October 30, 2020


Maradona at 60: In search of the real Diego (Guillem Balague's BBC Sport)

In his youth, Maradona's dad, or as his friends called him Chitoro, piloted a ferry that moved cattle from village to village and later on he went on to work in a chemical factory, where he barely earned enough to make ends meet for his large family in the shanty town where they lived.

The success of his son, the fifth of eight children, meant that apart from becoming the "king of the barbecue", he would never work again. By the time Diego was 15 he had already become the head of the family and told his dad to be by his side.

From an early age Diego learned that leadership was a natural step forward, particularly when there was a vacuum to fill, no matter what your age. "We went to play in Brazil," recalls team-mate Ruben Favret who, like the rest of the squad, played midweek friendlies in Argentina and abroad to take advantage of Maradona's pull.

"It was the era of the colour television and we all wanted to bring one back. But we had not been paid our bonuses. Diego, who was 18, stood up for everyone and told Consoli [the president of Argentinos] that if they didn't pay us, he wouldn't play."

A complicated, convoluted move to Boca Juniors followed, mostly orchestrated by Maradona himself who revealed - incorrectly - to a friendly journalist that talks to sign him from Argentinos were at an advanced stage.

It kick-started the first great media-led transfer in history, for what was then a still fairly green 20-year-old. The deal morphed into the surreal. What began as a straight purchase for the not inconsiderable sum of $10m became a last-minute loan using six Boca players, some cash and dodgy cheques as collateral. Nothing was simple or straightforward when it concerned Maradona.

Barcelona, where he went next, never saw the best of him. Of the two years he spent there he was out ill or injured for about half of that. He suffered an appalling ankle injury after a dreadful tackle from Athletic Club's Andoni Goicoechea and then, when he became the main protagonist in a massive brawl played out in front of the Spanish king in the Copa del Rey final which led to a five-month ban from domestic competition, his fate was all but sealed.

In fact, he was close to bankruptcy at that point and a move, with new financial incentives, was a necessity. Also, he never adapted to life in Catalonia, where he was made to feel an outsider.

Two months later he signed for Napoli, where he would enjoy his most successful and ultimately most punishing times. The move to this noisy, crowded, overheated goldfish bowl of an existence - in which the Neapolitan criminal organisation, the ever-present Camorra, were involved from the start - was the moment Diego the kid from Fiorito became Maradona the brand.

Suddenly he was more the character than the kid, falling in love with the notion of being Maradona, lapping up the glory and adulation yet always fully aware of just how asphyxiating the whole situation was.

Cocaine became his new reality, a place of excitement higher than he had ever been before; his drug of choice removed him from the demanding realities of having to constantly demonstrate that you are the best player in the world.

And in between it all came the moment that confirmed his status as something much more than merely a great footballer. How would things have transpired if Argentina had failed to beat England in the "Hand of God" match in the 1986 World Cup in Mexico, the "revenge" four years on of the defeat in the Falklands War?

That match served to grant him immortality in the eyes of his country.

My latest project is a biography on Diego, up until his retirement as a footballer. The rest is too personal and unsavoury. In order to write it, I had to go back to where it all started, to Villa Fiorito. No-one would take me. It was my last day in Buenos Aires in early 2020, and eventually I managed to persuade a very nervous taxi driver who had picked me up on my arrival to drive there.

Posted by at October 30, 2020 8:32 AM