Diego Maradona: Exit of a phenomenon

ON November 25, one of the greatest footballers of all time, Diego Armando Maradona, breathed his last at a hospital in Dique Lujan, Argentina. He was aged 60. The footballing world received the news with palpable shock, in large part because of the larger-than-life image of the soccer god who eventually succumbed to a heart attack. An insanely-talented, phenomenally complete and completely phenomenal footballer, Maradona bestrode the soccer world as sheer royalty.  Maradona’s vision, ball control and, most importantly, dribbling skills, combined with his small frame which gave him a low centre of gravity and allowed him to execute great manoeuvres, has only recently been recreated by fellow compatriot Lionel Messi, but his continental and global success with La Albiceleste remains unmatched. Among other qualities, Maradona was noted for his high mentality and leadership skills on the pitch, which had a great effect on his team’s overall performance.  A free-kick specialist, Maradona was a natural goal scorer and bulldozer, a rambunctious player who frequently got into rowdy situations on the pitch.

Widely celebrated as an advanced playmaker who operated in the classic number 10 position, Maradona was the first player to set the world record transfer fee twice: his 1982 transfer to Barcelona for £5 million, and his 1984 transfer to Napoli for £6.9 million. To say the least, his club record was astounding: featuring for Argentinos Juniors between 1976 and 1981, he found the back of the net 116 times in only 166 appearances. He was to later don the colours of Boca Juniors, for whom he scored 28 goals in 40 appearances. Playing for Spanish giants Barcelona, Maradona netted 22 goals in 36 appearances, but it was at Italian Club Napoli, where he scored 81 goals in 188 appearances, that he literally attained god status, leading the hitherto unsung club to two Seria A titles over a seven-year run (1984 to 1991). The club has in fact now renamed its home ground, Stadium San Paulo, after the Argentine maestro, saying that “with his immense talent and his magic, he honoured the Napoli shirt for seven years, giving it two historical championships and other prestigious cups, and receiving in exchange from the whole city an eternal and unconditional love.”

The maestro later represented Sevilla (five goals in 26 appearances), Newell’s Old Boys (five appearances, no goals), and Boca Juniors (seven goals in 30 appearances). In all, he scored 259 goals in 491 club appearances. Easily combining club success with national team triumph, Maradona lifted the FIFA U-20 World Cup in Japan in 1979, the same year Argentina  emerged runners-up at the South American U-20 Championship held in Uruguay. He scored eight goals in 15 appearances for the Argentina U-20 team. But no doubt the greatest moment for the maestro came at the 1986 FIFA World Cup in Mexico, where he lifted football’s most prestigious trophy. Previously at the quarter final, he had scored two goals in a memorable victory over England. The first, a notorious, unpenalised handling foul, has since been dubbed “Hand of God”, while the second, a 60-metre dribble past five England players, was voted “Goal of the Century” by FIFA.com voters in 2002. He won the Golden Ball at the tournament.

And even though an ankle injury limited Maradona’s overall impact, Argentina still emerged runners-up at Italia 90, losing 0-1 to eventual winners Germany in a deeply pulsating, if bad-tempered affair at the Stadio Olympico, Rome. A late penalty taken by Andrea Brehme turned out to be the only goal on that encounter. It was the first rematch of a final in World Cup history, as Argentina had defeated West Germany at the Mexico 86 final. Argentina in fact became the first team to fail to get on the score sheet at a World Cup final, and the first defending champion to lose at that stage. And although he featured at the 1994 finals in the United States, Maradona played only two games, the second being a 2-1 victory over Nigeria’s Super Eagles at Foxboro, Massachusetts. Nigerians would no doubt remember Maradona’s rather flamboyant juggling of the ball shortly before that game kicked-off, and his removal from USA 94 after the game, following his positive test for drugs. In all, he scored 34 goals in 91 appearances for the senior national team.

There is certainly a lot that Nigerian footballers, and footballers elsewhere, can learn from the departed maestro. They can, and should, learn from his dedication, his art of devotion to the game. Maradona was a passionate footballer par excellence and his records are an eloquent testimony of the landmarks that talent, combined with passion, can produce. On the other hand, the current crop of footballers should also learn from his foibles, including drug abuse. For a substantial part of his playing career, Maradona was involved with drugs and this often tended to take the shine off his glittering career. He was also often incautious as a manager and football personality: his rude reactions to the Super Eagles during the Argentina-Nigeria game at the 2018 World Cup is a case in point. However, although he had his own fair share of human foibles, the fact cannot be disputed that the joint winner of the FIFA Player of the 20th Century award with Brazil’s Pele was a rare phenomenon.

We join the footballing world in mourning “the unmatched magician.”He will be sorely missed. Adieu, Diego Armando Maradona.

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