Inside the cult of Diego Maradona, football's devilish demigod

In life, remember where you were when moments are incredibly rare and suitably monumental. I remember coming home from primary school after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, for instance, with those harrowing plumes of smoke engulfing the television screen. I remember the noxious pall that gripped Britain following the Brexit referendum result. And I remember being sent home from work amid the coronavirus pandemic, our civil liberties impinged unlike any time in living memory.

Most recently, though, I remember where I was when Diego Maradona died. Amid a stressful house move, I had to work from my parents' house due to broadband issues at the new place. Late one afternoon, I was sat on the floor in my old corner bedroom when my brother broke the news. The shock was palpable, and then the sudden pang of sadness. Icons are supposed to live forever, I remember thinking, before pondering the paradoxical precariousness of human genius.

Naturally, I wanted to write something about Maradona, perhaps the greatest sporting enigma of all-time, but my head was too cluttered, my thoughts too scattered. Besides, I had no internet connection at home, so it would have been difficult to construct a cogent paean and impossible to publish it.

Now, though, with the benefit of full perspective, increased gravity and a stable internet connection, I would like to pay tribute to arguably the largest and most divisive personality in football history – El Pibe de Oro, The Golden Boy, Argentina incarnate, Diego Armando Maradona.

The Hand of God - Exploring the religious symbolism and pop culture iconography of Diego Maradona

There have been better footballers – Pelé, Messi, perhaps even Cristiano Ronaldo. There have been more decorated footballers – Cruyff, Di Stéfano, even Zlatan Ibrahimović. But never has our game - indeed the beautiful game - encountered such a mesmerising, beguiling, infuriating and inspiring demagogue as Maradona, who met his untimely end at the age of 60 in November.

In Argentina, the guy was a god, embodying the joy, hope and kindred ingenuity of 50 million people. In Naples, he was a near-mythic cryptid, personifying the angst, pride and glorious fantasy of an ancient ruin. And here in England, he was loathed, symbolising the unscrupulous conniving of a fleeting foe steeped in political dogma. 

Of course, with the Falklands war creating a toxic cultural backdrop, Maradona’s infamous ‘Hand of God’ goal against England in the 1986 World Cup quarter-finals was more than a breach of regulation – it was an incitement of vitriol, and many never forgave him for it. Peter Shilton, the England goalkeeper that day, famously refused to accept repeated apologies from Maradona, who later conflated his own ego with that of god, no less, when admitting the transgression in his autobiography. 

They say a god must be omnipotent, omniscient and omnibenevolent – all powerful, all knowing and all loving. Diego filled that criteria, and then some. For such a squat terrier, his power was generational. On a football pitch, his knowledge was precocious. Then, at the apex of that dynamic, he was an envoy of the people, transcending the mortal realm while maintaining those grimy barrio sensibilities.

When Maradona shimmied and twinkled around a football pitch, it was almost like little bits of god sprayed forth like a geyser, but he was also so relatable, so distinctly human, akin to the best version of us writ large on the global stage. Diego was capable of doing unspeakable things with a football, but he was also prone to capitulation. He was able to smile impishly and scream with brutal rage all in the same afternoon. His was an intoxicating unpredictability that made people dream.

Indeed, it is this duality of character and this dichotomy of fiction that lies at the heart of Maradona and his legend. There is a bipolarity to his story that cannot be replicated, with even his greatest accomplishments cast in manic hues. He was a cherub wrapped inside a devil, a prodigy prone to mendacity. There was an angel buried somewhere, down beneath the façade, but that duplicitous manipulation made Diego irresistible. It was the epistemic distance that made him timelessly great.

In many ways, the mark of a true icon is in the degree to which you can convey a multitude of poetic charges onto them without them seeming implausible. Truly epochal figureheads were – and are – everything to everyone. Think Joe DiMaggio. Think Elvis Presley. Think Marilyn Monroe. They were transfixing, uplifting heroes who sparked visceral pride in others, creating cycles of adoration. Diego Maradona belongs to that echelon, for his name is synonymous with anarchic football majesty.

You see, Maradona was not just a person – he was an ideal, a dream, a philosophy, instinct, mechanism and desire. He was a feeling, epic and thunderous, uncontrollable and miraculous. He was a militant brand of self-determination, hoisting upon his shoulders the dense weight of improbability. He was Argentina’s answer to the Lock Ness Monster – so mystical as to beguile, yet so elusive as to frustrate.

Make no mistake about it, Diego Maradona was also a revolutionary, just like Che Guevara, just like Bob Marley, just like Al Capone and just like Bob Dylan. He gave people – poor, marginalised, overlooked people, especially – something to believe in. Someone to believe in, when more conventional leaders failed. In fact, to this day, more than 275,000 people around the world are official members of the Diego Maradona church, a religious movement founded in 1998 to worship the great man and his genius. Few footballers have ever ascended to such heights.

There is a fine line between genius and insanity, of course, and Maradona traversed it every single day. In hindsight, to expect one human being to be so many things to so many people was unfair, and Diego paid a cosmic price for our indulgence. He ate crap. He battled addiction to drink and drugs. He partied with Pablo Escobar and wielded guns in unsuitable locations. There was no boundary to his outlandish act and no end to our intrigue therewith. Maradona kept coming back for more, each chapter more bizarre and surreal than the last.

The life and times of Diego Maradona

Diego was born in Lanús, within the greater Buenos Aires metropolitan area, in October 1960, the first son of poor parents who lived below the poverty line. Raised in a basic shantytown, Maradona honed preternatural football skills into a better life, attracting local scouts and coaches.

Diego broke through with Argentinos Juniors in 1976, becoming the youngest player to appear in an Argentine Primera División match. He sparked national debate with a famous nutmeg in his debut, then proceeded to score 115 goals in 167 games for El Tifón de Boyacá before transferring to Boca Juniors, the club he adored as a boy, for $4 million in 1981.

The love affair between Maradona and Boca is suitably esoteric, when viewed from afar. Contrary to popular wisdom, Diego only played 70 times for Los Xeneizes in two spells, but he still looms as the most sacrosanct symbol of the club’s zeitgeist. La Bombonera could only contain Maradona’s talent for a few years the first time around, resulting in one league title for Boca, before the European behemoths came calling.

Firstly, Barcelona paid £5 million, a world record fee, for Maradona in 1982. Then, two years later, Napoli broke that record, forking out almost £7 million for his distinguished services. Diego worked miracles in Naples, putting the working class southern enclave on his back and hauling it into competition with the northern powerhouses and bourgeoise elite of calcio.

The very embodiment of Neapolitan fantasia, Maradona led Napoli to their first ever Serie A title in 1987, waking a sleeping giant after 61 years of slumber. The Gli Azzurri then conquered Europe, beating Juventus and Bayern Munich en route to hoisting the 1989 UEFA Cup. A further Scudetto came in 1990, representing the apogee of Diego’s domestic career.

A subsequent stint with Sevilla concluded Maradona’s European odyssey, and he returned to Argentina with Newell’s Old Boys in 1993. One final hurrah came with Boca between 1995 and 1997, as Diego passed the baton to younger teammates like Juan Román Riquelme, Martín Palermo and Rodolfo Arruabarrena. La Bombonera rose to serenade its hero, who rode off into the sunset.

What is the legacy of Diego Maradona – genius, cheat or overrated enigma?

It is remarkable, really, that such a feted icon was such a transient, nomadic and unquenchable figure at club level. Yes, Maradona won a slew of unlikely trophies at Napoli. And yes, he hoisted solitary league titles with Barça and Boca, but that was it, ultimately. He never won the Champions League. He never won the Copa Libertadores. He never won the Club World Cup, so revered in South America. Diego was something of a domestic unicorn, it turns out, and his greatest magic was reserved for the international stage.

Maradona played 91 times for Argentina, appearing at four World Cups and winning one. He debuted with La Albiceleste aged 16, cast in a blaze of prodigious glory, and he faded from international football aged 34, mired in controversy after failing a drugs test at the 1994 World Cup. Many of his most memorable moments came in the famous Argentina shirt, however, including perhaps the greatest goal ever scored – against England in the same quarter-final tainted by his cheating.

Somewhat farcically, Maradona returned to international football as Argentina manager in 2008, overseeing a confused generation that mixed veterans like Juan Sebastián Verón, Walter Samuel and Palermo with emerging wonderkids such as Ángel Di María, Carlos Tevez, Sergio Agüero and Messi. The experiment ended in ignominy, though, when Argentina were thumped 4-0 by Germany in the 2010 World Cup quarter-finals.

Duly exiled from top-level management, Diego embarked on a rollercoaster ride of absurd appointments later in life, appearing almost as a heritage act wherever money was offered - almost like a latter day Paul McCartney. He spent a year managing Al-Wasi in Dubai, attracting big crowds, then became a ‘mental coach’ – yes, seriously – at Deportivo Riestra in the Argentine lower leagues. A further spell in Dubai with Fujairah gave way to a brief stint in Mexico with Dorados de Sinaloa, before Gimnasia de La Plata saw fit to hire Diego as boss in 2019. They even gave him a throne – a literal throne – on the touchline, plumbing the depths of absurdity.

The tragic death of Diego Maradona

While managing Gimnasia, Maradona saw his health – questionable at the best of times – deteriorate rapidly. On 2nd November 2020, he was admitted to a hospital in La Plata with symptoms of psychological exhaustion. Diego was said to be confused, and he later underwent emergency brain surgery to treat a blood clot. After 10 days in hospital, Maradona was discharged, only to suffer a fatal heart attack at his Buenos Aires home on 25th November, passing away tragically.

Argentina observed three days of national mourning, while Diego’s body lay in state at Casa Rosada, the presidential palace. Tens of thousands of distraught apostles filed past Maradona’s coffin, draped evocatively with number 10 shirts from Argentinos, Boca and the national team, respectively. The present day steward of Boca greatness, Tevez wore an original Maradona shirt underneath his own during a Copa Libertadores game, revealing it in poignant celebration after scoring.

Infamously, and controversially, three funeral workers took selfies with Maradona’s body as his casket lay open. When the photos were posted online, global outrage followed in quick succession, and the offenders were swiftly tracked down by Boca ultras, who doled out vicious retribution. Such is the strength of feeling towards Maradona, and such are the consequences for those who denigrate national heroes.

Who is the most famous and beloved Argentine ever? The case for Diego Maradona

Indeed, the outpouring of grief and nostalgia reiterated Maradona’s standing as arguably the most beloved Argentine who ever lived. Guevara was more synonymous with Cuba, of course, while Eva Perón and Pope Francis are naturally divisive as political and religious clerics. Messi may approach Diego’s level of acclaim, but he is yet to win a World Cup, a perpetual stain in the timeless debate. Accordingly, Maradona remains irreplaceable to those who must now live without him.

In the wider pantheon of sports, has there ever been a more polarising, incendiary genius who so transcended his or her game? Babe Ruth, maybe, but he was a cartoonish teddy bear. Mike Tyson, perhaps, but he sacrificed poetic skill for brute force. Muhammad Ali is arguably a good comparison, for the sheer depth of talent and temerity on display, while Tiger Woods is worth also worth a mention.

Ultimately, though, there was never anyone quite like Diego Maradona, and there never will be again. We were blessed to live at the same time as him, witnessing the sublime highs and the stunning lows he authored in frantic ink. Now, we must learn from his mistakes and celebrate his achievements, both unparalleled in scope and consequence.

Those whom the gods wish to destroy, they first make mad with power, according to a hackneyed ancient proverb. In the case of Diego Maradona, that is undoubtedly true, for the man was finally destroyed by the myths that love inspired. Rest peacefully, number 10, from your allies and your enemies. You united us all in the end, even if the burden was too much to bear.


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