There is a childhood memory that keeps coming back to Diego Maradona as an image of self-preservation in a world spiralling out of control.
It is night time in Villa Fiorito, a shanty town on the outskirts of Buenos Aires, and the child Maradona has lost his way amidst the tin shacks without running water or electricity. He trips and falls into an open sewer and starts sinking in the communal shit. Maradona is about to drown when his Uncle Cirilo – the same Uncle Cirilo who’d given him his first toy in the shape of a leather football – spots him from the doorway, rushes towards him, and lifts him up towards the stars. Uncle Cirilo proved his worth in spades that night, a necessary reassurance that however deep one falls, one can always get up again.
Maradona has spent much of his professional life oscillating between disgrace and stardom, but lately he seems to have been sinking deeper and deeper into the shit. Earlier this summer, just when Europe's latest batch of big-fee transfers was limbering up to prove its worth, the player they once called the greatest in the world seemed to be on automatic self-destruct.
First there is a series of missed penalties for his Argentine team, Boca Juniors, prompting his announcement that he is quitting to deal with his drug addiction. Then – after a brief hospitalization in Switzerland – a piece of craziness in Alicante, Spain, where Diego, seemingly coked and drunk, gets stuck in a hotel lift with two hookers, kicks the door until his foot bleeds, and then – once released by the local fire brigade – breaks up chairs and tables.
Maradona’s manager and best mate, Guillermo Coppola, tells the Spanish press its OK, Diego didn’t mean it, and even if he did it’s not as bad as you guys make out. But then Coppola himself is arrested on his return to Buenos Aires as part of an international investigation into drug-trafficking. A fair stash of the white stuff is found in Coppola’s own apartment, making it only a matter of time before Maradona himself once again gets drawn into a major scandal.
There are those in Buenos Aires – friends as well as foes – who believe that this really is the final tragic chapter of Maradona’s helter-skelter life. The collective neurosis about his future hit an all-time low with the publication in a leading Argentine magazine of a doctor’s report claiming that Maradona’s brain is terminally rotted because of an excessive drug habit.
It is all planets away from that old newsreel of the child Maradona magically kicking his leather ball in the dust and then declaring a dual ambition in life: to help Boca win the league championship, and Argentina the World Cup. Maradona was just ten days short of his sixteenth birthday when he became the youngest player in footballing history to play in a premier division match. Within three years he had led Boca to its league championship, and his country’s youth squad to the title of World champions.
It was Harry Haslam that was the first Englishman to spot the potential for greatness of Diego Maradona during a secretive scouting mission to Buenos Aires towards the end of 1978. The then manager of Sheffield United was seeking a successor to Tony Currie, but his efforts were unceremoniously blocked by a military junta keen on exploiting the national prodigy. After the junta’s humiliating defeat in the Falklands War, Maradona went off to play for Barcelona – an unhappy period of abuse by hacking Basque defenders and dictatorial club executives who treated him no better than a spoilt gutter boy.
In Naples he led a third-rate Italian club to its first-ever league championship, giving him the status of a demi-God among the downtrodden southerners. But before that there was Mexico ’86, and those two Maradona goals against England. In the context of Maradona’s life, one can see how both goals belonged in a very real sense to the same man. The first, pushed cynically through Shilton’s hands, showed Maradona the urchin child who had grown to be a star, still so unsure of his true self as to feel the need to cheat. The second showed Maradona the hugely-gifted player of exceptional skill whose combination of acceleration, control, strength and accuracy of touch translated into unrivalled greatness on the field.
Lesser players might have had no option but to use their hands. Maradona’s tragedy lay in believing he had to, and having to justify it afterwards, when his genius should have made it unnecessary. It is this duality of character, this enemy within, that has accounted for Maradona’s self-destruction over the years.
He took cocaine for the first time in Barcelona in 1982, when he was 22 years old. So successfully did Maradona lie about his habit that he was paid by the city mayor’s office to co-operate in an anti-drugs campaign. In Naples, he got his Italian girlfriend pregnant only to subsequently deny that he was the father of their child. Instead, thanks to his connections with the local Mafia, he gained increasing access to drugs and prostitutes. Only when politics changed in Italy, and the judiciary clamped down on the Mafia, did Maradona become increasingly isolated.
Positively dope-tested after a match between Napoli and Bari in early 1991, Maradona left Italy in disgrace, only to get busted in Buenos Aires a few weeks later. And so the story continued, with a series of come-backs culminating in his return to Boca last year, fifteen months after exiting in disgrace from the US World Cup.
Alongside the genius on the field and the degenerate off it has lived the myth of Maradona the God, fuelled and exploited by commercial and political interests. His image, seemingly beyond good or evil as long as the crowds were behind him, set transfer records and encouraged the spread of sponsorship and TV rights in international football’s growing engagement with the free marketplace.
Maradona chose to play in countries where football is inexorably mixed up with politics of a particularly passionate kind and where media pressures on star players are enormous, without fully realizing that in so doing he would have to play a role that fell outside the strict demands of his sport.
Now he is staring into the abyss. At the age of 36, his body and mind are falling apart, and he is struggling to pull himself out of the shit with the only real saviour he has ever had – his football. As his one time coach and trainer Cesar Menotti put it to me: “Diego without his football is like a cowboy without his Colt ’45."
From WSC 118 December 1996. What was happening this month