FINALLY, he rests, the greatest of all time. Diego Armando Maradona passed on on Wednesday at the age of 60 after suffering a heart attack in his native Argentina, just a couple of weeks after undergoing surgery to remove a blood clot from his brain. Eventually, it was his heart that collapsed and gave way after a high octane, passion-filled 60 years lived on the edge. The Argentine maestro led a colourful life, eventful both on and off the pitch — astonishing fans with his breath-taking style and infuriating the establishment with his flagrant disregard of the rules both on and off the field.
Maradona, who was voted one of the two joint winners of the FIFA Player of the 20th Century award, along with Brazilian icon Pele, led Argentina to glory at the 1986 World Cup in Mexico and also won championships with Napoli and his beloved Boca Juniors, granting him almost saint-like status in both Italy and Argentina. It was whispered that he was more popular than the Pope – and that is saying something if you consider the deep catholic traditions of both countries.
Maradona specialised in the spectacular. He was deceptively quick and totally unpredictable — the conductor of Argentina’s attack. Able to spray passes as he linked up play with the likes of Jorge Burruchaga for Argentina or Salvatore Bagni at Napoli, he was also able to weave his way past bemused defenders with ballerina-like poise, often finishing off with devastating effect with his left boot, his most potent weapon.
He dominated matches like no player had ever done in the history of the game, his style captivating fans while bewitching his opponents over a two-decade long career that saw him thrust Argentina firmly on the world map.
“You took us to the top of the world,” Argentina President Alfredo Fernandez tweeted as news of his demise spread on social media. “You made us incredibly happy. You were the greatest of all.”
Argentina’s “golden boy” is best remembered for the two goals that sent England packing from the 1986 World Cup. Their quarter-final at the legendary Estadio Azteca was eagerly anticipated, coming just a few years after the Falklands War between the United Kingdom and Argentina.
It was a game that had more than just a sporting edge to it — it had plenty of niggle and national pride was at stake and Maradona made sure Argentina would not lose a second war with a performance that few would ever forget.
Early in the second half, a hurried clearance from the England defence sent the ball high into their own penalty area and Maradona pounced, showing cat-like agility to leap above Peter Shilton, the England goalkeeper, as he tried to punch the ball clear. Replays showed that Maradona punched, rather than headed, the ball into the net — coming more than three decades before the introduction of VAR, it was a foul the match-officials missed. The Argentine No. 10 would go on to dedicate the goal to the “hand of God.”
While that goal has become arguably the most infamous in soccer history, Maradona’s second in that game was voted the best ever seen at a World Cup. After receiving a pass inside his own half, Maradona waltzed past the entire England defence before rounding off Shilton and slotting the ball into the net from a tight angle. It was pure genius from a man operating at the peak of his powers.
He also led La Albiceleste, as Argentina are known, to the final of Italia’90 only to be cruelly denied a second successive world cup title by a resilient West Germany. But his international playing career came to an ignominious end in 1994 with the shame of a failed drugs test at the World Cup in the United States. His notoriously wayward lifestyle, which had come to the fore when he was banned from football in 1991 for substance abuse during his days at Napoli, was catching up with him. It was his battles with addiction that would become regular global news for the rest of his life. Inevitably, health problems followed as Maradona partied through retirement, occasionally taking up coaching jobs with little or limited success – the highest profile of which was Argentina’s capitulation at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, a tournament they came into as one of the favourites.
Maradona’s life was something of a paradox — a drama that carried the good, the bad and the ugly. But there is no denying his status as one of the most inspirational players the game has ever seen. Legendary Uruguayan radio commentator, Victor Hugo Morales, summed it up best during that famous Argentina — England match in Mexico. The emotion with which he called the second goal will forever be etched into the collective memory of those who were privileged to have watched it. “What planet did you come from?” he shouted. Then, as he ran out of breath: “Thank you God, for football, for Maradona.” To have said more would have been to spoil the moment, and fittingly, I too will not gild the lily — Thank you for the memories, Diego.