Diego Maradona, a giant measuring only five-feet-four, probably the greatest football player of the last half-century, has died. In this year of untimely death, the passing of the Argentine great at age 60 is the cruellest blow yet to the world of sport.
Maradona died of a heart attack today, two weeks after undergoing surgery for a clot in his brain. He had left a private hospital on November 11, after being hospitalised the previous week.
In the times before the Messi-Ronaldo era, discussion of over footballing greatness boiled down to two men from South America — Pele of Brazil and Diego Maradona of Argentina. Maradona had the upper hand because the memory of his magic was fresher. Thus it was that in the year 2000, in an online poll organised by FIFA, football’s world governing body, he emerged as the Player of the Century; Pele, who won three World Cup titles to Maradona’s one, was given an award by an experts’ panel constituted by FIFA. Pele lost the online popularity poll to Maradona because Pele’s fan-base was diminishing by the year 2000; just as Messi or Ronaldo might beat Maradona if a poll were to be undertaken now.
The crowning glory of Maradona’s amazing career was victory in the 1986 World Cup — those who watched his amazing second goal against England in the World Cup that year have vivid memories of it — receiving the ball in his own half near the near the centre, he turned around, he dodged one England defender, then feinted past another, sprinted and beat another defender with a deft flick of his left foot, went past the goalkeeper and sent the ball into the net. It was magic. His first goal in the game was the infamous ‘hand of God’ goal, in which he fisted the ball in after an aerial duel with goalkeeper Peter Shilton, who was much taller than him. Maradona was a playmaker in the 1990 World Cup, when his genius combined with the energy of the young team for a runners-up finish. He figured in the 1994 World Cup in the USA as well, but there he played only two matches before failing a drug test and being thrown out of the tournament.
Football was Maradona’s escape from poverty in the shanties of Buenos Aires; spotted by a scout, he raced through the ranks and debuted for Argentina at age 16 in 1977. After the 1982 World Cup, he was snatched by Barcelona from Buenos Aires team Boca Juniors. The next move, to Napoli of Naples, was monumental, laying the foundation of his international acclaim.
Maradona, who last played for Argentina in 1994, later returned as a manager of the national team. His later years were completely unathletic, marred by allegations of drug and alcohol abuse. Known for his wild lifestyle during his playing days and in retirement, put on weight and lost it periodically. Maradona, 5ft 4in, solid muscle and velocity, barrelling and weaving through defences to score goals was one of the most memorable sights in the world of sport in the last 40 years. In an era when the referees were not very strict, he was the punching bag of the opposition, fouled from front, back and flanks.
Yet, the stocky, strong man rose each time and worked those powerful legs like windmills to shred defences. The death of such a man seems cruel and untimely. A sporting icon — a man who embodied youth, speed and life — is gone too soon.
Sad news to lose a friend like that. May God give enough strength to his family. For sure, one day we will kick a ball together in heaven. —Pele, Brazil football great
By some distance the best player of my generation and arguably the greatest of all time. After a blessed but troubled life, hopefully he’ll finally find some comfort in the hands of God. #RipDiego. —Gary Lineker, Former England striker
Thank dear Dieguito for your friendship, for your football, sublime, without comparison. Simply, the best football player in the history of football. So many enjoyable moments together. Impossible to say which one was the best. RIP my dear friend. —Oswaldo Ardilles, Former Argentina teammate