Before Ronaldo and Messi, Van Basten and Zidane, there was Maradona. Not only was the little Argentine possibly the greatest footballer of them all, he was also the first modern superstar, the first to get paid life-changing amounts of money, the first to experience the full glare of life in the media spotlight. Pelé was as good, but never had to put up with the constant intrusions, the paparazzi madness, the extraordinary levels of love and hate that Diego Maradona provoked.
He was a one-off, and his extraordinary story is memorably told in Asif Kapadia's rigorous if not very imaginatively titled new documentary Diego Maradona. In fuzzy TV images from the 1980s and 1990s, we see the master in his glorious prime, scoring and creating goals for fun with his clubs Boca Juniors, Barcelona and, of course, Napoli, where his name is still revered. The bigger the stage, the more he seemed to love it, and we also witness his magnificent progress through the 1986 World Cup, where he led an unfancied Argentine side to glory.
In doing so, of course, Argentina brushed aside the challenge of Bobby Robson's England with the help of Maradona's boot - and other appendages. "The hand of God" was how the hyperbole-prone Diego described the clever handball that gave the Argentines their opening goal and provided the infuriated British tabloids with endless nasty headlines.
But in Kapadia's documentary we see footage of English centre-half Terry Fenwick elbowing Maradona in the face shortly beforehand - itself hardly fair play. And minutes later, there's that wonderful second goal, thought by some to be the greatest of all time, as Maradona dribbled past five England players during a glorious 60-yard run.
That game is often used to sum up the two sides of Maradona's persona: the sublime moments of genius, and the venality and quasi-criminality in which he'd later become involved. But as Kapadia's documentary points out, we've tended to see him through the prism of prejudice. For decades, the British press have characterised Diego as a duplicitous cheat, as though no English footballer ever simulated. And after the Italian press turned on him during the 1990 World Cup, Maradona was dragged through the mud and treated roughly by that country's judicial system.
The truth is, Maradona's immense talent was resented everywhere, and especially in Argentina, because he emerged from a slum and was part of a despised underclass. Born in 1960, Diego Armando Maradona was raised in Villa Fiorito, a notorious shanty town on the edge of Buenos Aires. His father was of Native American heritage, and Diego would later be subjected to racist chants in Spain and Italy on this account. He, his parents and sisters lived in a shack, and he learned to play on Villa Fiorito's muddy 'streets'.
He grew up admiring the exploits of George Best and Rivelino, and was not quite 16 when he made his debut for the club Argentinos Juniors. From there he moved to Boca Juniors, where he shone, and in 1982 he was transferred to Barcelona for a then record-breaking fee of almost $8m.
Maradona's stint at Barcelona was not a happy time for him, and he left under a cloud just two years later, having become embroiled in a notorious fist fight during the Copa del Rey final against Bilbao. But at his next club, Napoli, he found his spiritual home.
When Maradona joined them, Napoli were the whipping boys of Serie A: they'd never won a title, and were endlessly embroiled in relegation battles. They also had to put up with constant abuse from 'ultra' fans of the northern clubs, who held up charming banners saying things like 'lavatevi' - wash yourselves. The Neapolitans were a despised underclass, and Diego understood exactly how they felt.
After he'd galvanised the team, Napoli went on to win two Serie A titles, a Coppa Italia and a UEFA Cup. He became a god in the beleaguered southern city, was mobbed and feted everywhere he went: when I visited Napoli more than a decade after Maradona's retirement, his framed poster still hung next to Jesus in many living rooms.
It would have been next to impossible for any young man to survive this level of adulation, and Diego had feet of clay. A fondness for cocaine led him into the waiting arms of the Camorra, Napoli's vicious mafiosi, and in 1992 he left the club in disgrace after failing a drug test and getting mixed up in a wiretap sting against the notorious crime syndicate.
Diego's fall was as spectacular as his rise: he gained massive weight, gave teary confessional interviews on Argentine television, and embarked on a distinctly patchy managerial career. But those who judge Maradona always fail to take into account the intense and unprecedented pressure he endured during his playing career. And even his fiercest critics cannot deny that he was one of the greats - perhaps the greatest of all.
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When We Were Kings (1996)
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