Guardian::LT24::Argentina, Naples, and the world of football were in mourning last night at the death of Diego Maradona, in many people’s eyes the greatest player of all time, following a heart attack. He was 60.
The Argentinian president Alberto Fernández, who declared three days of national mourning, said that Maradona had taken his country to the “highest of the world” with his virtuoso performances in the 1986 World Cup in Mexico. “You made us immensely happy,” he wrote. “You were the greatest of all. Thanks for having existed, Diego. We will miss you all our lives.”
When his death was announced, some newscasters in Argentina could not hold back the tears. “Part of our childhood has died,” said one presenter on the TV news channel C5N. “I thought he could never die,” said another.
Meanwhile in Naples, a city where they venerated him as a saint and people used to tell him, “Ti amo piu che i miei figli” – I love you more than my own children – after he led an unheralded Napoli side to two Serie A titles, hundreds of fans gathered in front of Maradona murals in the Spanish Quarters. “Today, football died’’, one fan told Sky News.
Nine ambulances arrived to try and revive Maradona after he was found lifeless, apparently from a heart attack, shortly before midday at a rented home in a gated community in the suburb of Tigre, north of Buenos Aires. Maradona had been recovering from brain surgery on 3 November. Although the operation had been successful, Maradona was reported to be suffering from withdrawal from his alcohol addiction.
After his death was announced, the Brazilian Pele, his pre-eminent rival for the title of the world’s greatest player, paid tribute. “I lost a great friend and the world lost a legend. One day, I hope we can play ball together in the sky.” Lionel Messi, a modern great and another contender for the “greatest of all time” description, offered a taut and poetic tribute. “He leaves us but does not leave, because Diego is eternal.”
In England, Maradona will be most remembered for an outrageous sleight of hand – the so-called ‘Hand of God’ – where he soared above Peter Shilton and used his fist to punch the ball into an empty net to give Argentina the lead in the 1986 World Cup quarter-final.
Four minutes later Maradona then ripped the heart and hope from England. Picking up the ball at halfway, he did an outrageous 180-degree spin before slaloming past five players and poking the ball past Shilton
In his autobiography, El Diego, Maradona summed up what that victory over England – which came just four years after the Falklands War – had really meant. “It was like beating a country, not a football team,” he wrote. “Although we said before the game that football had nothing to do with the Malvinas War, we knew that a lot of Argentine kids had died there, that they had mowed us down like little birds.”
“This was our revenge, it was … recovering a part of the Malvinas. We all said beforehand that we shouldn’t mix the two things but that was a lie. A lie! We didn’t think of anything except that, like hell it was going to be just another game!”
With the passing of time most England fans came to love him too. One poll among England supporters voted his first goal against Bobby Robson’s side in the 1986 World Cup as the worst piece of cheating in football history. The same survey voted his second goal in the same match as the best goal in the history of football. It was hard to argue.
Writing later, his team-mate Jorge Valdano said that after the victory over England “Maradona and Argentina became synonymous,” adding: “We are talking about a country with a clearly extravagant relationship with football, a country which made a deity of a footballer with a decidedly extravagant relationship with football.”
Having guided Argentina to the 1990 World Cup final, a diminished Maradona was kicked out of the 1994 tournament in disgrace for failing a drugs test. His lifestyle off the pitch was as destructive to him as his performances were to his opponents. He had a cocaine habit from his early 20s, which held him captive for more than 20 years, while he twice needed gastric surgery in 2005 after his doctor warned he had ballooned 75kg over his ideal weight. Maradona also had numerous problems with the Italian tax authorities after refusing to pay a 39m euro bill.
As a manager he was less successful, using 107 players as Argentina struggled to qualify for the 2010 World Cup. Eventually he took Argentina to the quarter-finals but despite repeatedly failing to get the best out of Messi, the world’s best player in a generation, he remained an idol back home.
It helped, perhaps, that like his country, Maradona was always the underdog and an outsider; someone who proudly wore the scent of a street urchin even when the millions were rolling in. He had come from impossibly humble upbringings – his family of 10 lived in a three-room shack where the only running water came through the roof, and learned his skills by repeatedly flicking an orange in the air with both feet as he did errands.
Having made his professional debut at 15, he moved to Barcelona for a world record fee at 21. But it was at Napoli that he elevated his game towards the gods – but it came at a price: the frequent assaults from other players meant he needed cortisone injections and to wear a second pair of shinpads to protect his achilles tendons.
But nearly 30 years after he left the city, his glittering legacy endures there – as it does elsewhere. As Naples Mayor Luigi de Magistris eloquently put it on Wednesday: “Diego made our people dream, he redeemed Naples with his genius.”