Ihave a theory – more of a hunch, really – that to be a real football fan you have to commit to a team by the age of six, or eight at the latest. Unlike my friends whose fathers took them to watch Aldershot’s Fourth Division tussles on Saturday afternoons, I don’t remember watching a football match before the 1986 Mexico World Cup, when I was already nine and a half. That term at school was dominated by the build-up to the tournament. Someone put a giant poster up on the classroom wall, a composite image of action shots of the star players, with Michel Platini – the undisputed king of European football – in pride of place. Everyone (well, almost everyone) had the Panini sticker album and was blowing all their pocket money trying to complete it. There was a lot of pre-tournament interest in the South Korean team – they’d qualified for the first time since 1954; the Seoul Olympics were coming up; subliminal Cold War brainwashing – but that soon faded after they lost 3-1 to Argentina in their opening game. None of those goals was scored by Diego Maradona, but he set them all up. And our fascination with him never paled.
Until 22 June, he was everyone’s hero. Going into the quarter-final against England, he’d scored just one goal, in a 1-1 draw with Italy, but he’d already made the tournament his own. And what a goal it had been – ‘a lovely goal’, he called it in his autobiography, ‘one of my best ever’ – racing past Gaetano Scirea to pick up Jorge Valdano’s pass, springing into the air just outside the six-yard box to take the ball at the top of the bounce, almost as if he were playing tennis with his foot, tapping it home with his left instep past the keeper’s outstretched hand into the far corner of the goal. Ron Atkinson was less impressed than he should have been: ‘The feller’s a little bit quick … that’s what makes him special, but I still think the defender was a little bit steady there.’ Think what you like, Ron, but Scirea was no slouch. Maradona proved too quick for him, as he did for almost everyone. Opponents who couldn’t take the ball off him had to find another way to stop him.
At his first touch in the South Korea game, less than a minute in, Maradona had been surrounded by three opposition players. He escaped them, only to be hacked down by a fourth. After five minutes, having been fouled yet again, he was lying on the ground in agony, but got up to take a free kick that Valdano slotted home. ‘The fouling was unbelievable,’ he later wrote. ‘I was expected to praise the referees after all that?’ And it has always seemed to me – though this probably only goes to show, once again, that I’m not a real football fan – that the Hand of God was a far lesser crime than all the punishment meted out on Maradona’s ankles over the years.
He played his first professional game for Argentinos Juniors (their ground is now named after him) in October 1976, when he was only 15, and showed his skill by nutmegging Juan Domingo Cabreras. ‘The knocks were big,’ he remembered. ‘I was used to getting the shit kicked out of me when I played with the kids, but here I would soon learn that I had to jump in time … If you don’t learn that, after the third kick you can’t go on.’ In September 1983, when he was at Barcelona, his ankle was broken by a vicious sliding tackle from behind by Andoni Goikoetxea, the Butcher of Bilbao. It looked as if his career might be over, but he came back in January 1984 to score two goals in the rain against Sevilla. It wasn’t only the South Koreans who went for his ankles in the 1986 World Cup. In the quarter-final against England, Terry Butcher sliced him down after he’d outpaced five England players to score the ‘Goal of the Century’. No doubt Butcher couldn’t help it, though twenty and even thirty years later he was still talking about wanting to punch or throttle Maradona for the goal he’d scored unapologetically with his fist four minutes earlier. The British tabloids couldn’t let it go even after Maradona’s death last month, several of them declaring in their headlines that he was now ‘in the hands of God’. The Daily Mail claimed Peter Shilton still couldn’t forgive him. L’Équipe, an impartial paper, went with: ‘Dieu est mort.’
I was disappointed by the result of that game, of course. I had wanted England to win and my heart, too, leaped when John Barnes came on to make those electrifying runs up the left wing, and Gary Lineker scored. But I wasn’t prepared for the animosity and invective directed against Maradona in the playground the next day. I didn’t say anything, but I marvelled at how quickly adulation could turn to hate. Did none of these boys remember how they’d felt, or what they’d said, about Maradona only days earlier? Everyone high-mindedly claimed it was the Hand of God they couldn’t stand, but I wondered, and still wonder, if it wasn’t the second goal that riled them; or both goals together, in such close order. What was really intolerable was that Maradona could sneak a handball past the keeper and the ref – a trick, let’s not forget, that involved outjumping a man seven inches taller than him – when he didn’t even need to, as he insouciantly demonstrated a few minutes later, zipping through the England players like a motorcycle through a traffic jam. It’s easy to see the two goals as representative of the two sides of Maradona, the genius and the cheat. But that only diminishes him. He was polymorphous. He could score with his first touch or his ninth, from a free kick or open play, collecting the ball in the six-yard box or his own half, with his right foot or his left foot or his head or his fist. Anyone who thinks that Argentina robbed England of the World Cup need only watch the semi-final against Belgium, a masterclass they won 2-0, both goals scored by Maradona.
His triumph in the 1986 World Cup, stupendous though it was, is in many ways eclipsed by what he achieved at Napoli between 1984 and 1990. When he arrived – and more than seventy thousand fans turned out at his presentation to welcome him to the San Paolo stadium (which is now going to be renamed after him) – the club had never won a title and was struggling to avoid relegation from Serie A, which was dominated then (as it is again today) by the wealthier northern teams. Under Maradona’s captaincy, Napoli won the scudetto in 1987 and 1990, finished second in 1988 and 1989, and took the Coppa Italia in 1987 and the Uefa Cup in 1989. A few days after Maradona died, Roberto Saviano, the journalist and author of Gomorra, spoke on Italian TV about what he had meant to Naples, their ‘natural alliance’ of ‘generosity and craftiness, instinct and calculation’. Maradona in 1984 was ‘broken, famished and restless’, Saviano said, and ‘therefore perfect for Naples’. After Napoli won the league, Berlusconi offered to double Maradona’s salary if he went to AC Milan. He stayed where he was.
He expected his loyalty to be repaid. In the 1990 World Cup, Argentina faced Italy in a semi-final in Naples. Maradona – who knew all too well how atrociously the city was treated by the north of the country – told the press the Neapolitans should support him rather than the Italian national side. The fans replied with a huge banner hung from the stands of San Paolo stadium: ‘Diego, we love you, but we are Italian.’ Italy soon went 1-0 up, to the crowd’s delight. But then, in the 68th minute, Claudio Caniggia equalised for Argentina. The Italy fans from elsewhere in the peninsula started going after Maradona and – in the words of Saviano, who, aged 11, was there on the curva – ‘something incredible happened.’ For a second, the Napoli fans fell silent, as if taking a deep breath. ‘Then you heard only: “Diego! Diego!” We all began to support Maradona. In that moment, our homeland … was Diego.’
It didn’t last. Maradona failed a drugs test in March 1991, testing positive for cocaine, and was banned for 15 months. In 1992 he left Napoli and moved to Sevilla, and in 1993 went back to Argentina. He failed another drugs test, this time for adrenaline, in the 1994 World Cup in the US. His cocaine and alcohol problems persisted. In January 2000, Fidel Castro invited him to Cuba to get clean. (They had been friends since 1987.) He wrote his autobiography there: ‘Here in the Havana night, while I learn to savour Cuban cigars, I begin to remember,’ turning his mind back to Villa Fiorito, the ‘poor neighbourhood on the outskirts of Buenos Aires’ where he grew up, in a house ‘where it rained more inside than out’. He was close to several Latin American leftist leaders in his later years: not only Castro but also Hugo Chávez and Evo Morales, and he spoke out against the coup in Bolivia a year ago.
I happened to be in La Paz on 11 July 1995, the night Bolivia unexpectedly beat the USA 1-0 in the Copa América in Uruguay. As they celebrated in the streets, no one really paid me any attention, though a few people now and then, assuming I was norteamericano, taunted me with the result. ‘Soy inglés,’ I replied earnestly, as if anyone cared. ‘¡Viva Bolivia!’ South America’s poorest and most put-upon nation had defeated the Goliath of the North, and that night anything seemed possible, though the historically significant events in Bolivia that year were taking place elsewhere, and had nothing to do with football. The Asamblea por la Soberanía de los Pueblos, the political forerunner of Morales’s Movimiento al Socialismo, was founded in March 1995.
Maradona was under no illusions about football’s symbolic power, or its limits. ‘It was an extraordinary success for Argentinian football,’ he said of winning the World Cup, ‘but nothing more than that … We didn’t change the world, we didn’t bring down the price of bread. It’s a lovely thought that football players can solve people’s problems through playing, I wish we could.’ He couldn’t solve anyone’s problems, least of all his own. But, for ninety minutes at a time, he could make everyone forget them.