‘’When you’re on the pitch, life goes away. Problems go away. Everything goes away.’’
This quote from Diego Maradona is one that I feel embodies his life on this Earth. He was an individual that received stardom because of his ability to play football, and a player that described the beautiful game as his most treasured toy and his salvation. A poor child from difficult circumstances, football offered him a way out of the slums of Villa Fiorito. Later in his life, football offered a break from his often tumultuous lifestyle.
The Golden Ticket
Little did Diego know that the football his cousin gave him at the age of three would become his Golden Ticket through life.
Growing up as the fifth oldest in a family of eight children, Diego came from difficult circumstances as he was raised in the shantytown known as Villa Fiorito, just outside of Buenos Aires.
Maradona’s ability with the ball became a typical ‘’rag-to-riches’’ story. He wasn’t educated or remarkably sophisticated and he started playing football shirtless and barefooted. A typical street child from an Argentine slum, but one that was naturally blessed with a football, the only tool he had that could help him succeed in life.
Football is a team sport but one where the individuals receive the most praise and stardom. People tend to think of Pele before any of his excellent teammates of the Brazil 1970 World Cup-winning team, arguably the best of all time. Lionel Messi will forever be the poster boy for Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona team, while other crucial players such as Javier Mascherano and Sergio Busquets might get lost in time.
A great side benefits from a star player, but a star player needs good teammates. That is a statement that stands true in most cases, but perhaps the exception is Argentina’s team from 1986 and the Napoli’s team from 1986-90.
In the build-up to the 1986 World Cup in Mexico, the Argentine squad was one in disarray. Qualification to the tournament was, many times during the campaign, in doubt, and pre-tournament friendlies produced unconvincing performances. Despite the uncertain beginnings, the result of the tournament is well known.
Argentina had gone from perceived no-hopers to world champions and never since or before, had one World Cup winning campaign been so heavily influenced by one player. Words to describe just how good Maradona was at that tournament seems like a pointless task, although I would want to note how influential the 25-year-old captain was as a leader. He reenergized his Argentine troops, ran for the team, and got back up after the many times he was brutally tackled.
He was a leader who produced football quality that few had ever seen before, singlehandedly winning football-crazy Argentina their second World Cup title. It was enough to make him be viewed by his compatriots as a footballing God.
Maradona became viewed as some sort of ‘patron saint of football’ not only in Argentina but in football-crazy Naples as well. Fabio Cannavaro summed it up perfectly:
‘‘Maradona is a God to the people of Naples. Maradona changed history. In 80 years, we had always suffered, fighting against relegation, yet in seven seasons with him, we won two leagues, a UEFA Cup, two Italian Cups. I’m a fan too and to live those years with Maradona was incredible.’’
The kid from the poor shantytown fit perfectly with the team from a poor part of Italy. Maradona ended the footballing hegemony of northern Italy, and lead Napoli to their first-ever Serie A title in 1987.
More than a footballer
Is Maradona the greatest footballer of all time?
Maradona won titles that others, before and after, have won and scored incredible goals that have since been repeated. Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi have won more titles, scored more goals, and broken more records.
Is that what this social phenomenon known as football is all about? The results on the pitch? Not for me.
For me, what stands out with Maradona is how he made football an act of resistance and restitution. When he met with Pope John Paul II, he told the press afterward:
“I was in the Vatican and I saw all these golden ceilings and afterward I heard the Pope say the Church was worried about the welfare of poor kids. Sell your ceiling then, amigo, do something!”
He was well aware of the importance of the game against England in the World Cup 1986 after Argentina’s loss in the Falkland Wars, as well as the importance of what it would mean for an oppressed southern Italian city to win the league instead of the economically superior Northern clubs. It is not the titles that are most important in Diego Maradona’s career, but what the titles meant at the time.
With tattoos of Fidel Castro and Che Guevara, Maradona was, in many ways, a player who played for his people, the poor and marginalized throughout the Third World. He never became a part of the hyper-commercial footballing elite that has taken over so much of the modern game. No matter how much his stardom increased, Maradona never strayed from his roots.
Diego Armando Maradona epitomized the human character: flawed but with the ability to display its brilliance.
So, in that sense, he was the greatest of them all.