There’s a fabulous documentary on Amazon Prime at the minute, a couple of years old, which has some incredible unseen fly-on-the-wall footage of Argentina legend Diego Armando Maradona, arguably the greatest footballer who ever lived, during his time at Napoli, and it’s certainly shed a light to me, looking back, not just at how inspiring the man was for many who adored him, but for how he got such a bad name, for often trying to do the right thing.
Maradona was a hero, a legend, a god, to those who loved him in Naples, but ask any other Italian at the time of the 1990 World Cup who the most hated human in their country was, he would top many a poll, ask any Englishman who suffered his ‘hand of god goal’ in 86, they would say the same. Well, him and Maggie Thatcher perhaps?
Maradona was a genius, born in the Buenos Aires slums to a loving family, his ethos in life was to play ‘first division football and buy his parents a home’, by fifteen, he was on the road to doing this, firstly at Argentinos Juniors his first pro-club before Boca Juniors, when the biggest club in Argentina snapped up his services. By the age of 22, Barcelona had paid a world record fee for the brightest prospect in world football.
Maradona would admit his time at Barcelona didn’t go well. He didn’t enjoy the city, the bubble he was in, the treatment he got, and after two years he was more than happy to leave, he said he didn’t know Naples, but Napoli was the only side who came in for him, a fee worth nearly £7m rescued his nightmare in Spain, what would follow would be unprecedented success, for a side languishing at the time, near the relegation zone of Serie A.
Napoli’s first few games didn’t go great, but eventually Maradona’s class shown through, and Napoli as a team would gain confidence, from mid-table in 1984/85 to third in 1985/86, by the time Maradona headed out to Mexico for the 1986 World Cup, his own fans would adore him, and he adored being an adopted Neapolitan.
But behind the lines, Maradona was getting a name for being a ladies man, happily in a relationship with long term lover Claudia (who he would eventually marry), his eye would often cast astray, and on the eve of the World Cup in 86, it was news that he had made a girl pregnant, knowing this whilst about to represent his country on the biggest stage of all, he denied all knowledge.
During that World Cup, Maradona was untouchable, arguably the greatest performance by a player in that competition since Pele in 58.
A lot of English fans will memorise the ‘hand of god goal’ as the one that eclipses the ‘goal of the century’ in the same game, but what many won’t acknowledge is that the treatment by Terry Fenwick that day against Maradona, should have seen the Queens Park Rangers defender long sent off, what was also motivation for Maradona’s antics in that split second decision as he challenged the great Peter Shilton, the Falklands War, Maradona said “the news in Argentina a couple of years earlier was that we were winning the war, when in actual fact we were losing 20-0, this was some sort of justice for the war”.
Maradona was brilliant in the semi-final against Belgium where he scored two goals, his late defence splitting pass to Burrachaga in the final against West Germany, the assist to provide his nation with the cup.
Celebrations where emphatic as Argentina who only just qualified for the tournament, weren’t expected to do much, but those scenes were nothing like the ongoing jubilations which Maradona would be part of a year later.
Napoli had never won Serie A, and in a star-studded league that included hatful’s of the worlds best players like Platini, Rummenigge, Elkjaer, Baresi, Maradona lead his side to the brink of a first ever title, and when it eventually came, the celebrations it sparked in Campania and around Mt Vesuvius, would go on for months.
By the time of the clubs run in for the championship that year (86/87), Maradona was already unofficially patron Saint of Naples, he could not walk down the street without getting mobbed, but on the plus side, he could get anything he wanted in the city for free, women, booze, drugs, mainly via his relationship with the Naples Camorra, a drug related gang lead at the time by Carmine Giuliano.
Giuliano used Maradona to profit his own ego, in return he would give Maradona anything he wanted, and an occurring theme after matchday would be Maradona, partying for three days with the higher echelons of Naples, before three days of intense training getting back to fitness, matchday, then repeat.
Maradona was impressionable, those that knew Maradona, knew Diego, a kind, loving, intelligent man, a father, a husband, an athlete, a captain, and friend, but those who knew Diego, also knew Maradona, the alter-ego, the footballer, the performer, the party goer, the eccentric, the romancer, it was like he lived two lives, and under the grooming of Giuliano, things would get worse as Maradona’s addiction, was simply not to say ‘no’.
So much so, by the time Maradona captained his side to the 1989 UEFA Cup final he wanted out. Saying on the night of their victory, “I have asked my president to sell me” A damning verdict by a player who couldn’t take no more.
Maradona had simply had enough of Naples, the culture was suffocating him, his stardom didn’t allow a normal life, his relationship with the Camorra didn’t allow a normal life, he was scared and wanted out. The only way was to move elsewhere. Maradona stating “It’s not about the money”.
That summer, the summer of 89/90, Maradona didn’t get his wish, Napoli were not wanting to sell their best asset, and rightly so for the club’s own wealth, as they went on to win the scudetto again.
There’s an iconic image at the final whistle when Napoli secured their championship, Maradona arms aloft, didn’t seem his usual self, years before he would claim that “winning the championship with Napoli is bigger than winning the world cup with Argentina, because they didn’t take me in 1978”, but this felt different, this felt like Maradona, in winning his second title, had over-stayed his own party.
That summer, his Italian dream would be over for good.
The 1990 world cup, hosted in Italy, would pair the favourites Italy, against the holders Argentina, in you’ve guessed it, the San Paolo stadium Naples. Maradona had asked his hard core following, cast by many as outsiders in Italy, described by those in the wealthier north of the country as their dirty cousins, to instead of support Italy, support Maradona, which split opinion, on one hand you are asked to support the footballer that has given the city of Naples ‘everything’ from a football sense in the six years he’d been there, on another, you’re told to turn your back on your nation, to instead support an adopted son against your own country of birth.
Maradona could not win, Italy and Naples could not win, and when Maradona’s side knocked out Italy at the semi-final stage on penalties, the most hated man in the country would get sheer abuse and victimisation, enough of it to see him soon gone for good.
In the final, against West Germany, the Argentine national anthem was jeered by Italian supporters in Rome, Maradona famously echoing the words translated to “sons of bitches” as the cameras panned on him, annoyed and hurt that his nation would be so loudly disrespected.
Argentina would lose the final, whether the jeers pre-game had any effect it’s hard to say, but Argentina were poor and lost their heads on too many occasions, two players sent off as Andy Brehme’s late penalty won a terrible final for the Germans.
What would follow, would be an Italian reaction to oust Maradona out of their country. Revelations of his party lifestyle, his cocaine habits, his sexual exploits, his financial status, the media would jump on the back of any story they could, to unsettle Maradona and his family, the fans would turn, from supporters, to snitchers, had Maradona left in 89 when he asked to do so, none of this would have happened, because he stayed so long, long enough to see the tide turn, despite wanting out, his life by 1990, would start to turn very much upside down.
Had Maradona got his wish to leave Napoli in 1989 and had things been different, cutting ties with the Camorra at the earliest opportunity? Would he be alive today? It’s again hard to say, but one thing we know about Maradona is that his addiction was always out of control, had he had the support to take him away from that lifestyle, we might be talking of a far happier story of a footballer, that let his football do the talking, and nothing else. The fact the Camorra took advantage of a young impressionable man, and gave him everything he wanted, would eventually lead his life astray. The characteristic of Maradona, was afraid to say no, although the ‘real’ Diego deep down, knew what he was doing was wrong.
The colourful character and lifestyle of Maradona though is one that intrigues the football purists like me, impeccable control on bouncy and hard or wet and muddy pitches, the ball glued to his feet, taking on the world’s best players in the world’s best league, and more often than not, coming out on top, this three days or less after all night cocaine and booze binges, putting to sword those that say only the ‘healthiest can survive’.
In the end it all got the better of Diego Maradona and who’s to blame, a number of factors can come into consideration, but what we can all agree on, is as a footballer, he’ll always be remembered, love him or hate him, as the finest we’ve ever seen, and there isn’t a Neapolitan on the planet, who would disagree with that!