Diego Armando Maradona can be revered as many things: a disreputable cheat, a drug user, a flawed genius. One thing nobody can take from the gifted Argentinean though, is that the footballing phenomenon whose professional career began when he was still only 15-years-old, is the greatest footballer ever to wear the colours of Napoli. Arguably, he is the greatest player the world has ever seen.
The slightest mention of Maradona raises a bone of contention amongst English fans, mostly remembered for the infamous ‘Hand of God’ incident that contributed to England bowing out of the 1986 World Cup at the quarter-final stage (although had the match ended 1-1 England and gone to penalties, you could’ve put money on England going out). In the same match as that controversial moment came another notable contribution from the diminutive Argentine. The midfield maestro ran half the length of the field, navigated his way into the box leaving a host of England defenders in his wake, before rounding Peter Shilton and slotting the ball home.
It was a trademark Maradona goal the world would witness time and time again. The Italians were fortunate enough to see him weave his magic up close.
The Golden Boy of football was an entertainer of the purest form. He possessed incredible strength, perfect balance and was the best dribbler with the ball you are ever likely to see. He would literally waltz past defenders, twisting and turning them inside out before dumping them on the floor. Such was the immensity of his skill and the confidence in his own ability, whilst playing for Barcelona in Spain, he skipped past three defenders, rounded the keeper and could have tucked the ball away into an empty net. Instead he turned back inside, teased the covering defender to slide in and crash into the post, then calmly rolled the ball home.
He was also a dead ball specialist and was lethal with free-kicks from anywhere around the box. In his first season in Naples, he grabbed a hat-trick in a 4-0 demolishing of Lazio including a sublime lob from 25 yards and an astonishing goal direct from a corner kick.
The Argentinean ace moved to Italy from Barcelona for a world-record fee of £6.9m after his tenure with the Spanish giants became troublesome. He had contracted hepatitis and his relationship with Coach Udo Lattek was strained due to the player’s habitual drug use. Then he suffered a serious injury after a tackle from behind left him with a broken ankle. On the sidelines the cantankerous star became restless, and having fallen out with the Barca director’s, requested to be transfer listed. He was snapped up by Napoli and greeted at the Stadio San Paolo by more than 70,000 fans who immediately idolised him. In the seven years he spent with the Naples club he guided them through the most illustrious spell in their history. In his first season, the Azzurri were only worthy of a 8th-place finish, but with the man the Neapolitans revered as “God” among their ranks, were showing marked signs of improvement. Maradona had netted 14 times – just under a third of Napoli’s league goals – in his debut season. The following campaign saw them finish third, but it was the 1986/87 season that their midfield magician made his mark, guiding Napoli to the first Scudetto title in their 83-year history.
Before this momentous occasion, the only previous pieces of silverware picked up by the south Italian side were the two Coppa Italia successes in 1962 and 1976. Needless to say, the Scudetto title sparked joyous scenes in Naples and the Vesuvian city erupted in a night-long carnival. Maradona and teammates did not stop there, going on to complete a league and cup double by bringing the Coppa Italia back to the Stadio San Paolo for the third time after inflicting a 4-0 aggregate rout over Atalanta.
Despite Maradona’s tempestuous side and notorious behaviour off the pitch, on it he was the perfect team player. Short and stocky, Maradona was able to withstand the physicality of the Italian league, often able to hold the ball with a defender on his back until support arrived. As well as his talent for carrying the ball, he was also noted for his ability to drive at defenders, usually on the left wing and more often than not pick out a teammate in the box with pinpoint accuracy.
He was also famed for the Rabona move, where he would cross or pass to teammates with remarkable accuracy and power by wrapping the kicking leg behind the standing one, effectively with his legs crossed.
The following season – 1987/88 – the idol of Naples was once again in sensational form, tearing teams apart with his deceptive pace, showmanship and sublime ball control. Despite Napoli ending the campaign runners-up to Arrigo Sacchi’s Milan, the midfield maestro collected the Capocannoniere title with a tally of 15 Serie A strikes. Maradona possessed arguably the best left foot in football history and was predominantly one footed as his remarkable goal scoring record indicates. Throughout his career he scored a total of 353 goals – 320 with his left foot, 26 with his head and only six with his right foot. The most controversial of course was the one with his hand.
For Napoli he netted 115 times in 259 appearances including an equaliser from the penalty spot in the first leg of the 1989 UEFA Cup final against Stuttgart. Napoli went on to win that game 2-1 before finishing the job with a 3-3 draw in Germany. As club captain Maradona lifted the prestigious trophy for the only time in the club’s history and on their way to winning the competition had successfully seen off challenges from Bayern Munich and Turin rivals Juventus.
The following season Maradona lead the Little Donkeys to their second Scudetto title, this time pipping Milan to top spot in auspicious circumstances. Napoli were awarded two points by the Italian Football Federation after their Brazilian forward Alemao was struck by a 100 lira coin thrown from the crowd during a game at Atalanta. Those two points proved to be the gap between first and second place in the table, but the Azzurri had a superior goal difference and would have lifted the title anyway. The circumstances still raised controversy ahead of the 1990 World Cup which was to unfold in the Peninsula that summer. It was Maradona who would be the subject of debate – unfortunately not solely for his football.
Even before the tournament began the current Argentina Coach had stirred up a hatred towards him amongst Italians. The man who had made Napoli the most successful side in the south of Italy urged Napoli fans to support his native Argentina in the World Cup rather than Italy, citing the North-South inequality of the country a justifiable reason for them to acknowledge his plea. As a result the Argentinean national anthem was booed at every ground the South American side visited throughout the tournament, except that is in the San Paolo. The Neapolitan’s though were not swayed by their hero’s pleas and hung a banner that read: “Maradona, Naples loves you, but Italy is our blood.” In front of the Naples crowd, Maradona and Argentina returned for the semi-final where they beat Italy on penalties, dumping the hosts out of the tournament.
The Argentinean captain guided his country to the World Cup final despite not playing the breathtaking football fans had come to expect of him. Argentina grinded out results and Maradona did little to light up their performances. In the final he would finish on the losing side having been beaten 1-0 by an outstanding German side lead by Lothar Matthaus.
In 1991, the pint-sized magician was to dramatically fall from grace. Requested to conduct a drugs test by the Italian Federation, traces of cocaine were found in his blood stream and he was subsequently banned from the game for 15 months. He would never play in Italy again. A year later, the most sang about player in Neapolitan history with no fewer than the 19 songs dedicated to the him fled the Peninsula without saying goodbye to his adoring fans. It would be 14 years before he returned to wave farewell. Invited to appear in a testimonial for former teammate Ciro Ferrara who was retiring from the game, Maradona returned to the San Paolo and gave a lap of honour. Sadly though, he was carrying an injury and the 70,000 screaming tifosi never got to see the great man perform.
In 2000, FIFA voted his second goal against England in the 1986 World Cup quarter-final as the best strike of the century whilst he was officially named the second best Player of the Century behind Pele. However, in the internet poll voted for by the public, Maradona received 53.6 percent of the votes compared to Pele’s 18.53 per cent, leaving no doubt as to which player football fans think is the most superior. There is no question that the Napoli and Argentine No.10 was a genius, but every genius has a flaw. Naturally gifted players like George Best, Jimmy Greaves and Paul Gascoigne all battled through addictions with drink. With Maradona it was cocaine. His drug use tarnished his reputation and effectively ended his career. In 1994 he was shamed again and subsequently sent home from the World Cup tournament staged in the USA having tested positive for ephedrine. It’s a shame that such great players admired by so many people the world over fall from grace, but Diego Maradona was and should be remembered as the best player the world has ever seen.