July 5, 1984, 60.000 people filled up the San Paolo stadium in Naples, Italy. There was no game, or concert, only the arrival of the new messiah. Diego Armando Maradona came in with a white shirt and a Napoli team scarf amid the screams of the crowd gone mad. He took the ball, did some of the tricks that usually wondered the fans and kicked it high, so much that it did not seem to come down.
The young Italian teen-agers, and the average football fans, did not know that their Sundays had a new commitment, and that it would stay for the next 7 years.
Maradona stormed the Italian football with a previously unseen combination of individual mastery and charismatic command. A descent of Italians, Croatians, native Americans, Spanish, Diego was a perfect South American idol, whose personality was equally outstanding, outside the football field as it was inside it. As a natural leader, he took the reins of the team and started leading it together with a group of young players out of the juvenile squad, like Ferrara and Di Napoli.
His formidable mastery gave him the nickname “God’s left foot”. He could kick free kicks deciding with absolute precision where the ball would go. His vision of the game allowed him to serve any fellow in any position of the field. His thirst for victory made him a devil on the field.
Lust for life, the song by Iggy Pop, maybe explains it well. Lust for life, for winning, for playing, for women. Diego was not happy in Barcelona, where the concept of the team was bigger than he was. But he loved Naples, the capital of the South, a city that was looking for its next king and found him in Diego in one of the hardest moments of its life.
Plagued by unemployment, poverty, organized crime (called Camorra); Naples was a city desperately searching for a light. Compared to the rich north, where many Neapolitans emigrated to work in the big factories, such as Fiat, owned by the Agnelli family, who also owned Juventus, the perennial winner of the championship, Naples felt like a decayed capital invaded by an army.
Diego understood this, felt it and used it to call the people to arms, waging his own personal war against the power, embodied by the rich teams of the north. Like the politicians he later met and loved, Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez, kept their power by focusing on their fight against the USA, Diego felt like a local chief, un unelected president of a football republic, he led against everybody.
And you could trust he was the last one to give up.
His goals were incredible. In 1985, in Torino, Naples beat Juventus 1-0. A Naples player was fouled in the penalty area, but instead of a penalty Naples was awarded a free kick. Diego asked Bruno Giordano to pass him the ball, a couple of meters on the left.
There was really not enough room to let the ball go. Even today, it is impossible to understand how he could make the ball go to the intersection of the vertical and horizontal sticks of the goal.
One year later, in Verona, against Verona, he took the ball on the left of the offence, looked at the goal and saw the goalkeeper out of the line. He let the ball rebound in front of him then kicked almost from midfield scoring the goal. It was not the first one, in his first match with Argentinos Juniors he stood on the midfield, took the ball and kicked directly to the goal.
Naples helped Diego to find himself in an environment similar to the Monumental Stadium of Boca Juniors, with that passion, that incredible love for him and the values he embodied on the field.
This is how he got to the 1986 World Cup and the most incredible goal ever. The game against England, after the Malvinas / Falkland invasion of 1982, was unlike any other games for Argentinians. Diego ignited the fire by stating that clearly and saying the game was like a war to them.
Diego scored his first goal with the hand, and exulted anyway, saying it was the “hand of god”. The English tried to come back but some minutes later Burruchaga passed the ball to Diego some meters before midfield.
Diego saw Peter Beardsley approach him on the internal side and Lineker in front of him. He freed himself with a waltz-like rondo, caressing the ball with the plant of his right foot and sending it to the external side with the left. The English team expected his players to stop him and were not ready to defend on that side. Diego ran on the left, Terry Butcher, the Arsenal defender usually faithful to his surname, tried to approach but Diego dribbled him as he was uselessly pursued also by Peter Reid.
Fenwick was too slow, he just saw Diego cruising towards Peter Shilton with Kenny Sansom trying a desperate last save, but Diego was too much in control of himself and touched with the devilish left foot the ball that went into the goal slowly but inesorably.
Victor Hugo Morales, the Argentinian broadcaster, gave up any trial to describe it and finished with “taaa taaa taaa taaa”, defied by emotion.
Nobody ever played a World Cup like Diego’s 1986. In this, Messi will never even be a portion of him. His command of the game was absolute. His goals outstanding. In the semifinal, he scored another incredible goal leaving half of Belgium behind him. In the final, after Germany drew, he found an impossible spot to pass the ball to Burruchaga who scored the winning goal.
Not even Pelé, who played in what arguably are the two best teams ever: Brazil 1958 and Brazil 1970. Two incredible teams, in which every player was so talented to be a champion of his own. In those teams, Pelé represented a diamond in a constellation of stars. Brazil won because it was so much stronger, while Diego’s Argentina won because it overcame the ghosts that traditionally they carry with themselves, but, in order to do it, they needed the almost shamanic gift Diego brought with himself.
Everybody went crazy, but it was just the beginning. 1986-87 brought the Championship to Naples, the most southern city to win the Italian Serie A. Diego was incredible in the great goals, and in the small things. On Sunday evenings, everybody turned the TV on to watch what incredible things he had done. The team was built around him, his leadership total.
The downfall for him was to be in Naples. Long parties, a lot of cocaine, friendship with some local bosses, he probably didn’t know who they were, but it was impossible for him to move in Naples without being known. Everybody called him, everybody requested him. In a city without hope, he embodied the possibility to make it, to be great again.
Women searched him, and he did not deny them. Training got scarce, yet when he made it to the field still managed to illuminate, to give himself to the crowd. A video tells a lot about him at the time. In Stuttgart, before the final of the UEFA cup, which Naples won, the loudspeakers air a song, Life, by the Austrian group Opus III.
Diego starts playing alone in the midfield circle. The ball on his foot, then on the shoulder, on the head, following the music rhythm. As a kid, he did that during the intervals of games, and the people asked to not play until the boy was there.
In 1990, Naples won the Serie A again, and Argentina qualified for the World Cup, in Italy. Diego was not at his best. Debilitated by injuries, he still gave 100% to make Argentina get to the semi-final against Italy. The images before the game showed Diego whispering: “Hijos de p…”, to the public that was whistling the Argentinian anthem.
Italy lost after the penalties, ending its own dream to win the World Cup at home. Diego was vindicated, though Argentina lost the final, an ugly game, against Germany, in a rematch of the 4 years earlier game.
After, Diego virtually stopped playing. In 1991 he was found positive to cocaine in an anti-doping control and left Italy. He tried to play in Seville and at the Newell’s Old Boys. In 1994, very fit, played in the USA world cup, but was found positive to a performance enhancing substance and had to leave.
He stopped playing, got fat and went to Cuba to cure himself. Played charity games, and presented programs in the Argentinian TV. Always a gargantuan, a Falstaff like character, someone who would fit a novel by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Diego embodies much more than a football player.
He would not be the right character for today’s football. A big sponsor could not fit him in an advertisement. He would not behave in a way to pose himself, as he is not. If the man is the measure of all things, Diego is a measure to himself. Unsupportable, egotistic, larger-than-life, but also generous, courageous, a real leader recognized even today.
Maybe Leo Messi is looking for his inner Diego Armando Maradona. Something not even his goals, his Balon d’Or, his Champions Leagues, will ever give him: the enormous, the devastating love of a crowd that elected you as your leader and that delivers to you her heart. Only winning with Argentina he will achieve that, though not like Diego, bringing the others to their best, much more than they would ever dream, but only pushed by a team that has him in the top spot.
The same difference that there is between the leader, who takes the team in his hand, and the talented player, who just wants the others to recognize his talent.
Diego was like nobody else.