To see him play, was to witness a genius at work.
I hope you’ll forgive me, since it’s a Celtic themed blog, but I thought I’d skip my usual Celtic player tribute for a change and turn to my favourite player ever.
Diego Maradona the classic number 10 was given the nickname “The Golden Boy” he was the first player ever to break the world transfer fee twice, to Barcelona for £5 million, then to Napoli for £6.9 million.
Raised in a shantytown on the outskirts of Buenos Aires, he was a son of an Argentine father and a mother of both Italian and Croatian heritage. If anything he taught us that being born into relative poverty should never deter us from following our dreams.
When Diego first came to Argentinos Juniors for trials they did not believe he was only 8 years old, although he was small in stature he played like an adult, when they eventually discovered that Diego was telling the truth they decided to devote themselves purely to him, it was clear, even then, he was an exceptional talent.
Maradona made his professional debut on his 16th birthday, and that debut was to become legendary as he nutmegged opposition player Juan Domingo Cabrera during the game and left Cabrera standing for dead, Diego would last five years at Argentinos Juniors, from 1976 to 1981, scoring 115 goals in 167 games, before his then, huge transfer to Boca Juniors, a team he always wanted to play for.
Diego then went to Barcelona, after the 1982 World Cup for a then world record transfer fee of £5 million Maradona won the Copa del Rey and the Spanish Super Cup, The following year, Barcelona beat Real Madrid in El Clásico, Maradona scored and became the first Barcelona player to be applauded by arch-rival Real Madrid fans. Only Ronaldinho (Nov 2005) and Iniesta (Nov 2015) have been given such an ovation as Barcelona players, from the Madrid fans at the Bernabeu.
Diego’s early days at Barcelona were looking very good, however it was to get harder due to illness and injury, a case of hepatitis, followed by a broken ankle from a reckless challenge by Athletico Bilbao’s Andoni Goikoetxea (Nicknamed the Butcher of Bilbao) threatened to wreck Maradona’s career, but he overcame both.
More however was to follow, during another game against Athletico Bilbao, in which Barcelona lost 1-0 Andoni Goikoetxea (The Butcher of Bilbao) again, made another reckless challenge on Diego, whilst Bibao fans were taunting Diego throughout the whole game with racist insults towards his father, this together with xenophobic terms being directed towards Maradona from Bilbao player Miguel Sola, made Diego snap, A right old brawl ensued in front of the King of Spain 100,000 fans inside the stadium and millions watching on TV.
The brawl effectively ended Diego’s Barcelona career, and he was sold to Napoli for 6.9 million.
To try to guage the extent of Maradona’s popularity we can look at his presentation to Napoli fans, a massive 75,000 fans turned out just to welcome him to the club. The fans were convinced that their saviour had arrived. One local newspaper printed that even though Naples had no mayor, very poor housing, schools, buses, mass unemployment and sanitation was awful, none of this mattered, because we have Maradona !
Maradona like every other genius had his off field demons, like Jinky and Best had with alcohol, Diego’s was drugs.
While at Napoli Diego Maradona reached his peak, and became revered as Napoli won their first ever Serie A Championship, sparking a city carnival celebration which ran for over a week. Hundreds of new born babies were christened Diego.
Napoli captained by Diego would also win the league in 89-90, Coppa Italia in 1987, the UEFA Cup in 1989 beating Stuttgard 5-4 over two legs, and the Italian Supercup in 1990, and he was the all-time leading goalscorer for Napoli, with 115 goals, although his personal problems increased and his cocaine use continued.
Maradona made his full international debut at age 16, against Hungary, The 1982 World Cup will be renowned for the one where Diego Maradona was repeatedly fouled, some shocking refereeing decisions, and it led to Maradona being sent off for a retaliatory challenge against Brazil’s Batista.
The 1986 World cup however was to belong to Diego Maradona he finally stamped his dominance on the world stage to become the most dynamic player in the competition, Argentina with Diego would beat West Germany in the final, on the way to the final Diego would score five goals and made five assists, none are more spoken about than his 2 against England, with the background of the Falklands War between Argentina and the UK still fresh on peoples minds.
The infamous Hand of God goal, followed by his 66yard run past 5 players and the goal of the tournament, it was later voted as the greatest goal in the history of the World Cup. He gathered the ball in his own half, turned round taking eleven touches he ran 66 yards, gliding past five English players before he left keeper Shilton on his arse, and slotted the ball into the net. Also voted Goal of the Century in 2002.
Yes, Diego sure had his demons, sometimes brought about by the company he kept, fex: his links to the Cammora (Italian mafia) while at Napoli, but what he did outwith his day job, could easily be forgotten for what he showed when he stepped onto a football pitch the wee man was a genius with a ball, i always felt it was a priviledge to watch him.
Regarded as one of the most technically gifted dribblers in the game ever, Johan Cruyff said he noticed similarities between Maradona and Messi with the ball seemingly attached to their body when dribbling.
He may have been silly after he had done it all on the biggest football stage in the world, and his demons multiplied with his fame, but there is no doubt whatsoever, that Diego Maradona was an exceptional and truly unrivaled player and an outstanding talented individual and athlete.
If you do one thing with your spare time, I seriously suggest you spend 20 minutes and watch this compilation video of this wee genius at work, undoubtedly the most skillful player ever, and probably the worlds most fouled football player …..oh to have seen him wear the famous hoops.
RIP Diego Armando Maradona.