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The term “flawed genius” has been overused down the decades, often to describe a footballer with extreme talent whose personality frequently courts controversy and ultimately, proves to be his downfall. The rise and fall of a star sportsperson has become a very cliched set of events.
Diego Armando Maradona was, arguably, the most celebrated player of the 1980s, leading Argentina to World Cup glory in 1986 and taking the Italian city of Naples into a state of near ecstasy. The passion was so great, the relationship so intense between the player and the game, that Maradona was always going to be a brilliant star that would eventually burn itself out.
Maradona had money, he had wealth, he had adoring fans. He could have anything he wanted. But it all went sour and whenever he appeared on TV, bloated and clearly suffering ill-health, we preferred to look away rather than see a once mighty icon in steep decline.
But when we realised that this was a man who wouldn’t be around in his 70s and 80s, we started to appreciate once more just what a marvellous footballer he was. Maradona’s story is not a million miles away from the George Best saga, the Gazza soap opera and even the sad tale of Garrincha.
Great players all, but perhaps lacking the emotional savvy and guidance they needed to “manage” their careers and avoid a diet of extreme hedonism. Compare them to players who have controlled their image, their off-pitch activities, their finances and their public persona, such as David Beckham, and it is clear the football industry has learned from past mistakes made by outstanding but misguided individuals.
The modern player has “professional” advice by the bucketload, not a team of pals around him who constantly tell him he’s wonderful all the time like a Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale. George Best had his wine bar mates, Gazza had his fixer in old pal Mr. five bellies and Maradona seemed to have a couple of associates desperately trying to look like an overweight version of Diego.
When Maradona went to Barcelona, he appeared like a small boy lost in a big, cosmopolitan city. It should have been the perfect stage for the young superstar who was still trying to get used to having huge expectations placed on his shoulders. Maradona was joining a huge club that was bigger than the latest great hope to come out of South America. Even today, few people talk about his ill-fated two-year stint at Barcelona. Fellow Argentinian Alfredo Di Stefano, said Maradona only played at 20% of his capacity while with the club.
Maradona was lifted out of the Buenos Aires slums, but in his era, it took time for a South American to find his way to the high-profile European leagues. Normally, we had to wait for World Cups to come around to learn about Brazilians and Argentinians. As early as 1977, people were talking about Maradona, but it was not until 1982 that he finally landed in Europe. Today, the story would be very different, little Diego would be snapped-up as an 11 year-old by a European club.
Because it took time to take him to the old world, Maradona had his lifestyle and was used to doing his own thing. He pleased himself and that included a frantic personal life, dancing, drinking and womanising, not to mention, later on, drugs.
He was a player possessing the “animal spirit” of those who had come up the hard way, street footballers from poverty-stricken backgrounds. Football was the way out and this education has always made players great improvisers, cunning and individualistic. Modern players are rarely like that, they are picked up earlier, are schooled in tactics and become part of a system far earlier than the likes of Péle, Maradona and others from Latin America.
Moreover, there is a huge industry, comprising legal and financial services, lifestyle advisors and other intermediaries, that underpins the careers of the top players, advising them who to associate with, where to place their money and how to finesse the best deal with their clubs. The likes of Best and Gazza could have done with some of that, not to mention dozens of players who fall on hard times when they finish their careers come to an end.
Certainly, Maradona’s successor as Argentina’s crown prince of football, Lionel Messi, has lived a very different life and is still playing and regarded as one of the best in the world. By 33, Maradona was effectively washed-up and a victim of his lifestyle. His ban from the 1994 World Cup after failing a drug test was a symbolic end to his career.
Most contemporary stars are carefully managed and have become media celebrities and very aware of how they are perceived. By contrast, Maradona was raw, an unpolished gem, a force of nature and a tribal leader playing for his people, be they Argentinians or Neopolitans.
And yet, for all his shortcomings, Maradona was – and will remain in death – far more interesting than any of his successors. There’s something very authentic about his life story, nothing manufactured or scripted, no hint of botox and silicon. No virtue signalling, no meaningless gestures. What we saw is what we got – we may not have liked some of it, it may have infuriated some folk, but that’s what made Diego Maradona a compelling novel. Nobody created Maradona other than his parents, but in this age, people are working on “creating” footballers who will become talented systematic footballers.
Needless to say, his demise was to be expected, the final chapter that absolutely adds more fuel to the legend. There’s also overwhelming sadness that life could have been so much better for him, but he was from a very different time, possibly the last days before football became truly commoditised. As former Barcelona striker Samuel Eto’o said in his tribute, he was also a being from a different planet. How very true, Diego Maradona was Ziggy Stardust in football boots.