Maradona’s best moments
1) 1979 World Youth Championship
Diego Maradona wasted no time in announcing his talent. On his first senior appearance in 1977, for Argentinos Juniors of Buenos Aires, the 5ft 5in 16-year-old nutmegged Jose Daniel Valencia of Talleres. Valencia was an Argentina international, one of six in the Talleres team. One incredulous reporter noted that “Diego could not care less.” César Luis Menotti didn’t select Maradona for Argentina’s upcoming World Cup, explaining: “He is too young this time, but I think he will be captain in 1982”. Maradona made no fuss in missing out on the subsequent ticker-taped triumph, instead leading the kids to glory at the 1979 Fifa World Youth Championship. He was player of the tournament, scoring six goals including a deal-sealing free kick in the final that landed in the back of the USSR net.
2) Mexico ‘86
Proper World Cup glory arrived seven years later. Brazil and France were the hot tips, with Uruguay, Denmark and hosts Mexico the hip ones. Maradona, Argentina’s only world star, was carrying a knee injury and also wore odd-sized boots, the legacy of a mangled ankle at Barcelona. The stars were far from alignment, but Maradona teased them into order again and again. A clever goal against reigning champs Italy was followed by second-round mastery of Uruguay. Then the piece de resistance: the field-long sashay against England. Or was it the even-more-intricate ramble which saw off Belgium? Or the defence-splitting pass to set up the winner in the final? Yeah, yeah, the Hand of God … but it’s fair to say that on the spiritual and artistic ledger, he came out of this tournament well in credit.
3) Napoli’s first Scudetto
No team south of Rome had won Serie A before Maradona pitched tent in Naples in 1984. Napoli only had two Coppa Italias to their name. But the outsider status of both city and club suited Maradona perfectly. He became the heartbeat of a team which would win two Scudettos, in 1987 and 1990, a Coppa Italia in 1987, and the Uefa Cup in 1989. The first time is always the most memorable, though, and in Naples the street parties went on for days, with mock funerals being staged for the Old Lady. Maradona was immortalised by several large murals. He left in 1991, under something of a cloud, accused of living life a little too fast and loose. But that never stopped the club retiring his No 10 shirt.
4) Divides Italy … and conquers
Few thought Argentina had any chance of retaining the World Cup in 1990: dismally out of form, they had won just one of their previous 10 matches, and that against Israel. They were then shocked by Cameroon in the opening match of the tournament. But Maradona had other ideas, turning the ship around through sheer force of will. Against the USSR, he used his godlike hand to slyly foil a goal-bound header by Oleg Kuznetsov. He set up Claudio Caniggia’s late smash-and-grab winner against Brazil with a barrelling run and flicked pass. Best of all, he psyched out Italy in the semis with the greatest mind-game of all, telling the Naples fans: “For 364 days a year the rest of Italy treats you like shit. Today, they want you to be Italians and support their team.” Italy underperformed in front of a muted crowd, and Argentina prevailed on penalty kicks, Maradona calmly passing his into the corner and celebrating freely in front of his confused Neapolitan brethren. Guido Buchwald marked him out of the final, and he departed Italia ‘90 like Gazza – in floods of tears. Nevertheless, this remains an exceptional cup run, and the feeling persists that proving a point to Italians everywhere was the really important bit … in which case, job done.
Maradona’s worst moments
1) Sent off at Spain ‘82
The world had been waiting to see the 21-year-old Maradona on the biggest stage. Ahead of the 1982 World Cup, we opined: “For the sake of the tournament, it must be hoped that he is not hacked to oblivion, as was Pelé in 1966.” No such luck. After a false start with defeat to Belgium, he was a whirlwind in a 4-1 rout of Hungary, though that was as good as it got. In the first second-phase game, Italy’s Claudio Gentile worked him over with a saucy series of off-the-ball fouls; in the second, Maradona exploded by crumping his studs into Batista’s special place when three down against Brazil. Not for the last time in his career, Maradona exited under a cloud.
2) Brawling with Bilbao
During his time at Barcelona, Maradona was the face of a high-profile anti-drugs TV campaign. “Drugs kill. Enjoy life!” the caption read, as a smiling Diego cavorted on the beach. Positivity was otherwise in short supply during a two-year spell at Camp Nou. He contracted hepatitis during his first season, then early in his second had his ankle mangled by Athletic Bilbao defender Andoni Goikoetxea, a tackle so egregiously brutal his assailant was evermore known as The Butcher of Bilbao. Sure enough, the teams met again in that year’s Copa del Rey final, and after the whistle blew on a Bilbao victory, the inevitable occurred. The Bilbao players mocked Maradona, who sparked a mass brawl with some spectacular headbutt-haymaker combinations. Amid the melee, Goikoetxea delivered a high kick to Maradona’s chest. Barça cut their losses and sold their star to Napoli.
3) The failed drug test
Maradona was recalled by Argentina at the age of 33 when qualification for USA ‘94 was imperilled. Argentina made it through and opened in style; a reinvigorated Maradona scoring in a 4-0 romp against Greece. He celebrated by charging at a pitchside camera and screaming into the lens. Maradona was then instrumental in a 2-1 win over much-fancied Nigeria, fuelling talk of yet another run to the final. But it wasn’t to be. After the match, his sample betrayed traces of ephedrine, and he was sent packing in abject disgrace. Argentina’s hopes and dreams left with him. An absurd way to end a stellar career, but this singular genius was never destined to depart quietly. Would you really have had him any other way?
4) Shooting football journalists up the jacksie with an air rifle
To be fair, this is something most people, even other football journalists, have considered. As in so many other walks of life, Diego was merely living the dream.