“And, one day, it happened,” wrote Argentinian newspaper Clarín.
Weeks after undergoing emergency surgery to treat a brain bleed, legendary Argentinian footballer Diego Armando Maradona suffered a fatal heart attack at his home in Buenos Aires on Wednesday afternoon. He died aged 60.
A World Cup winner and joint recipient of Fifa’s Player of the 20th Century award, Maradona is regarded as the greatest Argentinian footballer of all time and potentially the best in the history of the sport.
Upon hearing the news, Argentina declared three days of national mourning. He will receive a state funeral at the Casa Rosada, the seat of the Argentinian government. Tributes quickly flooded in from around the world, including former Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who called Maradona “the best Brazil ever played against.”
Diego and Maradona
In his 21 years of professional football, Diego Maradona amassed success and glory, enchanting and inspiring millions around the globe. His contribution toward Argentina’s World Cup win in 1986 has gone down as one of the greatest performances international football’s top tournament has ever seen. His exploits at Italian club Napoli — which Maradona transformed from lowly also-rans into national champions — were superlative.
But his life off the field, particularly from 1990 onward, was defined by controversy, drug addiction, family problems, health complaints, and tax issues.
Those who knew him well often said he had two personalities, a typical assessment of global superstars with such immense talent. First, there was Diego, the urchin from the slums of Villa Fiorito on the outskirts of Buenos Aires, who had all of the desires, fears, and insecurities of a player of his prodigious talent. But sharing his body was Maradona, the brash, outspoken alter-ego, with the devil-may-care personality that allowed him to manage the pressure put upon him by global stardom.
Increasingly, with the eyes of the world fixed upon his every move, Maradona was in charge. But the temptations of fame became harder and harder to resist.
It would be easy to say that Argentina loved Diego and tolerated Maradona, but that would not be accurate. It was this larger-than-life figure, coupled with the humble footballer who represented the hopes and dreams of every Argentinian, that made him such a national hero.
It is often said that Argentinians did not judge Maradona for what he did with his life, instead, they judged him for what he did to theirs.
El Pibe de Oro
As recalled by British football writer Jonathan Wilson in his sublime eulogy of Diego Maradona, Argentina at the beginning of the 20th century was a country seeking an identity through football.
In popular sports magazine El Gráfico, Uruguayan-born editor Ricardo “Borocotó” Lorenzo wrote in 1928 that the soul of Argentinian football would be “an urchin with a dirty face, a mane of hair rebelling against the comb; with intelligent, roving, trickster, and persuasive eyes […] his mouth, full of small teeth that might be worn down through eating yesterday’s bread. His knees covered with the scabs of wounds disinfected by fate; barefoot or with shoes whose holes in the toes suggest they have been made through too much shooting. His stance must be characteristic; it must seem as if he is dribbling with a rag ball.”
Half a century on, this urchin — or “pibe” in colloquial Argentinian parlance — finally emerged in the shape of Diego Maradona, the stocky kid from Villa Fiorito with tousled brown hair and a cheeky grin. He soon became el Pibe de Oro — the Golden Boy.
This perception of Maradona as Argentina’s messiah was perhaps best expressed by journalist Victor Hugo Morales, who provided the commentary for Argentina’s 1986 World Cup quarter-final win over England. As Maradona scores his country’s all-important second goal — regarded as one of the greatest in history — Mr. Morales breaks down into tears, overwhelmed by the event.
“Which planet did you come from to dribble past so many English players, to leave your entire country with clenched fists, cheering for Argentina? Diego Armando Maradona … Thank God for football, for Maradona, for these tears, for Argentina two, England nil.”
Maradona and Brazil
Much of the sporting rivalry between Brazil and Argentina for the last half century revolves around the debate on who was the greatest player: Maradona, or Pelé? Indeed, before Maradona came on to the scene, there appeared to be no doubt around the world that Pelé would be the best player ever to play the sport.
The simple fact that Maradona’s arrival created a debate speaks volumes about his skill and importance.
While the two exchanged plenty of digs through the media over the years, they maintained a great personal affinity in their private lives, expressed by Pelé’s tribute on the day of Maradona’s death.
“I have lost a dear friend and the world has lost a legend,” he wrote. “I hope one day we will play football together in the sky.”
As far as Argentina v. Brazil was concerned, Maradona never hid his delight at getting one over his adversaries. In his 2005 autobiography El Diego, he wrote that he enjoyed nothing more than beating Brazil. “Don’t get me wrong, I like the Brazilian way of life, I like them, but in football, I want to beat them to death. They’re My Rivals, with capital letters.”
Maradona and politics
One of the main off-the-pitch differences between Diego Maradona and Pelé is the Argentinian’s outspokenness. While Pelé is rarely coaxed into making a controversial statement, Maradona was never afraid to speak his mind, especially when it comes to politics and ideology.
His ultimate idol, in his own words, was Fidel Castro — the Cuban revolutionary-turned-president. Maradona famously quipped that throughout his life, he thanked two “beards”: God and Fidel.
He also had a tattoo of his compatriot revolutionary Che Guevara on his arm and was known for wearing two watches: a tribute to Guevara who, to avoid losing track of time, wore two watches on his left wrist while crossing Latin America in the 1960s.