The death of Diego Armando Maradona at the age of 60 from a heart attack in this year of pestilence robs football of an icon whose greatest supporters from the “barra brava” of the slumlands of La Boca to the Ultras of Curva B in the San Paolo stadium in Naples have frequently been drawn from the rough edges and marginalised sections of society.
In England, he is forever infamously associated with the “Hand of God” goal where he punched the ball past Peter Shilton and into the net for the opener in a 1986 World Cup quarter-final, a moment of redemption for an Argentina brutalised by their own military leaders and suffering from a searing and humiliating defeat in the Falklands War.
His dearest wish, said Maradona shortly before his death, was to score another goal like that against England but this time with his right hand.
In the days of VAR we can speculate that not only that goal, but the original would be struck from the record. And with it, the legend would diminish.
It is part of the duality of the Maradona personality and legacy that the gamesmanship that put his country 1-0 ahead in a tournament which they eventually won co-exists alongside his second goal in that match four minutes later which many people consider the greatest strike in the history of the competition.
On a slalom 10-second run from inside his own half, he beat Peter Beardsley, a labouring Peter Reid, Terry Fenwick and Terry Butcher (twice) before dummying Shilton and sliding the ball past him. The world has been admiring that goal ever since, although not Butcher, the yeoman of the English defence, who maintained, and still does, that Maradona’s cheating in the game was ‘unforgiveable.’
The 1986 World Cup triumph in Mexico followed an unhappy two years in Barcelona who signed Maradona at 21 for a world record fee equivalent to £5m (€5.6m). It was in Catalunya where he was introduced to cocaine and his career was nearly ended by the cold-eyed “Butcher of Bilbao” Andoni Goikoetxea in what was described as one of the worst fouls ever seen in the history of Spanish football. Urban legend has it that the Basque centre-half had his boot encased in glass at his home.
When Barcelona met Atletico Bilbao in the Copa Del Rey final in 1984 hostilities erupted once more. There was a mass brawl in front of King Juan Carlos; Goikoetxea kicked Maradona in the chest and was suspended for 18 games (reduced to seven upon appeal) and the Argentinean never played for the Blaugrana again, transferring to FC Napoli for another world record of £6.9m (€7.7m).
It was a move that produced both triumph and disaster.
Maradona delivered his greatest club football over the next seven years. Napoli became the first team to break the northern Italy stranglehold of Juventus, Roma, Internazionale and Milan by winning the Scudetto. Maradona was the only non-Italian in the side. In 1988 he was the leading scorer in Serie A. In 1989 Napoli won their first (and only) European trophy, the Uefa Cup and in 1990 they took their second league title.
Maradona is Napoli’s all-time leading scorer (115 goals). But more than that he almost became divinity within his adopted city in a country when political and economic fissures were running deep. After Napoli’s first Serie A triumph there were mock funerals in the streets in the shadow of Vesuvius as locals burned coffins representing Milan and Turin. In the 1990 World Cup hosted by Italy, Maradona asked Neapolitans to support Argentina against the Azzurri and, astonishingly, many of them complied.
At Naples, Maradona was grooming an understudy, a young Sardinian player called Gianfranco Zola. Both were small men blessed with high technical skills and a low centre of gravity.
“Finally they have bought someone shorter than me” joked Maradona after the arrival of Zola from Serie C.
The similarities did not end at stature. Both were free-kick specialists. Both had quick feet, and good balance making them very difficult to tackle or knock off the ball.
Zola said: “I learnt everything from Diego. I used to spy on him every time he trained and learned how to curl a free-kick just like him.”
Before the partnership could fully blossom destiny caught up with Maradona. His associations with the terrifying local mafia, the Camorra, ensured a plentiful supply of drugs, women, and other distractions. He failed a test for cocaine and was sentenced to a 15-month ban.
He would never play for his adopted city again but the fallen hero told his grief-stricken supporters who had daubed the walls of Naples with murals celebrating his contribution to their lives: “Napoli doesn’t need to look for anyone to replace me, the team already has Zola.”
Napoli retired Maradona’s number 10 shirt following his departure. They have also withdrawn the number 25 shirt worn for them by Zola before his transfer to Parma was forced by financial turmoil.
For many, the defining account of the South American’s life is the riveting documentary released last year by Asif Kapadia, the modern chronicler of tragic fame (Senna, Amy Winehouse, Maradona) which opens with a sequence showing cars hurtling through Neapolitan streets on their way to the Stadio San Paolo in July 1984 for the unveiling of their capture from the Nou Camp.
It charts his triumphs during a physically brutal era for the sport in which Maradona’s physical and mental condition declined dramatically until the searing image remains of his wide-eyed incoherent bawling into the camera at the 1994 United States World Cup where he tested positive for the proscribed drug ephedrine.
Interviewed on TV Wednesday night, Kapadia, a Liverpool supporter from an Arsenal family, said that although 60 was a young age at which to have died, it was “a long life for Diego Maradona” when everything else was taken into account. He was one year older than another tormented figure whose memory is venerated, and whose skills were on the same level as the South American.
George Best died on November 25, 2005, and for much of the world, he and Maradona are soul brothers with qualities that will live long wherever and whenever sport is the subject under discussion.