Diego Maradona could produce magic on the field and controversy off of it. (Andy Mead/YCJ Photo)
By Michael Lewis
Diego Maradona was a genius on the soccer field, but a very flawed human being off it.
The Argentine soccer icon could magic for himself and his team and misery for the opposition.
The latter would go for the soccer icon off the pitch.
Maradona died for a heart attack Wednesday. He was 60, having celebrated his latest birthday Oct. 30.
He entertained millions with his fabulous feats with his feet, his head and sometimes his hand. But he also suffered off it with self-indulgence, drug problems and with health problems that led to his death.
As great as he was on the field, it seemed that controversy always followed the most famous No. 10 of his generation.
Maradona came into prominence and grabbed headlines with Argentinos Juniors at the age of 16, scoring 116 goals in 167 matches from 1976-81. As a 17-year-old, he had hopes of playing for his native country, which hosted the 1978 World Cup, but was left off the squad.
He was set to help Argentina dominate at the 1982 World Cup but fell woefully short as he was kicked and fouled and never played close to his potential. After performing two seasons with Barcelona, Maradona, then 24, joined Napoli in Italy’s Serie A in 1984, embarking on a seven-year tenure in which he led the club to a pair of Serie A titles, one Coppa Italia crown and one UEFA Cup championship.
At the 1986 World Cup, Maradona put on a show and dominated a world championship like no other player. He was unmercifully fouled up and down the fields in Mexico. But his best revenge was scoring off a free kick or setting up a teammate on a set play. Of Argentina’s 14 goals, Maradona had a hand, literally and figuratively, in 11 of them.
No other player, including the great Pele, dominated a World Cup like Maradona.
Maradona demonstrated his cunning and his brilliance during a four-minute span against England.
Six minutes into the second half, Maradona had tried to play the ball into the penalty area, but English midfielder Steve Hodge out battled the Argentine for the ball and lifted a back pass to goalkeeper Peter Shilton. Maradona and the keeper arrived at the same time and the Argentine knocked the ball into the net with his left hand. Despite protests by the English, referee Ali Bennaceur of Tunisia pointed to the center spot.
Maradona later claimed “the hand of God” scored that goal.
As if to make amends, Maradona embarked on an amazing journey four minutes later. He took possession of the ball 10 yards into Argentine territory. He performed a 180-degree turn that left Peter Reid and Peter Beardsley standing in their tracks. He then raced down the right side into English territory past Ray Wilkins. Terry Fenwick tried to pull him down at the top of the penalty area, but Maradona shrugged him off. Shilton came out of the goal, committed himself and fell to the turf, eight yards out. Terry Butcher tried a last-ditch effort with a sliding tackle under Maradona, who pushed the ball into the unattended net.
Total time: ten seconds. Number of touches: nine.
Even Maradona’s opponents were awed by the performance.
“Today he scored one of the most brilliant goals you’ll ever see,” England coach Bobby Robson said. “That first goal was dubious, the second goal a miracle. It was a fantastic goal. It’s marvelous for football that every now and then the world produces a player like Maradona. I didn’t like his second goal, but I did admire it.”
In Argentina’s 3-2 victory over West Germany (coached by Franz Beckenbauer) in the final, all eyes were on Maradona scoring a goal. He didn’t, but set up the game-winner late in the match on a rather simple pass.
Four years later at Italia ’90, Maradona had lost a little off his fastball, using parlance from another sport. He didn’t display the zip or vibrance he demonstrated four years prior. He didn’t score a goal, but he led the World Cup in complaints.
After Argentina was beaten by West Germany in the final, Maradona blamed everyone but himself.
In fact, his parting show at the competition turned out to be his hardest shot, taking on the Mafia, referee Edgardo Codesal and FIFA president Dr. Joao Havelange.
“I will have to tell my eldest daughter that the Mafia exists in soccer because the referee called a penalty that didn’t exist,” said Maradona, referring to the controversial call by Codesal, who awarded West Germany a penalty kick in the 84th minute that turned out to be the game-winner in a 1-0 win.
“Maybe Germany would have won, 4-0, but I don’t want to lose on a penalty,” he added. “This is the saddest day of my career. They did not know how to stop us. Now they will be very happy, Germany and Italy.”
Havelange even bristled when he heard about Maradona’s suggestion that the World Cup should be played in September instead of July because of the cooler weather.
“I ask you how many games does Napoli play in a month? Fifteen?” Havelange said. “In a World Cup, there are seven matches in a month. If players don’t want to come to the World Cup, they don’t have to come. There are more than 500 players playing here. I don’t hear anyone else complaining. Maradona is the only one.”
During the awards ceremony after the final, Maradona refused to shake hands with the Brazilian FIFA president.
After overcoming an addiction to cocaine, a slimmed-down Maradona, then 33, returned to the Argentine national team for one last World Cup appearance at USA ’94. However, after the group stage of the competition, a disgraced Maradona was booted from the tournament for taking a cocktail of drugs that ranged from stimulants to diet pills. He twice tested positive for five banned substances.
In his usual stance of defiance, Maradona told a Buenos Aires TV station: “I don’t know, maybe we were careless, but I swear I did not drug myself to play. With my abilities, I don’t need to drug myself.
“They [FIFA] have retired me from soccer. I don’t think I want another revenge; my soul is broken. I don’t understand. I would like to fly. It turns. They cut my legs off when I had a chance to recover.”
Maradona eventually entered coaching, including a maddening run at the helm of the Argentine national team from 2008-10. He directed the squad at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.
Eventually, his over-the-top lifestyle eventually caught up to Maradona. Obese with health problems in recent years, Maradona passed away from a heart attack Wednesday.
There has been a great debate as to whether Pele or Maradona was the greatest player, not unlike Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo of this generation.
It may be difficult to prove, but one thing was certain: Diego Maradona was one of the greatest, and a fabulous entertainer who could steal the spotlight and refused to give it back, whether you liked it or not.