Who is Diego Maradona?
Italian soccer side Napoli mathematically clinched the Serie A league title five games before the end of the season, ending a 33-year titleless drought since Diego Maradona last led them to glory.
The Napoli fans stormed the pitch after the final whistle blew in the title-clinching 1-1 draw with Udinese and have spent the days since walking up and down the street in their favorite garb, lighting pyrotechnics, and filling the city with songs of glory.
But while the Napolitanos are basking in the joy of modern triumph, they will never forget Maradona’s legend on and off the pitch, from cocaine parties with the mafia to becoming one of the greatest athletes to ever play the sport.
This is the story of Diego Maradona, hero of Napoli and icon of the game.
Maradona was born in Dique Luján, Argentina on October 30, 1960. He was born into a poor family on the outskirts of the capital city Bueno Aires where he, his four sisters (all older), and two brothers (both younger) lived with both parents.
Maradona’s parents gave him a soccer ball as a gift for his third birthday. The decision set him down a path committed to the game and ended up changing their lives forever.
At eight years old, the young Argentine was spotted by a youth coach Francisco Cornejo while playing for his team Estrella Roja. He was soon referred to the Argentinos Juniors, one of the biggest teams in South America.
although he had the physique of a child, he played like an adult”
“When Diego came to Argentinos Juniors for trials, I was really struck by his talent and couldn’t believe he was only eight years old,” said Cornejo. “In fact, we asked him for his ID card so we could check it, but he told us he didn’t have it on him. We were sure he was having us on because, although he had the physique of a child, he played like an adult. When we discovered he’d been telling us the truth, we decided to devote ourselves purely to him.”
It didn’t take long for Maradona, who only grew to be five feet five inches tall, to become a hit at his new club. His silky footwork even led to him being trotted out to perform different skills as entertainment during halftime of matches.
In 1973 and 1974, the young prodigy led his team, now considered one of the best youth squads ever, to 141 consecutive undefeated matches. He ascended through the ranks so quickly that ten days before his 16th birthday, he was called into the starting lineup for Argentinos Juniors’ first-division team.
Rising through the ranks
Maradona’s debut became iconized by a nutmeg of an opposing defender. It was viewed as a depiction of the talent that his youth coach and so many others had seen for the almost-16-year-old.
He spent five years with the club, scoring 116 goals in 166 matches from the attacking midfield position. During this time, he also led his under-20 team to World Cup glory over defending champions Russia, scoring six times in the competition.
He was then transferred to Boca Juniors, another influential Argentine side, where he netted another 28 times in 40 matches. He was only there during the 1981-82 seasons because of a weak relationship with the manager, but he managed to make the most of his time and win the league title.
In the summer of 1982, Maradona accepted a then-world record transfer of £5m ($6.26m) to Spanish giant Barcelona. His time in Spain was ultimately filled with memorable ups and downs both on and off the pitch.
On the pitch, Maradona fit right into Barcelona’s attack. He won the Copa del Rey, Spanish League Cup, and Spanish Super Cup, justifying his hefty price tag. One of his most iconic moments in a Barcelona shirt came in El Clásico against rivals Real Madrid. He burst past the opposing keeper and then sat down a recovering defender before slotting the ball into the back of the net.
The goal was so brilliant that the home Madrid fans could do nothing but clap. To this day, he is one of three Barcelona players to ever be applauded by Madrid fans in the Santiago Bernabéu.
Despite the on-field success, Maradona also struggled with illnesses, including hepatitis, and a broken ankle he suffered during a match against Athletic Bilbao.
Maradona’s final match for Barcelona came in 1984 against Bilbao. During the match, the same player that broke his ankle gave him a rugged challenge and then taunted him with xenophobic terms pertaining to his father’s heritage.
kneed another in the head and knocked him unconscious
At full-time, Maradona and Bilbao player Miguel Sola confronted one another. Sola, buoyed by his team’s 1-0 win, again fired xenophobic terms and gestures at Maradona, but rather than keep it as a war of words, Maradona headbutted Sola and knocked him to the ground. He elbowed another nearby Bilbao player and then kneed another in the head, knocking him unconscious.
The rest of the players from both sides darted over and engaged in a full-fledged brawl, all in front of Spanish King Juan Carlos and 10,000 other game-attending fans. Over half of Spain was also tuned into the match.
By the time it was all said and done, there were 60 injuries to personnel from both teams. An executive said that there was no way back for Maradona and sold him to Napoli for another world-record fee of £6.9m ($7.51m).
Whereas many players never recover from controversy, the best years of Maradona’s career came in Italy, where Napoli’s stadium is now named after him.
Diego Maradona: Napoli hero
Maradona was a pillar of hope for the people of Naples. Italian soccer was dominated by Juventus, AC Milan, Inter Milan, and Roma, and the economic disparity between the north and south of Italy was vast. But despite that, there was faith that Maradona, seen as other-worldly, could lead them to glory.
”[No] mayor, houses, schools, buses, employment and sanitation, none of this matters because we have Maradona,” said the newspaper.
That newspaper could not have been more on the mark. Maradona quickly received the captain’s armband and, in 1987, led Napoli to its first-ever league title. The streets of Naples were flooded with carnival-like celebrations and round-the-clock choruses of triumphant songs.
The short Argentine was a hero once again in 1990, when, after finishing as runner-up in each of the previous seasons, Napoli won their second league title, beating out AC Milan by two points.
But while all of this was going on, Maradona was developing a robust nightlife. He frequently attended private parties of local mafia members to get high on cocaine and stay out until the sun came out. On nights he wasn’t at parties, he was at nightclubs with his entourage.
“Diego, in terms of his cocaine use, was getting into serious abuse and his nightlife was becoming legendary,’ said Jimmy Burns, who later made a documentary on Maradona’s life called Hand of God. “He loved that kind of lifestyle, parties that lasted a long time. He’s a charmer, everybody wanted to be around him, he was god on earth.”
Maradona was so active that he would often disappear on days between games, but somehow, he would be the best player on the pitch on match-day.
Fall from glory
At nearly 4am one morning in 1991, Maradona called a mafia member and asked to be connected to a prostitute, as he frequently did during his time in Naples. While speaking to the woman on the phone, she asked him to talk to her young son, a Napoli fan that was enamored with Maradona. He obliged in a strange but fitting representation of his status as a larger-than-life figure in the city.
federal agents were listening to the conversation through a wiretap
What Maradona didn’t know was that while he was making the young boy’s dreams come true – and also finding his muse for the night – federal agents were listening to the conversation through a wiretap. They used that as evidence of cocaine possession and distribution since he used the drug as payment for prostitutes.
In April, he failed a substance test that found traces of cocaine in his system. He was given a 15-month ban from soccer and fled for Argentina. He was put under constant surveillance and harassment and eventually thrown in jail back in his homeland.
Maradona played 61 games for Sevilla, Newell’s Old Boys, and Boca Juniors over the following years before stepping away in 1997. He dove into full-time management in 2008 and even spent a few years in charge of the Argentina national team but did not find steady success.
He died in 2020 at 60 years old after suffering a cardiac arrest. His body was beaten up from years of drug use, late nights, and overwhelming stress.
Diego Maradona is remembered as one of the greatest soccer players of all time and the best to suit up for Napoli.
He was immortalized in Italian history in 2020 by the renaming of what is now Diego Armando Maradona Stadium, home to Napoli.
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