New York – Diego Maradona has died, and with him dies one of the greatest soccer players of all time. Daniel, a manager at Ground Support, a legendary coffee house in Soho, Manhattan, expressed it well: “For us, soccer fans, it is as if for the Catholics the pope would have died.”
In my travels around the world, I saw that he was one of the most popular of all athletes. Indeed, it is only in the United States, where “the beautiful game” doesn’t yet have a massive audience, that he wasn’t well known.
Maradona came from a very poor family, eventually becoming a very rich man. However, he squandered his fortune on drugs and alcohol. When Maradona was a player, he was in remarkable physical form, but sadly, at the end of his life, he became overweight and was plagued with several serious ailments. I believe, however, that very few people ever provoked the kind of admiration that he did.
He will be always remembered for the extraordinary performance during the match against England during the 1986 World Cup in Mexico, with Argentina going on to defeat West Germany in the final to become world champions. With his two goals against England, his legend was cemented forever. The notoriety of his first goal and the majesty of his second led the French newspaper L’Equipe to describe him as “half-angel, half-devil.”
As the first goal came after he struck the ball with his hand, it became known as the “Hand of God” goal. Although the goal was technically illegal, it stood, much to the disappointment and anger of the English side. Four minutes later, though, he scored his second goal, which was voted “goal of the century” in a poll hosted by international football organization FIFA. His second goal was so glorious it seemed as if he was making up for the first.
After taking a pass in his own half of the field, he ran more than half its length, dribbling past five English players before leaving goalkeeper Peter Shilton on his backside and sending the ball flying into the net. Zinedine Zidane, who watched that game as a 14-year-old said that Maradona was “on another level.” Azteca Stadium, where the game was played, erected a statue of him scoring the famous goal at the entrance to the stadium.
Writing for Sportsnet in 2018, John Molinaro said: “Yes, it was Maradona’s hand, and not God’s, that was responsible for the first goal against England. But while ‘the ‘Hand of God’ 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. It transcended mere sports — his goal was pure art.”
Jorge Valdano, Maradona’s teammate, gave his account of what he witnessed that day.
“I saw Maradona catch the ball in our own field, and I started running next to him, so that all the Brits’ attention wouldn’t be placed only on him,” Valdano said. “I was astonished at how he started dribbling (past) the Brits one after the other, who were almost falling down, such was Maradona’s diabolical speed.”
“After he left their goalkeeper on his backside and scored the goal, Maradona started running towards his right,” Valdano added. “He was being hugged effusively by my teammates. I, however, started going in the opposite direction. I had seen something magical, totally unprecedented, and I wanted to be another spectator and enjoy every minute of it.”
Maradona is often grouped with Pele and Lionel Messi as one of the three best soccer players of all time. Of the three, however, Maradona was the only one who had to carry an entire team on his shoulders. Why do I say that? A player is only as great as he can help his teammates play. When Pele played, he had excellent teammates. And Messi was at his best when Andres Iniesta and Xavi Hernandez played on the same team.
Maradona transferred to Naples’ Serie A team Napoli in 1984. Prior to his arrival, Italian football had been dominated by clubs from the north and the center of the country. No team from the south had ever won a league title. Napoli won a series of national and international tournaments that made Maradona a hero to local Neapolitans. He was so popular globally that some fans started the Maradonian Church — an actual religion — where he is worshiped like a prophet.
Very few people have received as much adulation during their lives as Maradona did in his. And this in some ways probably contributed to his downfall. His health deteriorated in his later years, and he was involved in several legal battles. He remains, however, the greatest soccer player of all time.
Dr. Cesar Chelala is an international public health consultant and voracious soccer fan.
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