If you only paid attention to the grainy highlights from the 1980s, you would still agree that Diego Maradona is one of the greatest football players who ever lived. But if you spent a bit more time digging into his fascinating life off the field, you will be doubly amazed at what he was able to accomplish when he got suited up.
Sometimes, it takes years for a player’s reputation to build, but Maradona’s talent at such an early age meant that as soon as he became a professional just before he turned sixteen, the world was at attention.
A national hero in his home country of Argentina, he played the beautiful game across the world and his skill – despite his small stature – was unmatched. Both on and off the field he exuded a magical amount of energy and passion, and not all of it was inspiring. Fighting during games, repeated injuries, hopping from one big FC to another, there was no doubt that he courted both good and bad attention.
Adding a hard-partying lifestyle on top of this (including the fact that the law got involved) meant that it was easy to throw up your hands in frustration whether you were a supporter of his current team or not. However, time after time, matching his effortlessly dribbled ball past a bevy of helpless defensemen made you forget all that and marvel at what Diego Maradona has to the sport of football.
The Man, The Legend
Maradona is the sort who will definitely proudly tell anyone who was listening that he destined for greatness. While that sort of boasting can get on people’s nerves, it certainly helps when you have the skills to back it up. His small stature (only five foot five) meant that he had a low centre of gravity, which he used to his advantage by becoming one of the greatest dribblers and ball handlers the sport had ever seen.
Opposing players describe how the ball was seemingly attached to the end of his shoe as he ran ahead with his attack. While his size meant his legs were shorter than the average players’, they were incredibly strong which meant he could still outrun defensemen who towered over him. At the same time, he was a very generous player, serving up opportunities (typically from the right-wing) for his teammates. His magnetic personality meant he was an effective leader for the teams he played for as well.
At the same time, his magnetic personality sometimes acted quite magnetic, repelling people as often drawing them in. His temper on the field was one thing, but acting erratic in real life (with the additions of easily available drugs and alcohol) meant he was unpredictable in many ways. By his own admission he would play a game on Sunday, party until Wednesday, and then start exercising on Thursday. He would think nothing of scoring a winning goal in extra time and then get into bed with a few London escorts about an hour later. For twenty years he was addicted to cocaine, and frequently added liquor to put out that fire. Twice in the early nineties, he was briefly banned from the sport because of these problems. More mundanely he had issues with overeating, and at one point weighed two hundred and eighty pounds.
More Than the ‘Hand of God’
It is almost unfortunate that the way we remember people from the past is through only one or two particular events that come to define them. In the annals of football history, the ‘hand of God’ is remembered in a way that made Maradona see a player of luck rather than talent, in the sense that the referees didn’t notice his handball to score a goal on England in the quarter-finals of the 1986 World Cup. Afterward, he said that it was scored ‘with the head of Maradona and the hand of God’ (he could certainly turn a phrase).
‘Hand of God’ sounds more interesting than ‘goal of the century’ (admittedly not by much), so it’s already easy to forget that four minutes after that controversial play, Maradona went on an amazing tear, running over half the length of the field and dribbling past five English players to fake out the goalkeeper and effortlessly get the ball in the back of the net. Those goals alone pushed Argentina past England 2-1, and they would go on to win the World Cup.
It’s A Different Game Today
Natural talent and skill cannot – by definition – be taught, but science has gone a long way at giving any athlete with a little bit of potential a huge leg up. Once a youth football player is deemed ‘worthy of attention’, they are quickly put into an exercise and diet regimen that is meant to make them stronger. Even your meals several days before the match is on a very particular clock, in order to maximize your energy levels when you get onto the field.
While on-field anger is still mainly a yellow and red card issue plus perhaps a finger wag after the fact, off-field issues come with a zero-tolerance policy more often than not. Especially at a time where phones and social media can keep track of practically anyone with a little bit of fame, trying to live a wild life on the side of a professional football career just doesn’t seem possible.
It is why someone like Maradona would have a much more difficult time staying with any single club of repute these days, regardless of his obvious talents. The players who have been labelled ‘the next Maradona’ have all deferred, saying they don’t hold a candle to his skill, but even that humility shows how Maradona himself is a legend never to be repeated. One can be pretty sure that he would happily announce that he was the greatest of all time.
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