1) 1976: the debut
“A lot of people claim they were there on 20 October 1976 when we played Talleres de Córdoba at home. The truth is, if everyone who says they were there for that match – my debut in the first team – had actually been there it would have had to be played at the Maracanã, not La Paternal” – Diego Maradona in El Diego, his autobiography
Diego Maradona was 15 years, 355 days old when he made his first senior appearance, for Argentinos Juniors, at home in Group D of the National Championship, to Talleres de Córdoba. The visitors won 1-0, and for Argentinos it was of no significant consequence, other than for the debut of a child who a couple of years earlier had been on TV doing tricks firstly with a football, then an orange, then a bottle.
Maradona was named on the bench, and at half-time coach Juan Carlos Montes told the young man he would be coming on. “Go on, kid,” said Montes. “Play like you know how and if you can, nutmeg somebody.” The man he replaced, Rubén Giacobetti, was a journeyman who would go on to play in the US indoor league and is now an estate agent, but who is known in Argentina as the man who made way for Diego. “Having been taken off for Maradona,” Giacobetti said a few years ago, “is a nice gift. Beyond that I did not make as much of a mark on football as I would have wanted.”
Maradona ultimately couldn’t make a significant impact on a humdrum game playing for an average team, but what’s notable about his debut is how significant an event it was for everyone else. Maradona did as he was told, slipping the ball between the legs of his marker, Juan Cabrera, at the first opportunity, and much like Giacobetti, Cabrera later expressed pride at simply being part of the day. It’s reminiscent of Jan Olsen, the man only widely known for being flummoxed by Johan Cruyff, describing that moment as being the “best of his career”. When Cruyff died, Olsen said: “The day he made 20,000 Dutch fans laugh at me is a memory I will always cherish.” These mere mortals, breathing the same air as El Diego – even if he replaced and humiliated them – can say they were there at the beginning.
2) 1983: a very Maradona goal – Real Madrid v Barcelona
Maradona’s spell at Barcelona is often written off as an aberration, a two-year spell in the Catalan wilderness where he fell out with presidents, coaches, players and fans. Where he contracted hepatitis. Where he spent most of his time injured. Where his cocaine habit blossomed – although it was also where he starred in an anti-drugs campaign paid for by the city’s mayor. Maradona was portrayed on a beach, surrounded by clean-cut youngsters, accompanied by the phrase: “Enjoy life. Drugs kill.”
But it is often overlooked that he scored 38 goals in 58 appearances at the Camp Nou, and his 23 goals in 1983-84 was more than he ever managed in a single season for Napoli. He also produced a few moments of genius: this, after all, is Maradona. He could hardly avoid doing so.
Maradona’s relationship with Barcelona’s fans was always a sticky one: partly for all the reasons mentioned above, but mostly because he was viewed as an over-hyped disappointment. But while he didn’t always have their admiration, on one occasion at least he was lauded by Real Madrid’s fans. At the end of the 1982-83 season, the two sides faced each other in the final of the short-lived Copa de la Liga. Barça took the lead in a frantic game, before in the second half Maradona scored what in many respects was a simple goal, but also one that displayed his outrageous talent.
The Real crowd then did what they wouldn’t for another 22 years: applaud a Barcelona player. A standing ovation from many, just as they did for Ronaldinho when he tore them to shreds in 2005. It might have been as much frustration at their own side as acclaim for Maradona, but they recognised the real thing when they saw it.
3) 1986: the goal
Victor Hugo Morales (commentator for Radio Argentina): “Maradona has the ball, two mark him, Maradona touches the ball, the genius of world soccer dashes to the right and leaves the third and is going to pass to Burruchaga. It’s still Maradona!”
Maradona: “Fenwick tried to hard to close in, but I carried on and I already had Shilton in front of me…God, the Beard, helped me. The Beard reminded me, tic …Shilton bought the dummy, he bought it. So I got to the end and I went tac, inside … at the same time Butcher, a big blond guy, caught up with me again and kicked me quite hard.”
Valdano: “It was like watching it on a mobile TV camera. At first I went along with him out of a sense of responsibility, but then I realised I was just one more spectator. I didn’t feel there was anything I could do. It was his goal and had nothing to do with the team. It was Diego’s personal adventure, one that was totally spectacular.”
Morales: “Genius! Genius! Genius! Ta-ta-ta-ta-ta-ta-ta. Goooooaaaal! Gooooooaaaaal! I want to cry! Dear God! Long live soccer! Gooooooaaaaalllllll! Diegoal! Maradona! It’s enough to make you cry, forgive me. Maradona, in an unforgettable run, in the play of all time. Cosmic kite! What planet are you from, to leave in your wake so many Englishmen?”
Bobby Robson: “There was no lack of discipline on our part. No errors. Just the genius of one player who went through half our team to score the best goal of the competition … I didn’t like it but I had to admire it.”
Maradona: “If we had been playing against another team, I would never, ever have made that goal. Another team would have knocked me to the ground way earlier, but the English are noble people.”
Brian Glanville, journalist: “It was a goal so unusual, almost romantic, that it might have been scored by some schoolboy hero, or some remote Corinthian, from the days when dribbling was the vogue. It hardly belonged to so apparently rational and rationalised an era as ours, to a period in football when the dribble seemed almost as extinct as the pterodactyl.”
Maradona: “I really started screaming like a madman…I ran along the end line … the others ran over, [Jorge] Burruchaga, [Sergio] Batista, Valdano – they all forgot about [the manager, Carlos] Bilardo’s warning about not getting nuts after a goal and wearing ourselves out. “What an amazing goal, you son of a bitch!” they shouted … I’d scored the goal of my life.”
4) 1987: Napoli win for the south
“Our Maradona, who takes the field, blessed be thy name,
Thy kingdom is Napoli, lead us not into disappointment
But deliver unto us the championship.
– a prayer written on a wall in Naples, 1987
There were European elections held in the summer of 1984. In Naples, where talk was bubbling that their football club was about to do something big, some people didn’t select one of the presented candidates, and instead wrote the name “Diego Maradona” on their ballot papers.
In a city that, to say the least, was not in the greatest of shape, Maradona represented the hope of something else. His personality fitted with the place – brash and unapologetic – but his talent hinted at more, at some glamour, some optimism. The newly-elected mayor of Naples, Vincenzo Scotti, knew all of this, and despite the club already having debts to the tune of about £3.7m, Scotti’s connections with various banking organisations secured a loan sufficient to pay the £5m world-record fee demanded by Barcelona.
Maradona arrived to quite the frenzy. So much so that a lookalike was hired to wander round the island of Capri in the hope of throwing paparazzi off the scent. Around 70,000-80,000 showed up at the stadium just to watch him arrive. A local newspaper declared that despite the lack of “houses, schools, buses, employment and sanitation, none of this matters because we have Maradona”.
Steady progress was made over the next two seasons, but by the third Napoli, inspired by Maradona were cooking. They did not lose any of their first 13 games of the 1986-87 season, but perhaps the key encounter came against Juventus in November.
Napoli had never won a league title before Maradona came along. In fact, no side from the south of Italy had. Juventus, the lofty giants from the north, were the symbol of basically everything Napoli weren’t: big, a successful history, rich, part of the establishment and had won Serie A in four of the previous six seasons. When Napoli came to visit the southerners’ insurgency looked like it might be halted when Juve went 1-0 up, but back came Napoli to win 3-1, goals from Moreno Ferrario, Bruno Giordano and Giuseppe Volpecina, but their play orchestrated by Maradona. “The stadium was full of workers,” Maradona wrote, “southerners the lot of them! Napoli! Napoli! they were screaming. Amazing. We had become the club of the working class, of the poor.”
That game seemed to puncture any inferiority complex that Napoli might have had. They lost only three matches in the rest of the season and clinched the Scudetto in the penultimate game, against Fiorentina. An entire city promptly erupted, barely willing to believe this had happened, but dancing in its glory. Coffins representing the other big clubs were paraded through the town, priests in front of each, a mass funeral for the rest of Italian football gleefully held.
“[It was] an incomparable victory,” wrote Maradona. “Different from any other, even the ’86 World Cup. We built Napoli from the bottom: it was proper workmanship. The Scudetto belonged to the whole city, and the people began to realise that there was no reason to be afraid: that it’s not the one with the most money who wins but the one who fights the most, who wants it most.”
5) 1989: the warm-up
Or perhaps it’s because this looks like the epitome of the idea that singers and actors and sportspeople can only find peace when they’re on their stage. Around that time Maradona’s personal life was, shall we say, turbulent. His relationship with wife Claudia was up and down, not least because he was in the middle of a paternity case over a son conceived during an affair a couple of years earlier, he was trying to leave Napoli at the time (for Marseille, who had promised to double his salary), and you can throw in a light sprinkling of cocaine too. But you don’t see any of that here: he’s just carefree, like a little boy without a worry. Only he’s a little boy who also happens to be the best footballer in the world.
6) 2009: in which Diego responds to the press
Maradona’s coaching career is probably best not mentioned at length. In 1993 he admitted himself that he wouldn’t be much good in a tracksuit. “I can’t teach players things which only I can do,” he said. But a year later he took a job at Mandiyú de Corrientes, staying for 12 games, of which they won one. During another Maradona was filmed screaming at a referee that he was a “thief and a liar” in addition to being “a gutless coward with no balls”. On another occasion, when a club suit ventured into the dressing room, Maradona accused him of being a “motherfucking fatso” and encouraged him to leave “or I’ll smash your face in with my bare hands.” A spell at Racing Club wasn’t much better, with two wins from 11 games.
So he wasn’t the obvious candidate to take the Argentina job. But take it he did, in 2008, with qualification for the World Cup in the balance. A 6-1 defeat to Bolivia didn’t help, neither did a 3-1 loss at home to Brazil, but thanks to victories in their final games against Peru and Uruguay, both with late goals, they made it to South Africa.
And Diego wanted everyone to know about it. Responding to the press, some of whom had questioned decisions such as calling up 80 different players in the year of his tenure, Maradona cleared his throat and addressed the assembled throng. “[We qualified] with nobody’s help. With all the honours. Beating a great team, as is the Uruguayan team, which played their own life on the field. And we won as men … to those who do not believe, to those who did not believe, now suck my dick – I’m sorry ladies for my words – and keep on sucking it … You treated me as you did, now keep on sucking dicks … I’m grateful to my players and to the Argentinian people; I thank no one but them. The rest, keep on sucking dicks.”