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Diego Maradona was football’s most sublime genius, but the most flawed of men

He was the most sublime of footballers but the most flawed of men.

No sportsman has been subjected to more brutal scrutiny than Diego Armando Maradona because none has possessed such amounts of genius and weakness in equal measure.

Many in England will never forgive him for his infamous hand ball in the 1986 World Cup, which he later declared to be divine justice for the Argentines defeat in the Falklands War.

Many who frown on drug abuse will not forgive him for his huge appetite for cocaine and the wild behaviour he often exhibited when taking it.

But for millions of football-lovers across the world, like me, his outrageous talent and charisma single him out as the greatest man we have ever seen kick a ball.

A small ball of brilliance who could take your breath away with a piece of balletic skill that resulted in a glorious goal, then make you smile when you saw how much it meant to him.

Maradona was a genius

A man whose magic brought hope and joy not just to his fellow Argentines but to those in his adopted city of Naples.

In the seven years he was there he was worshipped so intensely many city residents had a framed photo of him near a statue of Christ.

A phial of his blood sat on the cathedral altar.

In Naples, people gathered to pay tribute at the San Paolo on Wednesday night

In his later years he was hounded to give more and more of his diminishing talent and collapsed under the weight of expectation.

But he was an unforgettable character who, right up to his death, was pure rock ‘n’ roll.

He once intervened in the debate about whether he, or Pele, was the Greatest of All Time, to say: “If Pele thinks he’s the Beethoven of football then I’m Ronnie Wood, Keith Richards and the Bono of football.”

He could also have thrown in the Beatles for good measure.

How ironic he died on the same day, and almost the same age as his British equivalent, George Best, another rock ‘n’ roll footballing legend who had his demons but was adored by millions for his God-given talent.

People gather at the top of the Quartieri Spagnoli in Naples

Maradona was born on October 30 1960, in Buenos Aires, and raised in a shantytown on the outskirts of the Argentine capital, one of eight children.

His prodigious talent was spotted in street kickabouts by the scout for first division club Argentinos Juniors when he was eight and he made his league debut at 15.

By the age of 16 he was representing Argentina and went on to lead them to victory at the 1986 World Cup in Mexico and a place in the final four years later.

It was in that 1986 quarter-final against England that he would have his first major brush with controversy, punching the ball past goalkeeper Peter Shilton into the net.

The anger back in England only intensified when he said the goal came thanks to “a little with the head of Maradona and a little with the hand of God”.

The infamous ‘Hand of God’

However, four minutes later, he scored one of the greatest goals of all time, ripping the English defence apart with a mazy 60-yard run before firing home and sealing victory.

As Peter Reid later said: “It was like a kid chasing his dad around the garden. I couldn’t even get near enough to foul him.”

Maradona twice broke the world transfer record, leaving Boca Juniors in his home country for Barcelona for £3m in 1982 and joining Napoli two years later for £5m.

And although he played the best football of his career there and became a massive superstar, he was heavily involved with the Camorra crime syndicate, and was eventually dragged under by cocaine addiction and a paternity suit.

Twice Maradona led Napoli to the Scudetto

It still amazes how he flourished as the world’s greatest player between 1986 and 1990 when his system was riddled with cocaine. Yet in that time, he laid down the greatest body of work of any footballer.

He twice led Argentina, almost single-handedly, to a World Cup Final, winning once. And he took Napoli, which had never been Italian champions, to two titles and a UEFA Cup.

Both Argentina and Naples were on their knees at the time, the former still recovering from the humiliation of the Falklands War and the latter an urban basket case, mocked as the “sewer of Italy”.

Yet Maradona took both these fanatical football hotbeds to the game’s pinnacle.

After winning the UEFA Cup in 1989

However the attention and expectation suffocated him. “This is a great city but I can hardly breathe.” he said. “I want to be free to walk around. I’m a lad like any other.”

The anti-mafia forces eventually went after him.

His phones were tapped, enabling police to catch him ordering drugs and prostitutes, leading to a suspended jail sentence and five million lira fine.

And traces of cocaine found in his urine after a game led to a draconian 15-month ban.


He left Italy in tears, a broken man.

“When I arrived I was welcomed by 85,000, when I left I was all alone,” were the words that sum up the fickleness of fame and the fragility of a hero’s halo.

He tried to revive his club career in Spain and Argentina but was a shadow of his former self.

The final image of him on a pitch was celebrating a goal in Argentina’s 1994 US World Cup opener with a manic, bulging-eyed yell into a TV camera.

In retirement his problems kept mounting.

Escorted by police, leaving a courthouse after answering charges he shot and injured journalists

He was given a suspended jail sentence for shooting at journalists with an air rifle, his weight ballooned to 20 stone, he suffered a major heart attack, had gastric-bypass surgery to help stem his obesity, and sought sanctuary in Cuba while battling to overcome his drug addiction.

Despite all of that, he was appointed manager of Argentina and took them to the World Cup quarter-finals in 2010.

Diego Maradona dies age 60

But everyone’s last memory of him on the biggest stage came two years ago during the World Cup in Russia, when during one game he danced with a woman in the crowd, fell asleep, flipped the bird at fans and keeled over.

Once again there were allegations about substance and alcohol abuse and fears about his mental and physical health.

It’s why his death, at 60, came as little surprise, but left every genuine football-lover saddened at the passing of a true icon.

The little Argentinian who is up there with Eva Peron and Che Guevara as a national hero, once said of playing football: “When I’m on the pitch all my problems go away.”

At least now this troubled genius is at peace.

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