My mother thinks I am the best. And I was raised to always believe what my mother tells me: Maradona the boy genius
If Diego Maradona, who like many footballers was birthed in extreme poverty, tops the list of working-class heroes in the sport, it is because of a unique combination of chutzpah, chicanery, skill and self-destruction. He was part George Best — who, for all the wine and women, is mostly remembered as the Fifth Beatle who wove magic for Manchester United and Northern Ireland — and part Garrincha. Like Garrincha, who was about more wine and women than Best, Maradona was born poor, and like him again, he won a World Cup pretty much on his own.
An airport in Belfast is named after Best; Brasilia’s Estadio Nacional Mane Garrincha immortalises the hero of the 1958 and ’62 World Cups, and Napoli has moved to rename its football cathedral after “Santa Maradona”. But neither Best nor Garrincha would tell Pope John Paul II to sell the Vatican’s gold ceilings if, as the Pope claimed, children’s poverty moved him. Maradona did.
Neither Best nor Garrincha were as avowedly political. You can rebut Maradona’s political beliefs but what you can’t is question the conviction of the man who had the name of Fidel Castro tattooed on his left shin and Che Guevara on his right shoulder.
Argentinian President Juan Peron’s encouraging migration after World War 2 had the Maradonas, mother Dalma Salvadora first, followed by father Tota (Diego Maradona Sr), move to Buenos Aires from the river town of Esquina. Peron also believed in the power of sport to unite a country and invested in football. Said to be an “unspectacular” right-winger when he was happily high and had time off from being a porter in Esquina, Diego Sr’s team was a beneficiary.
In Esquina, home, according to Jimmy Burns’s book Hand of God, meant “cramped riverside huts moulded with clay and manure and covered in reeds”. In Villa Fiorito, a slum now part of Buenos Aires, it comprised “scrap metal, loose bricks and cardboard”. Not long after they moved, Peron was overthrown but Tota had found a job in a factory and Dalma as a housemaid so it was where Maradona grew up. Born on October 30, 1960, he died on Wednesday, aged 60.
The first son born after three sisters to a close-knit family — Maradona would spend $15,000 every month on phone calls to his mother from Italy — was given a football as a third birthday gift by his uncle Cirilo. He loved it, hugged it and went to sleep with it. The ball always hid the dirt, Maradona would later say.
The move to Argentinos Juniors at 10 was a natural progression. Maradona wasn’t fast; he was tiny, but when he moved, head bowed and chest thrust out, the ball often became an extension of his left foot. “No one can stop him when he decides to dribble upfield,” Eduardo Galeano writes in Football in Sun and Shadow, and that is only a mild exaggeration.
By 1976, Argentina was getting to know this. Ten days before turning 16, Maradona debuted for the Argentinos senior team. On November 14, he scored his first goal as a professional. On February 27, 1977, Maradona became a full international. Over 31 months later and still a teenager, he would star in Argentina, winning the world youth title. He had two ambitions, he said: to play, and to win the World Cup. He was giving early notice.
In 1977, Maradona made friend and fellow teen Jorge Cyterszpiler his manager. Cyterszpiler, who had studied economics, made Maradona very rich through endorsement deals. Like many footballers from Pele to Best and Ronaldinho, Maradona would, however, lose most of it soon.
Cyterszpiler got Barcelona to agree to an $8 million deal and buy Maradona, who had scored over 100 league goals before he was 22, from Boca Juniors. The deal almost didn’t go through because like Pele, who was declared an “official national treasure” in 1961 to prevent him from moving out of Brazil, the Argentine junta wanted to stop Maradona from leaving.
Hepatitis, a serious ankle injury and a brawl with the king of Spain in attendance made Maradona’s time at Barcelona a nightmare before resurrection at Napoli and the slide thereafter. But even during a low point in his career at Barcelona, the way Maradona suddenly stopped and let an opponent slip, won applause from Real Madrid fans.
It was “like a fire engine going to the wrong fire”. Those were the words used by football writer Geoffrey Green describing England captain Billy Wright’s run while trying to tackle Hungary’s Ferenc Puskas, but it could have described Maradona’s skill as well.
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