Understanding Maradona, Understanding Argentina
To understand the gargantuan shadow Maradona casts over his soccer-mad homeland, one has to conjure up the athleticism of Michael Jordan, the power of Babe Ruth – and the human fallibility of Mike Tyson. Lump them together in a single barrel-chested man with shaggy black hair and you have El Diego, idol to the millions who call him D10S, a mashup of his playing number and the Spanish word for God.
Ken Bensinger. 2010.
To understand Maradona you need only to watch one match: the 1986 World Cup quarter-final between Argentina and England. In this match, Maradona scored two goals. The first was the infamous ‘Hand of God’ goal which saw him scoring with his hand. The second, in which he dribbles past five England players before sliding the ball into the net from an acute angle, was voted the Goal of the Century in 2002, and will probably never be surpassed.
Maradona was, is, a troubled genius. Ask anyone who the best player of all time is and they’ll mention both Maradona and Pele before settling on one or the other. Ask an Argentinean the same question and there is no doubt. Forget Pele. Forget Messi. Maradona is it. Almost half of Argentina hates Maradona for the harm he has done to their country’s reputation. But they still love his football.
Maradona is quintessentially Argentinean. Capable of sheer perfection and gross imperfection within minutes of one another. From humble beginnings to top of the world. From top-level athlete to obese layabout addicted to cocaine. And from there back to the top, this time as manager of the national team. Never dull. Always eliciting strong emotions. Impossible to ignore.
Maradona is as loved in Napoli (Naples, Italy), where he played most of his club football, as he is in Argentina. For Napoli and for Argentina he wore the number 10 on the back of his shirt. Dieci. Diez. Napoli retired the number 10 shirt after Maradona left the club. Argentina tried to do the same, but were stopped by the world governing body, FIFA.
Maradona grew up the hard way in the slums of Buenos Aires. His first soccer was street soccer, where he played against men for money. He made his professional debut at the age of 15. His early career trajectory was upwards, but there were always signs of his fiery temperament in amongst the artistry. He won league titles and World Club Championships, a World Cup and a host of individual awards, all the while producing the exceptional with eerie regularity.
In typical Maradona style, the problems started when he was playing the best football of his career. At Napoli he was adored by the tifosi (fans) but he also fell in with the infamous crime syndicate, the Camorra. In the company of Mafiosi what had been a cocaine habit became an addiction. After seven seasons with the club, he left Napoli in 1991. But he took the cocaine with him.
A positive drugs test in 1991 was followed by another at the 1994 World Cup. There was the occasion when he shot at journalists with an air rifle. There was the obesity and the gastric bypass. The time spent at rehab in Cuba and the paternity suit. And then, of course, there was the overdose: it caused a heart attack, but – being Maradona – he survived and lived to fight another day.
Slowly things started to get better. In 2005 he hosted a hugely popular TV show. I was living in the country at the time and I can vouch for it being utterly asinine. Diego in lycra playing keepy-uppy with go-go dancers. But it topped the ratings. There was another stutter – alcohol this time – in 2007, but things were looking up. Later that year he announced he was clean, something which still appears to be the case.
In 2010 things came full circle and Maradona, with very meagre coaching credentials, was chosen as manager of the team which would contest the World Cup. He led them through qualification and took them as far as the quarter-finals. They probably should have done better, but at least their only problems were on the field.
At last, it seems, Maradona is growing up. It remains to be seen whether Argentina will do the same.