Never again will the beautiful game be graced by an icon of such tragedy and triumph, such acclaim and controversy, such talent and ruin. Maradona may have died relatively young, stolen by a heart attack weeks after a successful surgery on a blood clot in his brain, but in his sixty years he lived enough for ten men.
His story started in his native Argentina, where he became a teenage soccer star before soccer stars were a thing. After conquering his homeland, the diminutive genius transferred to the titanic FC Barcelona for a world-record fee. Although he has since been surpassed as the Catalan club’s premier star by fellow Argentine Lionel Messi, Maradona dominated drama and headlines like no other, often getting involved in controversial brawls and making uncouth comments. He was unpopular with the board executives, which is perhaps why after scoring an impressive 38 goals in 58 games, he transferred to Italian club Napoli after only two seasons for yet another world-record fee.
In Italy the Argentine went from a sporting icon to a King, leading Napoli to such heights that today the club’s fans still revere him as their eternal legend — only Naples can compete with Argentina for the widespread tears and dismay at his death. He was still his mischievous self, missing practice, brawling, and becoming ever-more reliant on the cocaine that would be his downfall, but it was also in Naples that he became the greatest in the world, and in the eyes of many, the greatest in history. It’s no surprise that Napoli has retired their number 10 jersey in his honor, and are set to rename their stadium after him, for Maradona is not merely a generational player: he comes once in history, here for a fleeting moment and missed forever after.
No discussion of Maradona is complete without making reference to the crowning glory of his soccer career, and perhaps the crowning glory of soccer in general: the 1986 FIFA World Cup. That Argentina, spurred on by their unparalleled superstar, defeated West Germany to clinch sports’ biggest prize is almost an afterthought. The fact that West Germany avenged their loss in the final four years later despite Diego’s best efforts is certainly an afterthought.
When it comes to Maradona and the World Cup, only one game comes to the collective mind: Argentina versus England. A match that meant everything to his nation, not just because they are mad for soccer, but because of the bad blood and humiliation of losing the Falklands War. And Maradona brought his nation much more than revenge — he brought them glory of the highest order. From the scandal of his Hand of God to the artistry of his second goal, the greatest ever scored, Maradona perfectly captured the essence of his career in ninety minutes.
If at Napoli Maradona became a King, winning the World Cup made him a God, especially in his native Argentina, where he is treated with such reverence that a religion could be made for him. Sure, fellow compatriot Lionel Messi has surpassed him in goals and perhaps in talent, but Messi will never be loved like Maradona. He will never reach the same heights, nor, indeed, the same troughs.
It was all downhill after retirement, unfortunately, but the drugs, the weight gain, the poor managerial career, these belong not to Maradona the God but to Maradona the man. And in fifty years, it will be the God who is remembered, not the man. In death, Diego Armando Maradona, a poor boy from the impoverished streets of Buenos Aires, has become immortal.