He was a mercurial genius who turned the sport of soccer on its head and was able to bring fans out of their seats with his outlandish skills. But that's only the tip of the iceberg of his story.
The legacy of Diego Armando Maradona is a complicated one, and will surely be discussed at length now that the man is no longer with us. Maradona passed away Wednesday at the age of 60 years old.
Raised in Villa Fiorito, a shantytown on the outskirts of Buenos Aires, he rose from a poverty-stricken childhood to become Argentina’s favourite son — long before Lionel Messi came along — and the best player on the planet during the height of his career in the 1980s, leading his country to World Cup glory, and turning previously modest Italian club Napoli into a powerhouse. But there was another side to the man dubbed “El Pibe de Oro" — The Golden Boy.
Drug and alcohol abuse, tax problems and a host of other troubles dogged Maradona during his playing days, and eventually prevented him from leaving the game on top.
And while he drew no shortage of accolades for his play, he was also no stranger to on-field controversy.
Never was this more on display than in the quarterfinals of the 1986 FIFA World Cup in Mexico, a match that perfectly encapsulated his entire career.
Always in our hearts
Ciao, Diego pic.twitter.com/I2gTWqdtdB
— Official SSC Napoli (@en_sscnapoli) November 25, 2020
The dramatic contest between Argentina and England was played under a cloud of socio-political tension, the Argentine press egging on the national team to exact revenge on the English and reclaim honour after losing the 1982 Falklands War.
With the game tied 0-0 early in the second half, Maradona burst through the brittle English defence with a quick turn of pace before losing the ball. England midfielder Steve Hodge couldn’t clear it and hooked the ball over his head towards his own goal. As the ball hung majestically in the air, England goalkeeper Peter Shilton and Maradona raced for it, but the Argentinian slyly punched the ball as both players went up for it, expertly camouflaging his offence and duping the linesman and referee by nodding his head as if he'd made contact that way.
The ball rolled across the goal line, and Maradona celebrated while England protested to no avail. At the post-match press conference, a brazen Maradona claimed the goal was scored “a little bit by the Hand of God, another bit by the head of Maradona.” TV networks around the world showed the incident time and time again that evening, as Maradona’s “Hand of God” goal became enshrined in the sporting lexicon.
Although he was coy about it in the post-match press conference, Maradona came clean about the goal in his 2002 autobiography when he wrote: “Now I feel I am able to say what I couldn’t then. At the time I called it ‘the hand of God.’ Bollocks! It wasn’t the hand of God, it was the hand of Diego! And it felt a little bit like pick-pocketing the English.”
Yes, it was Maradona’s hand, and not God’s, that was responsible for that first goal against England. But while the “Hand of God” goal remains one of the most contentious moments in World Cup history, there can be no disputing that his second goal against England ranks as the greatest ever scored in the tournament.
Starting in his half, Maradona embarked on a 60-yard run, dribbling past no less than five English players with the ball glued to his foot, bursting into the penalty area with a quick turn of pace and sublimely slipping the ball past Shilton. The goal was voted the greatest ever at the World Cup in an online poll conducted by FIFA in 2002, and a statue of Maradona immortalizing the moment was erected outside Azteca Stadium.
Diego Maradona. One of the greatest to ever do it.
— Complex Sports (@ComplexSports) November 25, 2020
In a span of four minutes, the world had seen the worst and best of the Argentinian icon. While the “Hand of God” goal was the very definition of against the rules, Maradona’s second goal, later dubbed “The Goal of the Millennium,” was pure poetry, affirmation of his genius and standing as the greatest player in the world.
Argentina held on for a 2–1 win over England, a result that was owed to the cunning and genius of their charismatic star.
The South American nation would go on to beat West Germany in the final in Mexico City, claiming its second World Cup crown, and first since winning it on home soil in 1978, thanks in large part to the exploits of Maradona. No other player, not even Brazil’s Pele in 1958 nor Italy’s Paolo Rossi in 1982, had dominated a single competition the way Maradona did in Mexico.
Argentina was crowned champions, and Diego Maradona, the undisputed king of the tournament, basked in the hot Mexican sun as he lifted the World Cup trophy.