Maradona, Diego: 1961(?)—: Athlete

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Diego Maradona: 1961(?): Athlete

Diego Maradona is considered one of the greatest stars in the history of soccer, but his has been a career marred by controversy. The Argentine midfielder's statistical record is impressive: he has scored 255 goals in the 483 professional games he has played over a two-decade career, and was credited with leading an underdog Italian team twice to a national championship. Along the way he became a national folk hero in Argentina, and his rise from the slums of Buenos Aires to one of the most generously compensated players in the history of the sport has become an oft-told tale.

Maradona's fall from grace came after some well-publicized drug scandals hampered a career already beset by signs of physical deterioration. Still, the man deemed "one of soccer's most vivid, controversial figures" by People writer Ron Arias remains a living legend in his native Argentina. "Maradona has always been more than just a footballer," noted a profile in the Economist, which described him as "an icon for the country's poor" and a man whose celebrity "helped to liberate Argentine pride at a time when, under military rule, nationalism was a matter of some ambivalence."

Child Soccer Star

Diego Armando Maradona was born in the early 1960s in the impoverished Villa Fiorito area of Buenos Aires. His father, also called Diego, was a bricklayer, factory worker, and security guard. The family was of Indio heritage, and grew to include eight children in all. At the age of three, Maradona's cousin gave him a soccer ball, and he played with it constantly. He later claimed even to have slept with it. A clear talent for the sport emerged early, and after he joined a Buenos Aires youth team, Los Cebollitas ("Little Onions"). The team went on to achieve a 140-game winning streak. At the age of ten, Maradona was selected to take the field for a halftime performance at a Buenos Aires professional game. He kept the soccer ball aloft the entire time, to the cheers of the crowd, "by bouncing it off his feet, knees, chest, ankles, head and shoulders as if it were a balloon and his body a spring breeze," wrote Rick Terlander in Sports Illustrated. "When the two teams returned to the field to resume play, the crowd began chanting to the wonder boy, 'Stay! Stay!'"

Maradona left school at the age of 14, and joined the Argentinos Juniors of Buenos Aires. They won the world junior championship, and Maradona became a frequent subject in the sports pages of Argentine newspapers. He was called "Pibe de Oro," or "Golden Boy," and though he was diminutive for a world-class athlete, in the game of soccer, his 5'5" height was not a detriment. He possessed a powerful form that made him one of the ablest competitors in the sport. Others dubbed him the successor to Pelé, the great Brazilian star of the 1960s.

At a Glance . . .

Born October 30, 1960 (some sources say 1961), in Villa Fiorito, Buenos Aires, Argentina; son of Diego and Dalma Franco Maradona; married Claudia Villafane, 1989; children: Dalma Nerea, Gianinna Dinorah.

Career: Member of Argentine junior soccer team, Los Cebollitas, c. 1970-76; turned professional with Argentinos Juniors, 1976-80; Boca Juniors (Argentine League), 1980-81; also played for Barcelona team (Spanish League), 1982-84, Napoli (Italian League), 1984-91, Sevilla (Spanish League), 1992-93, Newell's Old Boys (Argentine League), 1993-94, and Boca Juniors, 1995-96.

Awards: Co-recipient, Player of the Century award, FIFA (by Internet vote), 2000.

Addresses: Office c/o FIFA House, P.O. Box 85, 8030 Zurich, Switzerland.

Still, Maradona's prowess and fame did earn him enmity: he was sometimes called "cabecita negra," or "black head," the derisive term that Argentina's largely European-heritage middle class sometimes used for those of Indio background. In 1978 Maradona was passed over for a spot on the Argentine national team for the all-important World Cup competition. The World Cup, soccer's most coveted trophy and a fervent expression of nationalism held every four years, took place in Argentina that year as well. The insult rankled, and likely colored his decision to play in Europe.

Maradona went on to have an impressive season with another Argentine team, Boca Juniors, in 1980, but two years later set an industry record when Barcelona, a team in the Spanish League, paid $;7.7 million for his contract. Maradona soon gained a reputation as a carouser in the city's nightclubs, but led the Barcelona team to a Spanish championship title. On the pitch, he was considered unstoppable. Maradona was both quick and elusive when running with the ball, and had a seemingly miraculous ability to slide between opposing players and still retain control of the ball. In a sport where 1-0 finishes were common, Maradona often scored nearly a dozen goals per season. His prowess was so legendary that hostile players fouled him and even attempted to injure his knees or ankles.

Maradona made sports headlines around the world once again in 1984 when he joined a failing Italian franchise in Naples, the Napoli team. His contract stipulated that he would earn $26 million over nine years. Neapolitans liked to chant, when their world-famous midfielder appeared on the pitch, "Maradona is better than Pelé. We practically killed ourselves to get him." The team won two Italian league championships by 1990, and Maradona became the inarguable super-star of the sport. Sports Illustrated 's Terlander commented on his physique, noting that Maradona's "squatness puts him at a disadvantage for knocking down balls and for heading, but it plants him badgerlike on the turf and gives him a rock-solid base from which to launch his explosive left-footed shots. Any time he crosses the center line, he is close enough to score."

The Infamous "Hand of God" Goal

Maradona's enshrinement as a national hero in Argentina came when he competed for its national team in the 1986 World Cup. In a quarterfinals match between Argentina and England, Maradona scored a goal that went into the net after his fist touched itin prohibition of one of soccer's most steadfast rules. The judges failed to see it, however, and Maradona then scored the winning goal of the game by taking the ball single-handedly down 55 yards of the field, and faking out the English goaltender. Thus Argentina ousted England from the World Cup, and went on to beat West Germany in the finals.

At the time, Maradona claimed that it was not his fist but rather "the hand of God" that had made the first goal, and the loss was an especially bitter one for England. Four years earlier, Britain had gone to war with Argentina over the Malvinas, a group of islands off Argentina's coast and long a territorial possession of Britain known as the Falklands. Royal Navy battleships had steamed across the Atlantic in a show of force against Argentine claims to the islands. Maradona's goal was viewed as fitting revenge on Britain, and years later it still rankled for some soccer fans. Independent Sunday writer John Carlin called the athlete "the expression of the Argentine people as a whole, as the avenger of the nation's wounded pride. As the man who, with those two goals, gave the most refined expression to the two qualities which Argentines believe they possess in richest abundance, 'viveza' (a sly cunning) and talent."

Argentina's win in the 1986 World Cup in Mexico Cityagainst a formidable West Germany team in the finalslaunched massive celebrations in the streets ofBuenos Aires. He was tagged with yet another nickname, El Rey, or "the king." Back in Italy, he was also treated as a national hero; his face and winning No. 10 jersey were familiar images in the media and all over Naples. But Maradona, the highest-paid player in the sport at the time, often made boastful statements to the media, and he periodically ran afoul of Napoli's management for skipping training sessions. Rumors began to surface that claimed he used illegal drugs, and had links to the city's camorra, or organized-crime syndicate. Maradona was usually derided by sports journalists for letting himself get paunchy, or claiming that he had been threatened by the camorra, and a war with press was underway by 1990, the same year in which he led Napoli to its second national championship. "They can say what they want about me," he told People 's Arias at the time. "Fine me, withhold my salary, but I won't change. Remember, it's the players who bring 90,000 people to the stadium. I am Maradona, who makes goals, who makes mistakes. I can take it all, I have shoulders big enough to fight with everybody."

Maradona's fall from grace was as spectacular as his rise from the Villa Fiorito slum. In February of 1991 he was charged with possession of cocaine in Naples. That spring, he tested positive for the drug, and was suspended from international play for 15 months. He returned to Buenos Aires, and was arrested in a police raid there on a suspected drug house. The Napoli team then filed suit against Maradona's managers, refusing to honor the remainder of contract because of the negative publicity. In 1992 Maradona played for a season with Seville's team in the Spanish League, and the following year joined an Argentine team, Newell's Old Boys. He began to exhibit increasingly erratic behavior: in February of 1994 he fired a pellet gun at group of reporters outside his home in Buenos Aires, injuring five. He disappeared for days at a time. That summer, he was banned once again from international play when he tested positive for drugs, which effectively barred him from the Argentine World Cup team. He was tried in absentia in Italy for drug possession, and in Buenos Aires, despite a wife and family, still maintained his fondness for nightclubs and parties.

National Folk Hero

Argentines remained loyal to Maradona, however. He backed a lagging presidential candidate, Carlos Saúl Menem, in 1995, and Menem afterwards won by a landslide. Maradona the midfielder returned in the fall of that year when he rejoined his old team, Boca Juniors, but it would be his last season in professional soccer. He was suspended a third time, and returned in July of 1997 to the Boca team, but injuries forced the announcement of his official retirement. Characteristically, he claimed that he and family were under threat, and that powerful factions wanted him out of the sport.

In early 2000 Maradona was rushed to an emergency room in Uruguay after a suspected cocaine overdose. The incident was said to have weakened his already damaged heart. He left South America for Cuba to enter a treatment program there. (He sports tattoos of Cuban revolutionary hero Ché Guevara and long-time Cuban leader Fidel Castro.) That same year, he shared the FIFA (Fédération Internationale de Football Association) Player of the Century award with Pelé. The Italian government claims that Maradona owes $25 million in back taxes, but he claims that the burden belongs to the Napoli team because of its fiscal mismanagement. The team offered him a management position in 2001, which he declined.

Maradona's "hand of God" goalwhich he admitted on Italian television four years later was indeed his own fistis still considered a defining national moment for Argentina. The broadcast of the moment is still replayed. The announcer screams "Gooooooool!" (goal) as is customary, but then amends it to "Diegooooooool!" before breaking into sobs. Maradona has been the subject of biographies and other books assessing his relation to the Argentine national character. When he was invited to play in a Buenos Aires exhibition match in his honor in November of 2001 and took a lap around the field with his two daughters, spectators in the stands cried.

"Death Would Glorify Him"

After the country convulsed in riots over a looming economic crisis a month later, there was talk that new Argentine president Eduardo Duhalde would ask Maradona join the Sports Secretariat. It is said that Maradona ranks with two other tragic figures from Argentine cultural history: 1930s tango singer Carlos Gardel, who died in a plane crash, and former First Lady Eva Perón, still a revered national icon. At times, callers to Argentina's popular radio shows speak of his imminent death. One sociologist, Alberto Quevedo, struggled to explain to Carlin in the Independent Sunday why this is so. "We're all embarrassed by him now because he has been so important for the Argentine people," Quevedo observed. "And death would glorify him. Maradona can offer no more and, like Achilles, he should die young and glorious." An Argentine psychoanalyst and television host also discussed the matter with the journalist. "We are the greatest when Maradona is the greatest," asserted Jose Abadi, "but when he falls we fall with him. And we do not want that."



Encyclopedia of World Biography Supplement, Volume 20, Gale, 2000.


Economist, January 15, 2000.

Financial Times, January 30, 2002.

Independent Sunday (London, England), March 19, 2000.

Maclean's, January 15, 1996.

Mirror (London, England), February 15, 2002.

New York Times, November 14, 2001.

People, June 18, 1990.

Sports Illustrated, June 16, 1986; July 7, 1986; May 14, 1990; April 8, 1991; June 10, 1991; September 30, 1991; January 20, 1992; February 28, 1994; October 16, 1995; June 30, 1997.

Time, July 11, 1994.

World Press Review, April 2000.

Xinhua News Agency, January 20, 2000; September 26, 2000; December 10, 2000; January 12, 2001.

Carol Brennan

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Maradona, Diego: 1961(?)—: Athlete

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