famous for being the president of Barcelona but ‘Núñez y Navarro’ is his bread and butter: that’s the construction company he owns with his wife…That’s what most of them are like.’
There is something indelibly childlike about Maradona. He weeps copiously with joy and disappointment alike. He cries in the solitary confinement of a changing room toilet or he sheds his tears in front of millions. He can be incredibly stubborn, spoilt and self-centred like a child, and at the same time he has in himself the beautiful simplicity of a child’s generosity (despite his great wealth, he has over the years found himself drained of funds, and this is often, one feels, due to the guileless faith he places in those who have extended him friendship, even if their motivations are less than pure).
But the most childlike aspect of all lies in his inability to shield his feelings; he wears his emotions on his sleeve. When a particularly savvy reporter asks Maradona a loaded question, he will get drawn in, he will spill his guts whether in sympathy or outrage. And for this reason Diego Maradona, the greatest player of all time, was always unable to ‘play’ a different type of game – for he would articulate spontaneously his unease or his antipathy toward a figure like Núñez, and more generally the forms of moneyed, institutional power such a figure represents. In response ‘[Núñez] would organise press campaigns against me because he had a huge influence at a particular newspaper…he wouldn’t let me speak…I spoke out anyway.’
At one point the acrimony became so intense, Maradona’s desire to leave the club so powerful – that Núñez used bureaucratic means in order to confiscate Maradona’s passport. Maradona’s time at Barcelona was capped off, most horrifically, by an incident during a game against Athletic de Bilbao, when he was the victim of one of the most ugly, senseless and deliberate tackles perpetrated by a long forgotten player called Antoni Goikoetxea – a tackle which was really just a veiled form of assault. As the Basque player slid feet first into Maradona from behind, the latter ‘felt the impact, heard the sound, like a piece of wood cracking.’ As they stretchered off Maradona, he spoke choked words, in the midst of weeping ‘I’m broken, I’m broken’, the young virtuoso said. People assume that Diego Maradona’s cocaine addiction came from the wealth and the fame and a developing sense of decadence, and I wouldn’t want to deny these factors, but I think it’s important to acknowledge as well that it began in his time with Barcelona and the tribulations he underwent there.
Despite the severity of his injury Maradona was able to recover and finally escape Spain. But the team he now signed a contract with came as a surprise to both fans and pundits. Maradona travelled to Italy in order to join the Serie A team Napoli. But although, technically, Napoli were in the topflight league, they were nevertheless a low draw. In their whole history, they had only ever won two cups. They’d never won the championship. For the past few years they had been fighting relegation, coming within just one point of slipping down into the lower leagues. When Maradona joined them in 1984 he was already regarded as one of the best players in the world. Why would he make what appeared to be such an odd career move?
Part of it was the fact that his finances had been, to use a euphemism, ‘mismanaged’, and despite his stratospheric success he already carried heavy debts. Napoli were one of the first to offer him a way out and a new beginning, and they fought for Maradona in a way which some of the more elite clubs didn’t deign to do. But it wasn’t simply down to the practical details. From the very beginning Maradona felt a strong spiritual affinity with the club and the city. When the President of Junventus, Giampero Boniperti, had derided Maradona’s abilities, arguing that someone ‘with a physique like mine wouldn’t get anywhere’, Maradona responded by saying ‘Football is so beautiful, so unlike everything else, that it finds a way to fit everyone in. Even dwarves like me’. Of course, the levelling effect Maradona was describing was about more than one’s physical template. It was about the way in which football provided a gateway to joy and belonging for even the most downtrodden and disadvantaged of people.
One of Maradona’s fondest recollections comes from 1981 when he arrived with Boca to play a friendly in Africa against the Ivory Coast: ‘a crowd of locals stepped over the machete wielding police, and hung round my neck saying to me: Diego, Diego! They moved me, they really moved me. Afterwards when we were having lunch at the hotel about twenty fans came up to me, and one said “Pelusa”. He said “Pelusa” to me! A little black kid in the Ivory Coast knew my childhood nickname.’ Maradona is both touched and humbled, this is one of the many anecdotes which registers his strong anti-racist credentials, but one can’t help but feel that such political sensibilities were in some way preordained. After all, Maradona himself, because of his poverty and ‘moreno’ skin tone was often regarded in explicitly racial terms during his childhood in Argentina, was classified as in some way being ‘black’ for both derogatory and affectionate purposes. In the 2019 documentary about his life a commentator describes how Maradona was seen as a ‘shitty little black kid from the slums’ while at the same time Maradona himself talks with pride of being ‘a cabecita negra (a little black head), descended from poor Italian and Guarani stock, a laborer from the lowest reaches of society.’
We see here the intimate connection between race, poverty and exploitation, and this is most significant in understanding Maradona’s deep-felt connection with Napoli. While the heads of the bigger clubs had remained aloof, Napoli’s bid for Maradona was a result of the fans themselves who went on hunger strike in order to demonstrate their determination to acquire the brilliant Argentine, an expression of people’s power which would further endear the club to the player. It bears remembering that the first team Maradona had ever played with in a professional capacity – las Cebollitas – had started off dirt poor, founded in the barrio by a group of friends who had socialist and anarchist principles and originally called the team the ‘Martyrs of Chicago’, after the anarchists who had been killed and imprisoned following the Haymarket Riots in Chicago in 1886. It had a strong following amongst the poor and was rooted in the traditions of the working class which supported it.
And this was also true with Napoli. Napoli as a club was a good deal poorer than the clubs to the North, but even more significantly, the city itself – like the southern region of Italy more broadly – had since the unification of the country in 1861 assumed an almost colony-like status within the context of the national framework; the South as a whole was very much reduced to an agricultural backwater which would provide the glittering, cosmopolitan North with the raw materials for its industrial project. This geopolitical power disparity cultivated over almost a century and a half was rationalised in terms of a corresponding and corrosive anti-worker ideology which had obscenely racist overtones. When, for example, the Napoli team travelled North to play Juventus, the Juve fans would often chant: ‘the Neapolitans are coming, sick with cholera, victims of the earthquake, you never washed with soap, Napoli shit, Napoli cholera, You are the shame of the whole of Italy.’ The racist undertone is apparent – the Neapolitans are dirty, diseased and so on. When they played Inter Milan the racist chants against the Neapolitans would reach a sinister, fascist-like crescendo: ‘wash them, wash them, wash them with fire!’
Maradona intuited all this very swiftly; with the life experience of his own background, he understood exactly what it meant to be a despised outsider, to be exiled by virtue of your poverty and to be demeaned in and through the most toxic and sometimes racialist categories: ‘The Neapolitans were the Africans of Italy…I felt I represented a part of Italy which counted for nothing’. For Maradona, playing for Napoli was always going to be imbued with great symbolism; a victory for them against the Northern clubs was simultaneously a victory for the working classes and the oppressed, a blow dealt against racism and a peon to the creativity and colour of the barrio. Maradona recalls travelling to Turin in 1986 to play a big match against Juventus: ‘We were 1-0 down and when we equalised the stadium exploded, everyone was celebrating, going mad…We scored a second, and again there were huge celebrations. Then the third, and it went even crazier. Then I realised: the stadium was full of workers, southerners the lot of them! Napoli, Napoli! They were screaming. Amazing. We had truly become the club of the working class, of the poor.’
On a global scale people nearly always tend to remember the image of Maradona in the blue and white stripped Argentine strip, holding up the golden World Cup trophy, borne aloft on the shoulders of his teammates against the backdrop of hundreds of thousands of roaring spectators under that glorious blue-billowing sky. What was remarkable about Argentina’s victory in ‘86 was that they simply weren’t the best team. West Germany, France, Brazil, Italy, and yes, perhaps even England…all had a better all-round roster of players, all had a claim to be a stronger overall side, and yet, somehow, Argentina managed to triumph. And that was very much down to Maradona. But in a certain way his achievement with Napoli was even greater. With Maradona at the helm, Napoli would win their first ever Serie A league championship in 1986-87, the Coppa Italia Cup in 1987 and the UEFA Super Cup in 1990. Maradona brought them from being a ‘glorified second-division team’ into the elite category of one of the world’s best with a stockpile of sparkling silverware.
Maradona was able to accomplish this due to his unsurpassable talent on the pitch; he was the lead goal scorer in the 1987-88 season with 15 goals and eventually became the most prolific goal scorer the club had ever had up until that point. The simple statistics, of course, don’t do him justice. He did things on the pitch that nobody had ever seen before, he seemed to subvert the very laws of motion. The goal Maradona scores against Hellas Verona, for instance, when the ball is floated down to him from half way across the pitch, bouncing once, and he repositions himself to volley it from some thirty yards away, a smooth trajectory which spirals across space before finding the goal. There is a casualness and fluidity to the strike which is just a work of art.
Or the curving, curling, freakish free kick he scores against Juventus which has all the instantaneous precision of a ballistic missile. Or any number of the cheeky, joyful lobs which send goalkeepers scuttling backwards, tripping over their own feet to no avail. Or those devious, staccato-like runs which send players one way and then the next before slipping the ball through someone’s legs, and making his escape in the aftermath of that staggering, bewildered defender. But it was not only about the sublime beauty of unsurpassable skill. It was also about a sublime footballing intelligence; Maradona’s ability to see the team in its totality, to intuit to a fault its fissures and weaknesses, to know exactly where the adjustments had to be made – and to have the ‘cojones’ to demand that the managers and directors make them: ‘I confronted the club president, Carrado Ferlaino, and said: ‘Buy me three or four players…Get me Renica of Sampdoria, who comes on as a 3, a defender, and in fact is a fucking first class libero.’ And that’s how we started building the team up.’
Most of all, Maradona’s ability to bring the Napoli team together came from the fact that Maradona himself had grown up in an atmosphere of poverty and exclusion; his was the ‘bronca’ which came from hardship – the intransigence of the rebel, along with the elusiveness of the underdog who owns nothing, can count on nothing, except for his wits and wiles. In Naples he breathed the air of the oppressed, in that city Maradona recognised the raffish colour and character of the favela and of people who had nothing but would give everything on a wing and a prayer. In Napoli he felt his own nature – colourful and gregarious, rebellious and crafty – reflected back to him, and for their part, the Neapolitans sensed in Maradona a kindred spirit, someone who was of the street – someone who sang their songs, and dreamed their dreams – someone who could channel their creative aspirations, raising a bedraggled, despised city from the shadows and bathing its people in the glow of a luminous, rainbow hope. In the words of Ed Vulliamy, the sports journalist who chronicled the life of the footballer in the city at the time, ‘Maradona and Naples shared a common heartbeat and soul’ – and it was this strange and wonderful synergy, as much as Maradona’s magical footballing prowess, which galvanized the strength and temper of the team and helped set the basis for an almost miraculous ascent.
Perhaps because of its despair, perhaps because of the city’s poverty and neglect – religious life in Naples had taken on a uniquely fervent and occult character; the streets, buildings and churches bustling with a plethora of plaster saints and strange, colourful reliquaries, while underneath – a rich byzantine world of crypt and catacomb opens up, replete with the tombs of generations of believers and the flickering shadows of their ghosts. In the early-afternoon in light-flooded plazas, people read tarot cards on stalls, shops burst at the seams chock-full of religious icons with marble or ebony dolls stooped in prayer or raised on the cross. This has always been a city whose broader Christian vision of suffering and redemption was infused with a medieval sense of magic and the miraculous – and in Maradona these elements achieved perfect synthesis; his preternatural ability with the ball, his capacity to anticipate his opponents, before outflanking them, seemed like an act of divination – a feat of magic in its own right. And what, ultimately, did this almost divine-like ability herald – other than the redemption of a whole society in and through the one individual blessed with almost Christ-like significance?
It was perhaps inevitable, therefore, that the adulation of Maradona would take on a religious hue; the footballer’s image appeared on murals on the dilapidated walls of poverty-stricken neighbourhoods, his rich dark eyes shining with the solemnity of the saint – and whenever he left his house to go to a restaurant or a shop within minutes the whole place was flooded with thousands of people desperate to reach out, to get an autograph, to touch him. In one incident, a nurse stole the sample of a blood test Maradona had given – the pilfered vial ended up in the church of San Genarro as an actual relic of the goal-scoring saint. Alongside Jesus and the apostles, many Neapolitans reserved a place for a picture of Maradona on their mantelpiece.
But such expectation, such adulation, could be stultifying and, ultimately, corrupting. There were darker influences at work in the city too. The Camorra, the Naples mafia, took an interest in Maradona very early on, and it was an interest which Maradona repaid. For Maradona tended to look at these shadowy figures in a rather naive and romanticised way; he saw them as rebels against society rather than the sinister parasites they tended to be, but at the same time they offered the young footballer something genuine and important. They had the ways and means of giving Maradona what he craved; that is, time away from the crowds which had come to smother him. The Camorra could isolate a nightclub or a bar, giving Maradona the kind of privacy and relief from the fans that he might not otherwise find.
And there were the more gaudy, glitzy offerings too. A Rolex here. A sports car there. For a young man who had come from absolute poverty such luxury trinkets held a hypnotising allure. Swiftly and easily, the Mafia absorbed Maradona into its subterranean world of exclusive restaurants and late night parties. What did they require in return? Only that Maradona would now and again appear at the opening event of one of their new business ventures, snapping the ribbon, creating the requisite level of publicity, marking their money with his mystical aura. And along with the – well we might as well call them what they were – the bribes, the Camorra also provided Maradona with call girls and they fed his developing cocaine addiction, so that – whether he was aware of it or not – before long the young footballing genius had cultivated an intense dependence on them.
An ancient proverb has it that those the gods wish to destroy, they first make great. The stunning victories the virtuoso achieved captaining Napoli were neatly elided into the late nights, the cocaine addiction, the call girls and the cars. The lifestyle and the links with the mob would take their toll on his health, and also his character. ‘El Diego’, the boy from the barrio – the boy whose most ardent dream was to one day provide a house for his impoverished parents to live in which had hot running water – was now increasingly shunted to the side in favour of the brash, self-serving superstar who was known to the world as ‘Maradona’. Maradona was swaggering, confrontational, overbearing and an adept liar. In perhaps the most sordid of his deceptions he refused to acknowledge the paternity of a son – the result of an affair with one of his sister’s friends Cristiana Sinagra. Maradona denied outright the claim of Sinagra and allowed the implication to linger that she was an underhanded individual with dubious and dishonest motives. To say the least, the Italian press didn’t treat her kindly.
But his illicit, drug-fuelled lifestyle also made its claim on Maradona’s footballing durability. It is a testament to his genius that he was able to perform to the level he did while remaining a cocaine addict. But the Maradona who entered the 1990 World Cup was simply not the same as the one who appeared in the ‘86 tournament. Was he the best player in the world at that point? Perhaps, perhaps not. He still had moments of brilliance, but he no longer shone; he was no longer…hypnotic in the way of his earlier incarnation, and his contributions came from quick, clever touches rather than the blistering magnetic runs which would see him leave the opposition in tatters.
Players like Jürgen Klinsmann, Paul Gascoine, Salvatore Schillaci, Claudio Caniggia, and Maradona’s historic rival of old, Lothar Matthaus, all had a better claim to player of the tournament in that World Cup. Argentina’s path to the final was lacklustre. They sensationally lost to Cameroon in the early stages. They took an offensive battering from Brazil in a game which, ultimately, they were lucky to come through. What you can say about Maradona’s sometimes brilliant but patchy performance was that he never lost his talent for brinkmanship, to adjust the tactics and strategy of a lesser team in order to overcome a greater one; and most of all, he never lost his ability to bring the players together, to inspire in them the sense that they were underdogs fighting for a higher ideal, to coax from them every effort and sublimity. But when Argentina lost in the final to West Germany one can only concede that the result was a just one, the better team had won.
There was another significant event in that World Cup which would ultimately determine the trajectory of Maradona’s career. The semi-final match of Argentina vs Italy. The game itself was played in Napoli. In the run up to the encounter Maradona notoriously proclaimed that ‘Naples is not Italy’ in a bid to persuade Napoli fans to go over to Argentina when the clash took place. Of course, Maradona had an important point; Italian nationalism had been the political product of the North as it secured its economic grip on the rest of the country in and through a newly created national framework; but at the same time it was an obviously self-interested ploy on Maradona’s part which was more than a little sly.
In the event, it created terrible press for Maradona in Italy more broadly, while within Naples itself fights broke out between those who wanted to follow Maradona and those who refused to relinquish their support for the motherland. Perhaps the mood amongst the Napoli fans was best expressed on the day of the Argentina-Italy match, when the Italian crowds unfurled a large banner which read; ‘We love you Maradona, but Italy is our country’. In the game itself, Italy looked the stronger throughout, scoring early and having the run of the ball, but a late goal from Caniggia ensured that Argentina remained competitive. The game eventually went to penalties and Argentina were able to sneak the victory through the back door, the way they had in that tournament several times before.
The Argentine victory was the moment when the deep and intimate connection between Maradona and the city was torn asunder. Almost overnight, Maradona became a figure of hate. He was depicted as the villain who had, through the divisions he had sown, cost Italy the cup which was rightfully theirs – for the tournament had taken place on home soil and they were, by most bookmakers’ odds, the clear favourites. Perhaps more significantly the ‘largesse’ he had enjoyed from the Italian state suddenly dried up and life in Italy ‘stopped being a paradise and became a hell. The first sign we were at war came just two days after the semi-final against Italy. My brother Lalo…was stopped by the police for speeding. He told them he didn’t have his papers on him…They came back to the concentración but with the wrong attitude…and all hell broke loose.’
In the next couple of years Maradona swiftly lost the support of his ‘friends’ in the Camorra. Perhaps most importantly the Napoli authorities which had for so long turned a blind eye to his drug taking and use of prostitutes now had him in their sites. In 1991 he tested positive for drugs after the match between Napoli and Bari. Most decisively of all, Maradona was wiretapped; a recorded conversation in which he tried to procure prostitutes from his underworld contacts, and eventually he was charged with supplying those same women with cocaine. To borrow Dickens’ most famous opening line, for Maradona, Napoli represented the best of times and the worst of times. He had first arrived at the city to be greeted by tens of thousands of fans. But when he finally left in 1991, he left ragged and in tears, and very much alone.
What happened in the years following? Generally speaking it makes for a depressing read. Maradona spiralled into further drug addiction, infamously being kicked out of his last World Cup in 1994 having once again tested positive for illegal substances. He put on weight, his body becoming shapeless, worn and shuffling. He played his final testimonial game in Buenos Aires in 2001, a game in which those who once considered him the most deadly of threats now regarded him only with pity: ‘The opposing players indulged him, stepping aside as he lumbered by. He scored two goals that day, both penalties against René Higuita, the former goalkeeper for the Colombian national team, who obliged his old friend by jumping out of the way.’
As the possibilities of playing football eventually dwindled to nowt, the drugs and the listlessness gradually consumed him; for the power which had once redeemed his existence, was now beyond his grasp. In early middle-age, Maradona became obese and his drug addiction grew so extreme that the danger to his life became an acute one. The image of him on a TV show, vastly overweight and immobile, sobbing before the host in a kind of befuddled terror is a harrowing one. But it wasn’t all bad. There were some high points too. In 2007 he finally managed to shake his dependence on cocaine. In 2010 he became the manager of the national team taking them as far as the quarter finals in the World Cup. And in 2016, after so many years, he managed to do the right thing and acknowledge his paternity of the son he’d had by Cristiana Sinagra.
And yet, as the years went by, the affairs and the fast living left their irreparable toll. More paternity suits arose, more illicitly fathered children. His childhood sweetheart Claudia Villafañe – the woman who had shared the hardship and poverty of Diego’s early days and the person to in some sense moor him to a more grounded and authentic existence – eventually separated from him, and the acrimony increased as both parties accused one another of stealing money. In the process Maradona found himself alienated from his daughters. He married again to Rocio Oliva – a woman thirty years his junior, but again this marriage collapsed, after a series of rows which culminated in an alleged assault by Maradona on his partner.
Despite all the fame and wealth – one receives the impression of a man entering his later years lost in space, untethered from the modes of being which had formed him. Perhaps the tragedy of his life lies in the fact of his quite stratospheric success; that the rise of ‘Maradona’ was always going to precipitate the loss of ‘Diego’. He had achieved a great deal but at the cost of straying far from everything that had once informed who he was. And yet, this process was set into motion by the tragic demands of poverty itself and the desperate need to help his loved ones escape it. ‘Maradona’ was the vehicle by which such a thing could be achieved, ‘Maradona’ was the creation of someone whose childhood had been curtailed and whose life had come to bear the hopes and responsibilities of first his own family, and then a whole generation: in the words of his younger sister, one of the few people to remember the boy that once was, the child of the favela: ‘my brother… At the age of 15 he stopped having a life, and became someone else’. For Diego, such was the price of fame.