Maradona was adored in part because he didn’t look like a great footballer. The crafty street urchin was a David beating Goliath © Meazza Sambucetti/AP

Diego Maradona, all 1.65 metres of him, played with the joy of the individual beating the system. The most charismatic and unprofessional of the great footballers, he was also the only one to win a World Cup almost single-handed, with a second-rate Argentine team in Mexico in 1986.

Born in 1960, he grew up outside Buenos Aires in a shack without running water where pictures of Juan and Eva Perón adorned the walls. He shared a room with seven siblings and once survived a fall into an open cesspit. A pair of turquoise corduroys were his only trousers.

When he emerged in adolescence, Argentine football fans instantly recognised him as the ideal they had carried in their heads since the 1920s: the pibe (boy) nurtured on the potrero (bumpy urban plot) who dribbled with the creativity that supposedly sprouted from a child’s imagination.

He debuted for Argentina aged 16, rescued his family from poverty and became the public property of his compatriots, who seemed to expect him to redeem the nation’s failure in other realms. His first World Cup, in 1982, ended with a sending-off for karate-kicking the Brazilian player Batista. It was a mistake: he had meant to kick Falcão instead.

He failed at Barcelona, his ankle destroyed by a Basque defender. Maradona endured fouls that would earn instant red cards today. He got through the 1986 World Cup in Mexico with painkilling injections, wearing one boot several sizes larger than the other, because his bad ankle swelled during games. Nothing stopped him. That tournament was the standout month of his career, and the quarter-final against England the standout match. Early on he scored with his hand, which he then waved to the crowd in celebration. Afterwards, with characteristic wild poetry, he attributed the goal to “the hand of God”. In his defence, the English cheated too, kicking and elbowing him all through the match.

Maradona kisses the trophy after Argentina’s World Cup win in Mexico in 1986 © Bob Thomas/Getty
Maradona scores his ‘hand of God’ goal in the quarter-final against England © Bob Thomas/Getty

Four minutes after the hand of God, he scored what is widely considered the supreme goal of any World Cup, a dribble past six Englishmen. In the showers afterwards, his teammate Jorge Valdano teased him: throughout the run, Valdano had been calling for the ball, why hadn’t Maradona passed? I was watching you, replied Maradona, and kept trying to pass, but the English were in the way, and suddenly I’d beaten them all so I just scored. Valdano was awed: “While scoring this goal you were also watching me? Old man, you insult me. It isn’t possible.” Maradona later confessed that he sometimes preferred the handled goal: “It was like stealing the wallet of the English.”

A nationalist, and a footballer motivated by anger, he said in his autobiography that the victory avenged Argentina’s defeat in the Falklands war four years earlier, when British soldiers had killed his countrymen “like little birds”. He added: “It was as if we had beaten a country, not just a football team.”

Maradona was adored in part because he didn’t look like a great footballer. The crafty street urchin was a David beating Goliath. Winning the World Cup made him an Argentine icon. Extrovert though he was, he felt besieged by the throngs who surrounded him everywhere. He hated being touched. His dream “to return to my country and be left in peace” was never fulfilled.

His club career peaked in Naples, a poor chaotic city that embraced him like a lost son. Napoli’s Italian titles in 1987 and 1990 were the only ones won by any team south of Rome in the past half century. Most teammates adored him. As with Argentina, he uncomplainingly played with mediocrities, applauding even passes sent metres behind him. Once he had the ball, he could do the rest alone.

Maradona with Lionel Messi after Argentina were beaten by Germany in the 2010 World Cup quarter-final © Dylan Martinez/Reuters
Maradona with his daughters at an event in his honour at La Bombonera stadium in Buenos Aires in 2001 © Ali Burafi/AFP/Getty

Meanwhile, he became addicted to cocaine. After losing the World Cup final of 1990, he blurted conspiracy theories about Fifa, the global football authority. Always the main character of every World Cup, in 1994 he was thrown out mid-tournament for taking the performance-enhancing drug ephedrine. His life, and his weight, spiralled out of control. He aspired to get up in the morning and take his daughters to school, his teammate told me, yet hardly ever could. His death had been foretold since his thirties.

An instinctive leftwing populist, who felt guilty being rich, Maradona had Che Guevara’s face tattooed on his arm, saying, “It was time the two greatest Argentines were united in the same body.” He befriended Fidel Castro, and in baseball-obsessed Cuba briefly found the peace he sought.

He watched the 2006 World Cup as a fan wearing an Argentine replica shirt, jumping rhythmically in the stands with his compatriots. No other great player could have done it, but Maradona incarnated Argentina. In 2010, he coached Argentina at the World Cup. He participated in a training game while smoking a cigar, appointed a friend as an assistant, harangued journalists and slurred homosexuals at press conferences, and swore to run (or waddle) naked through Buenos Aires if Argentina won. But they crashed out 4-0 against Germany, while a baffled Maradona wept on the touchline. After that, no big club would employ him. At the end, he was coaching humble Gimnasia in Argentina.

He was taking treatment for alcohol dependency and had brain surgery early this month, then suffered a fatal heart attack. Argentine heroes are expected to die prematurely, giving their flesh for the nation: Carlos Gardel, Eva Perón, Che and the singer Rodrigo Bueno. The pandemic denies Maradona a funeral to match Evita’s. Argentina has proclaimed three days of national mourning.

simon.kuper@ft.com

 

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