Carmichael’s Column | Diego Maradona: Child of the streets, Son of Naples, God of Argentina

Diego Maradona tribute

Diego Maradona passed away on Wednesday, aged 60.

Argentina has begun three days of national mourning. After the tribute fireworks and flares subsided, silence befell the usually boisterous streets of Naples. Across the world, millions sit and reflect on a life they never personally knew. It’s a mark of respect normally reserved for royalty or the head of a religion.

Diego Armando Maradona was footballing royalty. He was the cultic leader of his own religion, figuratively, but also literally — there is a church that stands today in Buenos Aires, Argentina’s capital, built in his name.

Maradona’s life started in 1960, but his legend was born some 32 years earlier. In 1928, Borocotó, editor of iconic sports magazine El Gráfico, famously wrote that Argentina should erect a statue depicting what locals refer to as ‘pibe’. Loosely translated, pibe means ‘urchin’. More accurately, though, it is the name for the dusty-faced children of Argentina’s streets.

Many Argentine families lived in desperate poverty throughout the 20th century. Political oppression and military juntas formed the grim backdrop of a nation in turmoil. Housed in slums with no running water or electricity, football presented itself as a form of escapism for children, who made use of various potreros to play oversized games in cramped conditions on hard, uneven surfaces.

There were no rules. No adults to prevent an elbow to the ribs or a kick to the shins. And it was here, within the dirty, unruly confines of Villa Fiorito, that Maradona made folklore. Just as Borocotó had foretold, Diego sported a “dirty face, a mane of hair rebelling against the comb; with intelligent, roving, trickster and persuasive eyes and a sparkling gaze.”

Diego Maradona

As he grew older, Maradona conquered the concrete jungle, graduating from the slums to rise from poverty and sign for Argentinos Juniors. He made his debut aged 15, scoring his first professional goal just 25 days later. The teenager was an instant sensation.

It was in 1981 that his budding career truly exploded. Signing for boyhood club Boca Juniors, Argentina was afforded a front row seat to watch their prodigy in action. He was magnificent, a virtuoso who transcended his craft. What Maradona could do with a football brought supporters to their feet and grown men to tears. He only stayed at Boca for one season, but everyone in attendance was vividly aware they were witnessing history unfold.

A transatlantic European move and an ill-fated spell at Barcelona followed. Signed for a world-record £5 million fee, Maradona never really connected with Catalonia in the same way he did to his homeland. The fame surrounding him bordered on stratospheric, and there was no escaping the media circus’ glaring limelight.

Consequently, Maradona began to indulge various vices, from drugs and prostitution to petty crime. A wicked cocaine addiction was born and his party boy nature soon became ingrained in his public image. As portrayed in Asif Kapadia’s award-winning Maradona Movie, an internal battle ensued: Diego, the scruffy, understated boy from Argentina’s streets, versus Maradona, the global superstar at odds with the world.

Two seasons brought little by way of success; a single Copa del Rey trophy marked the highlight of Maradona’s Spanish sojourn. But this was a player with an insatiable enthusiasm for showmanship. His relationship with the ball was one of the purest things football has ever seen; untied, muddied shoelaces thwacking against his calves as he danced past opponents at will.

Napoli was Maradona’s next destination, as he became the first player to break the world transfer record twice, signing for £6.9 million. Much like Buenos Aires, Naples is a major port city, and plays host to a melting pot of immigration. It is held in contempt by the rest of Italy, but wears its outsiderdom as a badge of honour, flying a blue-collared flag in the face of the nation’s northern power. Here, Maradona found home.

Diego Maradona

Catholicism is woven into the cultural fabric of Italy, but it didn’t take long for the cult of Maradona to pervade Neapolitans’ everyday life. Over the course of seven breath taking seasons, Maradona ascended Napoli to the apex of Serie A, delivering the club its first two, and to date only, Scudettos, and a UEFA Cup.

This was not just a footballing victory; this was a political and social riposte to the years of ridicule and oppression and discrimination southern Italy had endured at the hands of the north. Maradona had become Naples’ messiah, a saviour who delivered something of transcendent value to a city of perennial underdogs.

The mid-1980s proved to be the pique of Maradona’s power. In Mexico during the summer of 1986, he provided us with what can only be described as the greatest individual performance at a World Cup. He carried Argentina to the trophy, scoring five and assisting five of his country’s 14 tournament goals. He secured the golden ball and the reverence of an entire generation.

The quarter finals against England highlighted both Maradona’s genius and his cunning. Rising to beat Peter Shilton, he infamously created the ‘Hand of God’ as he punched the ball into the net. It was an act of pure instinct, forged over many years of playing in the slums, where winning at all costs superseded fair play.

Minutes later, he received the ball deep inside his own half and slalomed around half the England team en route to scoring the goal of the century. This was the genius and the cunning; the light and the dark; Diego and Maradona. One could not exist without the other. It was a juxtaposition that both hampered his talent and sealed his legend.

Diego Maradona

Shortly after, Maradona began to decline. His off-field controversies became too big a burden to carry: the drug problems, the estranged wife, the disputed child, his involvement with the Camorra. The image of the player was being tarnished by the man, but no-one was there to stop him. In contrast, he was indulged at every turn.

Inconsistent spells at Sevilla and Newell’s Old Boys followed before Boca’s prodigal son finally returned to La Bombonera for his Indian summer. When he finally brought the curtain down on his illustrious career in 1997, he stood in front of Boca’s crowd and uttered the words: “La pelota no se mancha” — “The ball does not show the dirt”.

In his own cryptic way, this was Maradona’s omission of his own mistakes, of his reckless lifestyle, the pain he had caused. His one request was for people, as time passed, to separate that from the football, to revel in the joy of his artistry, how he fused the profane with the divine.

He possessed gifted feet, a hand of God, and one terribly tortured soul. He was a flawed genius in every sense of the phrase, drawing praise and scorn in equal measure from a generation of fans.

Football, as with life, is often distilled down into ones and zeros. A game of statistics and science. And yet, however much we try to calculate and quantify Maradona’s legacy, it simply cannot be accounted for. He bent reality. He tore up the rule book, wrote his own, then threw that out the window too.

He gave us the highest of highs and showed us the lowest of lows. He demonstrated that triumph doesn’t lessen the struggle and that struggle shouldn’t lessen the triumph. He became pibe, the living embodiment of Borocotó’s prophecy. He made us question everything we held dear about football, and we loved him all the more for it.

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