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How Argentine’s Diego Maradona Became Greatest of All Time

We like to package our heroes into neat little boxes and put them on a pedestal, out of reach of mere mortals.

But this is a cruel mirage because everyone, however exceptional, is flawed and when heroes are hounded to give ever more of their talent, their faults become magnified.

Nowhere is that more prevalent than in the fanatical and tribal world of football – and no footballer has had more brutal scrutiny and been judged to possess genius and ugliness in equal measure than Diego Maradona.

Anyone doubting that should watch Asif Kapadia’s brilliant, pulsating new film about his seven years in Naples, when the Argentinian genius carried the hopes and dreams of a city and a nation before collapsing under the weight of expectation and the mafia-supplied cocaine in his bloodstream.

As Kapadia’s Amy Winehouse film showed, extreme fame and adulation can consume your innocence and personality, and spit you out in pieces.

The opening scene is like something from Netflix series Gomorrah as Maradona is chased through the mad streets of Naples in a Fiat in 1984, en route to his unveiling after a world record move from Barcelona.

At the Sao Paolo stadium, 75,000 fans wait to see the man they would soon worship so intensely most city residents had a framed photo of him near a statue of Christ – and a phial of his blood sat on the cathedral altar.

At the press conference, the first question sets the tone for his time there and explains in part why, in the end, he is treated not so much like a demi-god as a leper: “Do you know what the Camorra is and that their money is everywhere?”

Maradona possessed genius and ugliness in equal measure (Image: FIFA via Getty Images)

They say you should see Naples and die. Due to the local mafia, the Camorra, using Maradona as a business front and filling him full of drugs in return, he nearly did.

His coke addiction gets so bad the club lets him to go on binges Sunday to Wednesday, so long as he’s clean enough to play by Thursday.

But he did not need to be clean enough to pass the test as they gave him a bottle of drug-free urine. “Probably someone else peed for him,” says club president Corrado Ferlaino.

It is astonishing how Maradona flourished as the world’s greatest player between 1986 and 1990 with his brain mashed to pulp on coke. Yet in that time, he laid down the greatest body of work of any footballer.

He twice led Argentina, almost single-handedly, to a World Cup Final, winning once. And he took Napoli, which had never been Italian champions, to two titles and a UEFA Cup.

Bear in mind Argentina and Naples were on their knees at the time, the former still recovering from the humiliation of the Falklands War and the latter an urban basket case, mocked as the “sewer of Italy”. Yet Maradona dragged both to the game’s pinnacle.

To many, like me, that makes him the greatest of all time. Of the two geniuses he is ranked alongside, Pele never played top-flight club football outside of Brazil and Lionel Messi has never left his Barcelona comfort-zone or won a major trophy with Argentina.


His many critics would argue the fact he was a drug-taking, prostitute-using cheat denies him GOAT status.

The infamous ‘Hand of God’ incident against England in 1986 (Image: Press Association Images)

Fitness coach Fernando Signorini summed up his two sides: “I would go to the end of the earth for Diego. I would not take a step for Maradona.”

Just before the 1986 World Cup, he learned his mistress was pregnant at the same time as his wife. He denied Diego Jnr was his for 30 years, admitting it only after divorcing his wife.

During that World Cup, there was the infamous Hand of God goal against England, which he later claimed was divine retribution for Argentina losing the Falklands War.

Most England fans won’t forgive him to this day but many realise it was the refs fault for not spotting it. Plus, the other goal he scored in England’s 2-1 defeat was utterly sublime.

They also see the parallels with an Englishman who would star at the next World Cup, Paul Gascoigne, who came from a similarly poor background but never achieved his true potential due to an inability to beat his drink and drug demons.

One of the saddest lines in the film is Maradona saying: “When you’re on the pitch life goes away, problems go away, everything goes away.” A sentiment troubled Gazza has uttered many times.

By 1989, Maradona’s problems were not going away in Naples, which is why he asked to leave. But president Ferlaino refused to free him from the madhouse. “I was Maradona’s jailer,” he later admitted.

His career in Italy fell apart in the 1990 World Cup semi-final, in Naples, when he scored one of the Argentinian penalties that knocked hosts Italy out.

He will never be forgotten for his skills at the peak of his power [Photo: Courtesy]

Labelled the Devil in the media and “the most hated man in Italy” in a poll, his superstar protection vanished and authorities went for him.

His phones were tapped, enabling police to catch him ordering drugs and prostitutes – leading to a suspended jail sentence and five million lira fine. And traces of coke found in his urine after a game led to a draconian 15-month ban.

He left Italy tearful, broken. “When I arrived I was welcomed by 85,000, when I left I was all alone,” were the words that sum up the fickleness of fame and the fragility of a hero’s halo.

He tried to revive his club career in Spain and Argentina but was a shadow of his former self. The final image of him on a pitch was celebrating a goal in Argentina’s 1994 US World Cup opener with a manic, bulging-eyed yell into a TV camera.

He failed a drugs test after the next game and was sent home in disgrace.

As the film ends, Signorini sums up the Maradona enigma: “He’s had a life both tremendous and terrible.”

But a life those who saw him at the peak of his powers will never forget.


Written by How Africa

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