He had the ability to carry teams
16 December ~ Travelling home from a recent Atalanta match my friend and I got to talking about who was the greatest player of all time. Despite the claims of Pelé and Lionel Messi – who recently broke Gerd Müller's record for goals in a calendar year and has won the last three Ballon d'Ors, with a fourth likely to come in January – among others, we agreed that the accolade had to go to Diego Maradona. We also agreed that because of his inglorious exit from the game, it has perhaps been forgotten just how good he really was.
Maradona's best years were 1984 to 1991 with Napoli. He transformed the club from perennial underachievers into one of the power houses of the Italian game at a time when Serie A was the strongest league in the world and there were no easy games. This cannot be said of Pelé's 18 years with Santos, nor can it be said of Barcelona where Messi operates in what is, frankly, an uncompetitive league.
Furthermore, Messi is surrounded by other great players, as was Pelé when he played for Brazil. Maradona was not but his charisma inspired team-mates to play above themselves. As a result Napoli won more trophies – two league titles, one Coppa Italia and one UEFA Cup – than in the rest of their history put together. At the same time he led a good but not great Argentina side to the World Cup in 1986 and a mediocre one to the final in 1990.
We are often told that when a team has an outstanding player its game is based around him. With Maradona it was the other way round. He was an unselfish team player who was as much a provider as a scorer. All this was confirmed to me when I once gave a few English lessons to his former coach at Napoli, Ottavio Bianchi, who lives in Bergamo. It was said that they did not get on at all but Bianchi had nothing but praise for Maradona the footballer.
He told me that what made him a truly great player was that he never criticised his team-mates for not being as good as him. He had a chaotic life off the field, and his career ended in ignominy, but while he was in his prime his conduct on the field was nearly always exemplary. He was also courageous and as far as I remember he never dived. Unlike Messi, but like Pelé, Maradona played in an era when defenders were given more licence than they are today, and it is amazing how he came back from the Andoni Goikoetxea tackle.
He was also unceremoniously treated in the 1982 World Cup by Claudio Gentile. Serie A was the litmus test of a player's greatness when Maradona played in it. It is not any more but even so many feel that Messi would find life there much harder there than he does in Spain and would certainly not score so frequently.
And the Hand Of God? No worse than when Geoff Hurst punched in the first of his six goals in West Ham's 8-0 win over Sunderland in 1968. He was never pilloried for it. Better to remember the second goal in that England v Argentina game.
Maradona is still worshipped in Naples, both for how he gave a depressed city hope for a short time and for his resemblance to the scugnizzo, the Neapolitan street urchin. He did not score as often as Pelé and Messi – just over a goal every two games. He did not have their apparently squeaky clean image. His life off the field was often a disaster and sometimes a disgrace. As a result his reputation has suffered. But despite everything, on the field he was the greatest. Richard Mason