This story was taken from an episode of Julie DiCaro’s now-defunct sports history podcast, Stick to Pods, and originally aired on July 13, 2018.
If in 1986, you, like me, were a tween fledgling attacking midfielder, there was nobody in the world who was a bigger deal than Diego Maradona.
Despite the claims of some sports writers that there was no soccer community in the United States before 1990, the truth is there were a ton of kids playing club soccer in this country in the 1980s. And I was one of them.
While we all worshiped Pele, most of us hadn’t been alive to see him play outside of the New York Cosmos. But Diego Maradona? Well, he was a contemporary hero. And for those of us soccer players of a certain age, those blue and white stripes with the number 10 will never not be the number of Diego Maradona.
To understand Diego Maradona, you first have to understand where he came from. He was born Diego Armando Maradona Franco on October 30th,1960, in Buenos Aires. Maradona was raised in a town outside of one of the city suburbs, and his family was dirt poor. The oldest son of eight siblings, Maradona was first discovered by a soccer talent scout at the tender age of 8, while playing for a neighborhood club.
(Sidebar: If you want to know where U.S. soccer goes wrong in recruiting its players, you can start right here. We don’t have neighborhood clubs in this country. We have rec soccer and we have club soccer, and we definitely don’t have high-level scouts going out and looking for talent among kids as young as 8 years old in the poorest neighborhoods in the country. But I digress.)
Soon after he was discovered, Maradona was recruited to play for the club Australia Rojas, and he went on to play for Los Cebollitas, meaning “little onions,” which is the younger team club for the blended areas club Argentine Juniors. Maradona has always been known for his incredible footwork, and it seems he figured it out pretty early, because by age 12, he was entertaining the crowd at halftime at first division games with his ball handling skills.
At 15, Maradona made his debut for the Buenos Aires club Argentine juniors. He was just 16 years old. He went on to play for Argentine Juniors for four years, scoring 115 goals in 167 matches. And remember he was playing attacking midfielder, not striker. He was supposed to be mainly creating opportunities for scoring, not necessarily scoring himself. In 1981, Maradona transferred to the famed Argentinian club Boca Juniors in the first division and scored twice in his debut match. And along with his prowess on the pitch, this is where we start to see the first hints of his infamous temper and his prickly personality. He had a bad relationship with his manager, Silvio Marzolini, but led his team to the title anyway in his first season.
Let’s back up a bit and talk about Maradona’s international career. He made his debut for the Argentinian national team at the age of 16 in 1977, but he was left off the 1978 World Cup squad, as the manager believed he was too young. So 1979, Maradona played in the Youth World Championship and was the star of the entire tournament. But it wasn’t until 1982, that he was actually named to his first World Cup Squad. Maradona didn’t play very well in his first World Cup. His first time out, he was outclassed by older, more experienced players. Still, Argentina made a respectable showing, losing to Brazil, and then to eventual winners, Italy, two-to-nil. Maradona played all five matches, never coming off the pitch once during the tournament. He scored twice, despite being heavily marked in every game. And again, we start to see Maradona’s infamous temper bubble to the surface. In his final match of the 1982 World Cup, he was sent off the field for retaliation, But temper and all, Maradona had made his presence felt on the world stage.
After the 1982 World Cup, Maradona was a hot commodity. He was transferred to FC Barcelona for a record $7.6 million fee. And it’s at Barca that Maradona really becomes a superstar. In 1983, Barca won the Copa Del Rey, the Spanish Super Cup, and El Classico. And in fact, Maradona was so good in El Classico that he was applauded by rival Real Madrid fans after dribbling past Madrid keeper Augustin, stopping for an empty goal, waiting for Madrid defender to try to block the shot, and then scoring easily.
While at Barca though, Maradona had a host of health problems, including being treated for hepatitis. He also broke his ankle after a slide tackle that nearly ended his career. It was at the 1984 Copa Del Rey though, that his fate was sealed with Barcelona. There was a huge fight between Barca and Athletic Bilbao. After being baited the entire match by homophobic chants from both the spectators and opposing players, Maradona decided he’d had enough. He headbutted opposing player Miguel Sola, then threw an elbow in another player’s face, and kneed another in the head, knocking him completely unconscious. Athletic players surrounded Maradona, and the same player who had previously broken his ankle kicked him in the chest. This all led to a mass brawl in front of no less than King Juan Carlos and over 100,000 fans, and more than 60 people were injured in the melee.
That was Maradona’s last game for Barca. Said one Barca executive, “When I saw those scenes of Maradona fighting and the chaos that followed it, I realized we couldn’t go any further with him.” After two seasons with Barca and 38 goals in 58 matches, Maradona was out.
He was summarily transferred to Napoli in Italy’s Serie A, and 75,000 fans showed up at Stadio San Paolo to welcome him to Italy’s premier league. One newspaper wrote about Napoli, despite the lack of a ‘mayor, houses, schools, buses, employment, and sanitation, none of this matters because we have Maradona.” At the time Maradona arrived, there was a lot of political infighting between northern and southern Italy, and a lot of it played out on the pitch in northern Italy, which was seen as the economic “haves” to the southern “have nots.” But having secured Maradona, the South was finally ready to fight back. It didn’t take long for Maradona to make his impact felt. In 1987, Napoli won his first-ever Serie A championship. It won again in 1990, finishing as a runner-up in both 1988 and 1989. The league was entirely befuddled by how to stop Maradona, just as La Liga had been years prior. No less than the great Italian defender Paolo Maldini said, “The best player I ever played against was Maradona.”
Unfortunately, Maradona hadn’t left his personal problems behind in Spain. While in Napoli his addiction to cocaine, which he’d already been fighting for several years, worsened. And he was fined increasingly by his team for missing games and practices. Maradona attributed all of this to stress. But there were also allegations of a non-marital child that Maradona refused to recognize, and he was even tied to La Camorra, one of Southern Italy’s mob syndicates.
The Hand of God
In the midst of all this came the 1986 World Cup in Mexico City. Maradona was 25 years old and in the prime of his playing days. He arrived in Mexico City as the star of the tournament and captain of the Argentinian squad. Argentina advanced easily through the early rounds, and it was in the quarterfinals against England, that Maradona would play his most infamous match.
England had finished second in their group. Argentina was unbeaten going into the match. The first half of the game was relatively uneventful, with Argentina dominating possession but not making much of their chances. It was in the second half, though, that the two most famous goals in the history of soccer were scored, and they were both scored by Maradona.
With 51 minutes gone in the match, Maradona dribbled down the field, getting past several of England’s defenders. The fact that he got in position to score at all was kind of a miracle. He made it past Glenn Hoddle, plus a couple more of England’s defenders before passing the ball to teammate Jorge Valdano, and continuing his run towards England’s goal. Valdano misplayed the ball, but so did England. Steve Hodge wound up hooking the ball into his own penalty area, and then, like a Phoenix from the ashes, Maradona rises in the air and with a flick of his head appears to head the ball into the goal to put Argentina up on England. 1- nil.
At first, there was no sign that anything was amiss, other than the British players gesturing frantically to the head referee Ali bin Nassar. Nassar jogged backward to midfield looking to his assistant referee, who remained stock, still never once raising his flag, but the British players were going nuts. Even the British commentators didn’t know what had happened. They thought England’s players were signaling that Maradona was offside, which didn’t make any sense to them. It was a pass that ultimately went into the net, coming off the foot of England’s Hodge. On replay, England announcer Barry Davies noticed that Maradon’s arm appears to be raised, but still, no one other than the England players in the immediate vicinity seemed to be suggesting a handball.
The Argentinian players themselves weren’t sure what had happened. Maradona later said, “I was waiting for my teammates to embrace me and no one came and I told them, ‘Come hug me or the referee’s not going to allow it!’”
To his credit. Maradona plays it off beautifully, flicking his head at the same time he raised his fist to punch the ball in. Even now the handball is nearly imperceptible to the naked eye. And let’s be honest, the beautiful game has always had an aspect of theater to it. Even when you’re looking for it, you really have to watch it in slow motion to actually see the ball connect with his hand.
We’ll come back to the Hand of God goal later because, just four minutes later, Maradona scores the second of the two most famous goals in history. And the second one was a no-doubter.
The Goal of the Century
While England still struggled to regain their composure after the Hand of God, Maradona receives a pass from his teammates just shy of mid-field. He dribbles up England’s entire right side of the pitch, never once using his right foot, managing to evade every single defender on England’s team, and deposits the ball in the back of the net. It doesn’t sound like much, but when you see it you’ll understand.
That goal has been repeatedly voted by soccer fans the greatest goal in soccer history and is known the world over as the Goal of the Century. Barry Davies, England’s announcer, who was still reeling from the Hand of God goal, made the call, describing Maradona as slipping through the defenders, “like a little eel,” calling him “a little squat man.” Seconds later, Davies crows, “a goal of great quality by a player of the greatest quality!” Years later, Davies would call Maradona’s goal “the greatest international goal he’s ever commented on,” pointing out that Maradona was 10 to 15 yards short of center field, facing his own goal (!) when he began the run.
Argentina wound up winning the match, 2-1. And by the time it was over enough, people had seen a replay of the Hand of God goal to realize what had happened. When asked about it afterward, Maradona, with a sly smile and he said the goal “was a little with a head of Maradona and a little with the hand of God.”
Probably worth remembering that around this time, England and Argentina were fighting over the Falkland Islands. And while England was heartbroken and justifiably enraged about the match. Argentina took a lot of pleasure in both the victory against England and how it came about.
So how does a goal like the Hand of God goal even happen?
The head referee, Ali bin Nasser, was blocked from seeing the entire penalty box by players who were standing in front of him. At that point, Nasser relied on his assistant referees to let him know if something untoward had happened, one of whom was Bulgarian Bogdan Dovetch. While the two referees are supposed to be helping each other, they didn’t speak a common language. Bin Nasser, a Tunisian spoke French and English, while Dovetch spoke German and Spanish. In the dressing room before the game, they spoke with the help of a FIFA translator. The Hand of God goal, though, kicked off a feud between the two referees that would last the better part of 30 years, with both Nassar and Dovetch, blaming each other for missing the call. The two men never spoke to each other again,
Nasser would later blame a hemorrhoid treatment that supposedly affected his eyesight. And as for Dovetch, he gave an interview in 2014 in which he said FIFA rules only allowed him to offer up his opinion on the goal if Nasser asked, and Nasser never asked. While neither man ever refereed a World Cup match again. Nasser returned to his native Tunisia and remained involved in soccer. Dovetch, on the other hand, shunned the spotlight, moving to a small town and claiming that the goal and Diego Maradona had ruined his life. He died in 2017. As for Maradona, he refers to both referees as “my amigos.”
Argentina went on to win the World Cup in 1986, beating West Germany, 3-2, in front of 115,000 fans at Estadio Azteca. So great was Maradona’s influence, a statue of him scoring The Goal of the Century was erected outside the stadium to commemorate the moment.
In that tournament, Maradona scored five goals and had five assists. He was fouled 53 times and he scored or assisted 10 of Argentina’s 14 goals. He was awarded the Golden Ball for the most valuable player in the tournament, and to this day fans claim that he won that World Cup nearly single-handedly. Maradona would return to the World Cup twice more.
In Italy in 1990, an ankle injury hampered much of his play and caused him to actually miss a penalty kick against Yugoslavia. Still, Argentina advanced to the final where they lost one-nil to Germany. If you thought the outrage over Maradona using his hand to win the World Cup in 1986 would have deterred him from trying it again, you’d be wrong. In Italy, he used his hand to block a Russian shot on goal.
Maradona fails drug tests
In 1994, Maradona again played in the World Cup, this time in the United States, but he only lasted two matches before failing a doping test, upon which he blamed his trainer. Maradona then later said that FIFA had agreed to let him use epinephrine to lose weight. FIFA was not amused and sent him home from the 1994 World Cup in disgrace. Argentina lost in the second round to Romania in Los Angeles.
Now back to Maradona’s professional career. In 1991, while still with Napoli, he served a 15-month ban for failing a cocaine test. In 1992, he signed with Sevilla in Spain. But by 1995, he was back in Argentina playing with his original club, Boca Juniors. By this time, perhaps the greatest soccer player the world has ever seen was a shell of his former self. It was pretty clear that Diego Maradona was done.
After his playing days were over, Maradona tried his hand at managing clubs in both Argentina and the United Arab Emirates. He managed Argentina’s national team from 2008 to 2010, which included a two-month ban after he told reporters to “suck it and keep on sucking it.” After a tumultuous tenure, he was sacked by Argentina in 2010.
Maradona’s life off the field has never been as pretty as his play. He says he was addicted to cocaine from the mid-1980s until 2004. He had gastric bypass surgery to try to ward off obesity in 2005 in 2007. He was hospitalized with hepatitis and for alcohol abuse. Later that year, he went on TV to say he had quit drinking and stopped using cocaine. But in 2018, in Russia for the World Cup, Maradona collapsed after a win over Nigeria. He later took to texting media members to tell them it was because he had binged on too much wine. Tabloids had a field day with photos of him on his private plane with what appeared to be a bag of white powder sitting next to him. At this point, FIFA had to be rethinking making Maradona a FIFA ambassador, especially after his following anti-England rant and scathing commentary of American referee Mark Geiger.
For all his faults though, it’s difficult to make a case that anyone ever played the game better than Diego Maradona. He has been named a joint FIFA Player of the 20th Century, along with Pele.
Lionel Messi, perhaps the closest thing to Maradona a younger generation has seen, said, “Even if I played for a million years, I would never come close to Maradona. Not that I’d want to anyway, he’s the greatest there’s ever been.” And unless you think only his countrymen feel that way about Maradona. Here’s what England’s 1986 World Cup striker Gary Lineker said about the Goal of the Century: “When Diego scored that second goal against us, I felt like applauding. I’ve never felt like that before, but it’s true. And not just because it was such an important game, it was impossible to score such a beautiful goal. He’s the greatest player of all-time by a long way and a genuine phenomenon.”
These days, anyone can see Diego Maradona play. YouTube is full of clips of his genius with a ball, but there was something really special about being a very young soccer player at the height of Diego Maradona-mania. I’ll leave you with this quote from sportswriter Andrew Murray and why he chose Maradona as the greatest player of all time, “Pele scored more goals. Lionel Messi won more trophies, both have lived more stable lives than the overweight former cocaine addict who tops this list whose relationship with football became increasingly strained. If you’ve seen Diego Maradona with a football at his feet, you’ll understand.”
Oh, and by the way, if you’re curious as to whether or not Maradona ever admitted to his handball in the 1986 World Cup quarterfinal … he did, but not until 2005.
Diego Maradona, the greatest soccer player of my lifetime, died today at the age of 60.