“If anyone inspired me, it was undoubtedly Maradona” – Lionel Messi
One of football’s great characters and arguably its greatest full stop, the world has been stunned by the tragic news of Diego Maradona’s passing.
Argentine publication Clarin broke the news on Wednesday that he had died at the age of 60.
Leading his country to World Cup glory in 1986, Maradona will always be considered by many as not only the most iconic player of his generation, but the finest footballer ever to grace the field.
His dribbling was unbeatable. He played the game we love with joy. In Napoli, where he became the club’s all-time leading goalscorer, he changed a city as well as a club. His mural still looks down upon the inhabitants today.
Back in his native Argentina, Mauricio Pochettino has spoken often about how even sharing a room with Diego was the ultimate honour for his compatriots, who named him ‘El Pibe de Oro’ – the ‘Golden Boy’.
Younger generations experienced his lovable eccentricity when he took charge of the Albiceleste at the 2010 World Cup. It would have been impossible to match his achievements as a player in the dugout, but he was unable to resist the temptation of leading the nation to a tournament which had given him so much, and which he in return had lit up so many times.
Indeed, his magical effervescence may have seemed inexplicable, but Maradona the player was indebted to Maradona the man. With the images of Fidel Castro and Che Guevara tattooed on his limbs, he considered himself a revolutionary and dared to defy what any ordinary player could be expected to do.
He defied FIFA too. His rant after the 6-1 defeat to Bolivia earned him a two-match ban from the governing body, yet it’s testament to his extraordinary career that in spite of the controversy that followed him throughout his life, he is still adored by millions.
Perhaps his former teammate Jorge Valdano put it best in 2006:
“He is someone many people want to emulate, a controversial figure, loved, hated, who stirs great upheaval, especially in Argentina… Stressing his personal life is a mistake. Maradona has no peers inside the pitch, but he has turned his life into a show, and is now living a personal ordeal that should not be imitated.”
In 1990, his Argentina manager quipped “Maradona and 10 others” when asked to name his starting XI. There really were no equals and there are few players before or since who have come close to matching his panache.
For all his off-field problems, he has seen stadia named after him and even a ‘Church’ set up in his honour in Buenos Aires, which celebrates its holy day on his birthday each year.
We should all celebrate him. Football has lost quite possibly its greatest enchanter.
When he scored the ‘Goal of the Century’ against England, it came just minutes after the infamous ‘Hand of God’. This is the essence of Maradona. The good, the bad, but above all the inexplicable talent.
Some forget that it was he himself who denoted the ‘Hand of God’ as he bundled the ball past Peter Shilton. But Maradona was as close to a deity as you will get on the pitch and he will live on in the hearts of teammates, players and fans forever.