Whenever I am asked who the greatest footballer of all time is; two names immediately flash through my head, Pele and Diego Maradona. Having to choose between the two is like having to choose between a Mars bar and a Snickers bar… unnecessary and impossible. An easier question to answer is which is the nutty, unconventional, adventurous and unpredictable one of the two. Diego Maradona wins that one hands down.
Diego Armando Maradona was born in Lanús, a shantytown on the outskirts of Buenos Aires to a poor family. A wizard with the ball, his talent was spotted at 10 years old when he joined Los Cebolitas (The Little Onions), the junior team of Buenos Aires’s Argentinos juniors. No one back then could have guessed that this 10-year old, entertaining the crowds with tricks during the half-time break, would one day become a legend revered so much by his countrymen who would build a church in his name – ‘Iglesia Maradoniana’ in Argentina. It has 120,000 worshipers who actually worship him. Maradona became enshrined after the 1986 World Cup.
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In a quarterfinals match between Argentina and England, Maradona scored a goal that went into the net after his fist touched it. The referees failed to see the incident and the goal was awarded. He went on to score a second goal in the match, a goal which has since been voted by FIFA as the greatest goal in the history of the world cup, won Argentina its place in the Semi-Final and put England out of the tournament. In 1986, the emotions of the ‘Falklands War’ were still running high and Maradona’s goal was seen as a fitting revenge on the English. Later, when Maradona was asked about the first goal, he said it was scored, “a little with the head of Maradona and a little with the hand of God”.
Diego Maradona’s life has been a high-speed, topsy-turvy rollercoaster ride with tremendous highs and tragic lows. He won the World player award twice, lead his country to a World Cup win, held the record transfer fee record twice, won the league, League Cup and Super Cup with the Barcelona where he also picked up his cocaine habit. At Italian club Napoli, he elevated the club to its most successful era helping them win the Serie A, UEFA Cup and the Italian SuperCup. There wasn’t a more adored star in the late 80’s in Italy than Diego Maradona. He had reached the very high peak, the fall from which could only be spectacularly tragic.
He failed a drug test and was sent home from the 1994 FIFA World Cup, was suspected of having links with the Italian Mafia and ran up a $23.1b in unpaid taxes in Napoli. His extravagant lifestyle and terribly bad choices, left him broke, without his diamond studs, obese, bloated, ugly, and unhappy, far from the sparkling, fresh star the ‘Hand of God’ had intended him to be.
Through it all, the one thing that always stands out about Diego Maradona is his honesty and his absolute love for his country and for football. In the FIFA World Cup 2006, Pele was getting all the attention, respect, praise and was being hailed as the greatest player ever. It seemed a policy decision, not to mention Maradona.
A not-so-healthy looking Maradona was in the stands (not the VIP sort), brimming with enthusiasm and cheering his team, his country on. He has since been trying to get his act together and it was only fair that the sport that has been graced by his genius in the past, be instrumental in giving him a second chance. It came in the form of the job of the National Team Manager. Something that a lot of cynics were quick to criticize and for a while it seemed they’d be proven right when the odds were stacking up against Argentina in the run up for qualifying for the FIFA World Cup 2010. However, one should never forget that wherever Maradona is, miracles and drama follow. Argentina qualified for the World Cup last night in true Maradona – against all odds style. The legend was quick to give the media a piece of his mind about their lack of faith in ‘El Diego’.
The last time the ‘hand of God’ guided Maradona, he got himself 120,000 worshipers, and it is once again guiding him – South Africa get ready, here comes Diego Armando Maradona.