Adios Diego the Pibe's Coming Home


Adios Diego the Pibe's Coming Home

Diego Armando Maradona 1960-2020

Even the brightest stars burn out at last.

The world football family is in deep mourning tonight as its most talented yet most wayward son, Diego Maradona, has passed away.

Although 60 years is far too soon to leave the planet, in truth nobody can be that surprised Maradona has died young. The legend's health has been a worry for years with visible ill-health, frequent hospitalisations and rehab stays familiar news.

He outlived another legend blessed with talent but cursed with fame, George Best, by a year. One only hopes he enjoyed his 60th birthday at the end of last month but three days later he was in hospital with a subdural hematoma. 

In recent years Maradona has struggled with alcohol and drug addiction, obesity, internal bleeding in the stomach and brain and finally heart disease. It was as if the devil had cursed the fairest of them all. 

It was officially a heart attack which took him in the end but that heart must have been beating like a hamster's for so many years it is a wonder he ever made it to six decades. Maradona's high-octane, rollercoaster ride of a career in Serie A between 1984 and 1991 would have expired lesser souls.

There is something reassuring about the fact he finished his life a football man, as manager of Gimnasia in his native Argentina, 44 years after he made his debut for Argentinos Juniors just before his 16th birthday. Whatever the missiles which came his way, often self-directed, he stayed loyal to his true love of football.

Gimnasia was the eighth club he had coached, Boca Juniors, where he ended his playing career in 1997, the sixth club jersey he donned, but he will be forever associated with the azzurro of Napoli and the albiceleste of his nation.

As a national icon he had to become Argentina manager at some point and arrived at South Africa 2010 with the aura of his playing days still around him. 

But the team were thrashed 4-0 by Germany in the quarter finals and Maradona was not to join Franz Beckenbauer and Mario Zagallo in winning the greatest prize as both player and coach, a feat subsequently matched by Didier Deschamps.

His national team career ended in ignominy at USA '94 when he tested positive for ephedrine, but it was only the latest unsurprising chapter in the tale of the angel with the dirty face.

On the pitch, Maradona had been sinned against more than he ever sinned, a target for rugged and often vicious fouling throughout his golden years. That he played as long as he did and still won trophies is a testament to his physical prowess and technical brilliance.

The mid to late eighties were forever his heyday. A devastating display of individual brilliance at Mexico '86 for Argentina was matched by a similar adventure in Naples, where he hauled the great but stricken southern city of Italy to its first national title in 1987 and repeated the feat in 1990.

While he reached the summit of Mount Olympus in winning the 1986 World Cup apparently single-handedly and became a demi-god at Napoli, his descent into oblivion during his halcyon days brought him a notoriety as public as his divine ball skills. He lived a chiaroscuro life as a champion.

The little Argentinian was a household name beyond football fans thanks to the global media's exposition of his myriad vulnerabilities and outspoken and increasingly political character, but his on-field brilliance went far beyond his off-field excesses and tantrums and will outlast any tut-tutting about his failings.

A low centre of gravity in a 5'5" (1.65m) frame gave him mobility, a stocky body with tree trunk legs, a legacy of his native American genes, the strength and speed, and growing up in a dirt-poor barrio of Buenos Aires without running water or electricity a fighting spirit and hunger to thrive.

Adios Diego the Pibe's Coming Home

Kicking an orange or rolled-up rags amid the grotty shacks of Villa Fiorito was the start of his footballing career, a route which took him to the very top, perhaps the highest peak any player could reach. 

As it is often noted, Lionel Messi, the most credible heir to his mantle as the greatest, has failed to win the World Cup at four attempts, while Pele, the greatest rival to his crown in the history books, won it three times to Maradona's once, but did it with the help of the world's best team.

To say he had turned into a gigantic folk hero in both Argentina and Naples would be a massive understatement. The adoration of the No.10 was akin to a pre-modern worship of a divine being, the iconography of posters and murals a proof of modern sainthood.

He had Italian roots, but his semi-destitute origins had chimed perfectly with Neapolitans' experience of being ignored and insulted by the wealthy north of Italy. Yet in leading Napoli to triumph over Juve and Milan, Maradona had become more messiah than Robin Hood. 

A passionate city in the shadow of a volcano erupted in ecstasy. A local tried to wake the dead in the city cemetery by scrawling graffiti which read, "You don't know what you are missing!"

Ask anyone who was in Naples in those magical years and they will wax lyrical. San Gennaro, the city's patron saint whose blood magically liquifies or coagulates on his feast day, had a rival miracle worker. 

Around that time I was visiting nearby Pompeii where with no hint of humour, the tour guide compared the Romans' religious worship 2,000 years ago to the adulation of a certain someone in Naples.

In affecting and enlivening the world beyond the football field, Maradona was the most important player of all time.

When trying to assess the stature of Maradona, one also has to remember the South American cultural trope of the Pibe, the street urchin, whose viveza criolla, native craftiness, is the key to his survival.

Maradona was the Pibe D'Oro, the golden street urchin, who embodied the dreams of the millions.

What remains vivid as his story ends is simply his golden talent, unmatched skill and mastery of the ball.

Was it the actual hand of God at work? Diego laughed at the suggestion his joke was anything more.

But was he greatest footballer of all time? Probably.

Jimmy Burns' 1996 biography of Maradona: Maradona: The Hand of God for a fuller picture.

(c) Sean O'Conor and Soccerphile

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