KEIR RADNEDGE REPORTING —- Argentina observed three days of national mourning after the death at 60 of Diego Armando Maradona.
One of the world’s greatest and most controversial sportsmen has died at his home in Tigre, Buenos Aires, from heart failure while convalescing after brain surgery.
State President Alberto Fernandez said: “You took us to the top of the world. You made us immensely happy. You were the greatest of them all. Thank you for having existed, Diego. We’re going to miss you all our lives.”
El Pibe de Oro (Golden Boy) was a cult figure in Argentina on a popular historic level with political icon Eva Peron and the tango singer Carlos Gardel. Across locked-down Argentina football clubs switched on their floodlights at 10pm, his shirt number, in tribute. His coffin lay in state in the Casa Rosada presidential palace ahead of his funeral.
Maradona rose from poverty in Villa Fiorito on the fringe of Buenos Aires to worldwide fame and fortune, inspiring and captaining Argentina to win the World Cup in Mexico in 1986.
In those finals he scored, in a 2-1 quarter-final win over England, one of the greatest individual goals in World Cup history and one of the infamous, with his fist – the so-called ‘Hand of God.’
But Maradona’s sporting genius also led him into the dark days of cocaine addiction which ultimately scarred his club career with both Barcelona and then Napoli.
The Argentinian federation, confirming early media reports, said: : “The AFA, through its president Claudio Tapia, expresses its deepest sorrow for the death of our legend, Diego Armando Maradona. You will always be in our hearts.”
Maradona’s admirers in Argentina, where he knew the early glory days with Argentinos Juniors and Boca Juniors, considered him little less than a god, and the tifosi in Italy, where he triumphed with Napoli, worshipped his bootlaces.
So did all of Argentina after Maradona reached the zenith of his career at the 1986 World Cup.
English fans still rage over his “Hand of God” goal in the quarter-final in Mexico City. But Argentine fans remember most clearly his other goal in that game when he collected the ball inside his own half and outwitted five defenders and goalkeeper Peter Shilton before gliding home one of the greatest goals in the history of the World Cup.
Maradona provided a repeat against Belgium in the semi-finals: another brilliant slalom through the defence but from the left, not the right. Then, in the final against West Germany, his slide-rule pass sent Jorge Burruchaga away to score the dramatic winner.
Maradona’s great ability made his subsequent fall all the greater.
His love affair with Italian football went sour after the 1990 World Cup, when Maradona’s Argentina defeated their hosts on penalties in the semi-final in Maradona’s adopted home of Naples. The following spring a dope test showed cocaine traces. He was banned from Italian and then world football for 15 months, returned to Argentina and was arrested there for cocaine possession.
Released on probation, he sought to revive his playing career in Spain, but half a season at Sevilla proved a disaster.
Even his 1994 World Cup comeback ended in the ignominy of dope-test failure and a new 15-month international playing ban. Further comebacks were short-lived, as Maradona’s image was tarnished by lurid headlines provoked by his cocaine addiction. In total, he scored 34 goals in 91 appearances for Argentina.
It had all begun in the working-class Fiorito suburb of Lanus in the province of Buenos Aires where Maradona began playing for a kids’ team named Estrella Roja (Red Star) at the age of nine.
Later he and his friends founded a team known as Los Cebollitas (The Little Onions) who were so promising that the team were signed up en bloc by Argentinos Juniors as one of the club’s youth sides.
On October 20, 1976, Maradona (wearing No. 16) made his league debut as a 15-year-old substitute against Talleres of Cordoba, and a week later he played his first full match against Newells Old Boys from Rosario.
In February 1977 he made his international debut. It appeared odds-on that Maradona would be a member of the squad with which manager Cesar Luis Menotti planned to win the World Cup for Argentina for the first time in front of their own fanatical fans in 1978, but he was one of the three players dropped on the eve of the finals.
It was months before he would speak to Menotti again, but their eventual peace talk paved the way for the first international success of Maradona’s career at the 1979 World Youth Cup in Japan.
Boca Juniors bought him for a world record £1m and resold him two years later to Barcelona for £3m, another record.
Before joining the Catalans he succumbed to the pressures of the World Cup, in Spain in 1982, where he was sent off for an awful lunge at Batista of Brazil. It was the recurring theme of his career: a unique talent for football shadowed by a similarly unique aptitude for arousing controversy.
It says much for the magical technique of his left foot that, despite all the negative vibes, Maradona continued to entrance the game.
In 1984 Napoli paid another world record, this time £5m, to end Maradona’s injury-battered two-year stay with Barcelona. Within weeks Napoli sold a staggering 70,000 season tickets.
Two Italian League championships and one UEFA Cup success were the reward for the fans. Seven glorious, roller-coaster years went by before the partnership was dissolved after a dope-test failure for cocaine.
Later Maradona attempted brief comebacks with Spain’s Sevilla and back home in Argentina with Newell’s Old Boys and Boca Juniors.
Subsequently came a string of short-lived coaching appointments with Textil Mandiyú and Racing (Argentina), Al-Wasl and Fujairah (UAE), Dorados de Sinaloa (Mexico) and latterly Gimnasia de La Plata back in Argentina.
Inbetween he managed Argentina to the quarter-finals of the World Cup in South Africa in 2010.
Along the way Maradona was hospitalised on a number of occasions to deal with weight gain, drug addictions and other health issues. However he remained a magnet for fans and the media everywhere he appeared, most memorably in recent as a celebrity fan of Argentina at the 2018 World Cup finals in Russia.
Maradona was still working with Gimnasia when he was diagnosed with a subdural hematoma in November and underwent emergency surgery. He had apparently come through the operation successfully and had been released from the clinic when he suffered the heart attack which proved fatal.
Maradona is survived by his daughters Dalma and Gianinna, who was previously married to Sergio Aguero, son Diego and ex-wife Claudia Villafane.
** Diego Armando Maradona: born October 30, 1960, died November 25, 2020.