Diego Maradona died last week of a heart attack at age 60. Maradona is generally considered the second greatest soccer player of all time, behind only Pele. Some even rate him ahead of the magical Brazilian.
I never saw Maradona play in person, but did see him on television in four World Cups — 1982 (where he was a petulant dud), 1986, 1990, and 1994. All things considered, I have never seen a soccer player perform as well as Maradona. What a combination of skill, speed, and power — packaged, improbably, in a short and stocky body.
I saw Pele in person twice, but after his prime, and watched Johan Cryuff play many times in the North American Soccer League. Cruyff dazzled, but against inferior competition. The one time I him saw against the best — on television in the 1974 final against West Germany — he came up a little short.
I’ve seen Lionel Messi, Maradona’s fellow Argentine, on television in big European club matches play as well as Maradona. However, Messi, although performing well at World Cups, has never come close to Maradona’s level on the biggest stage. Messi himself has said he could play forever and never match Maradona.
1986 was Maradona’s signature World Cup. He led a solid but largely unspectacular (by World Cup standards) collection of players to the championship.
Maradona is best remembered for his self-described “hand of God” goal against England in the quarterfinals. (Video below.) This was a blatant case of cheating — using his hand to score against the great Peter Shilton.
Less well remembered is how, in the same match, Maradona slalomed through the English defense before beating Shilton. (Video below) Some consider this the greatest World Cup goal ever.
And almost entirely forgotten is Maradona’s performance in the next match — a semifinal against Belgium. In that contest (video below), Maradona got the better of Jean-Marie Pfaff, probably the best goalkeeper in the world at that time (if Shilton wasn’t).
After the match Pfaff commented (I quote from memory), “I consider myself a great goalkeeper, but I wouldn’t even be a goalkeeper if I had to play against Maradona regularly.”
Maradona’s performance in the 1990 World Cup is also largely forgotten. His teammates, again, were solid but unspectacular, and the opposition was gunning for Maradona. Yet, he led Argentina all the way to the finals, where the team lost to West Germany.
That Cup was played in Italy. At the time Maradona was starring for Napoli, whose fans adored him.
Italy drew Argentina as its opponent in the semifinals. As fate would have it, the match took place in Naples.
Playing off of southern Italian resentment of the north, along with the adoration of Napoli fans, Maradona claimed that the Naples crowd would be behind him, rather than the Italian national team. It didn’t work out that way.
On match day, the Neapolitans hung up banners saying, “Diego in our hearts, Italy in our chants” and “Maradona: Naples loves you, but Italy is our homeland.”
Maradona broke those hearts. Argentina played its best match of the tournament against the favored “Azzurri.” Maradona assisted on Argentina’s one goal and delivered the winning kick in the penalty shootout that decided the match.
Nonetheless, Maradona is still revered in Naples, as I learned in visiting the city and the region in 2014. Our tour guide, a boy when Maradona played for Napoli, lit up at the mention of his name.
Maradona also excelled at the World Cup in 1994. He looked out of shape, but the magic was still there.
Some of it, though, might have been chemically induced. Maradona was disqualified for failing a doping test after the team’s second match.
Argentina had won the first two contests by a combined scored of 6-1. Without Maradona, the team lost to Bulgaria and Romania by a combined score of 2-5.
Soccer immortals like Pele, Cruyff, Franz Beckenbauer, and Sir Bobby Charlton became “grand old men” of the sport after retirement. That was never in the cards for Maradona. The “hand of God” goal, the attempt to hijack Napoli fans, and the failed drug test were the tip of the iceberg of an outrageous personality.
With his substance abuse, Maradona followed the “bad boy” model for retired superstars (think of George Best). He also added a malignant element, bad-mouthing Pele and cozying up to Fidel Castro.
However, like Cruyff and Beckenbauer, Maradona went into coaching at a high level. Argentina put him in charge of its 2010 World Cup effort.
Maradona went “romantic.” He played with five attackers, ala Brazil in 1970 (typically, Messi, Carlos Tevez, Angel di Maria, Gonzalo Higuain, and Maxi Rodriguez).
His team rampaged through the early matches, winning the first four by a combined score of 10-2. However, modern soccer caught up with Maradona in the quarterfinal against Germany, which Argentina lost 0-4 in as poor a defensive display as one is likely to see in match between sides of this caliber.
That was it for Maradona as manager of the national team. However, he continued managing in the lower levels of soccer until his death.
Maradona was a face in the crowd at subsequent World Cups. At times, he appeared to be deranged.
Given his life style and addictions, I doubt that anyone expected Maradona to live a long life. Still, his death at age 60 stunned the soccer world.
The cause appears to have been straightforward — a heart attack. Yet, perhaps inevitably, the death has become a matter of controversy.
Meanwhile, the tributes have poured in. Pope Francis, an Argentine, called Maradona “a poet of soccer.” That he was.
Even the English, victims of the rascally “hand of God” goal, joined in the tributes. This weekend, each EPL match began with a minute of silence for Maradona.
Gary Lineker, star of the 1986 English World Cup team and now a “grand old man” of the game, said:
By some distance the best player of my generation and arguably the greatest of all time. After a blessed but troubled life, hopefully he’ll finally find some comfort in the hands of God.