Diego Maradona died on Wednesday near Buenos Aires at the age of 60 from an apparent heart attack, and really it is a wonder that this volatile genius lasted even that long on Earth. Those of us who covered his career, who watched in awe as he created divine goals while fighting internal demons, were forever concerned for the great athlete’s health and welfare.
It was that way, back at the World Cup in the summer of 1994, when Argentina was about to play Bulgaria at the Cotton Bowl. Word came to journalists, just six hours before the match, that Maradona would not be permitted to play. He had been banned from soccer, for the second time in his brilliant career, because of a positive drug test.
The first time, in 1991, it had been because of his addictive personality. It was cocaine then. This time, it was all a bit sadder, because he was 33 years old, using drugs to lose weight and get himself in soccer shape.
“I am tired of all those who said I was fat and no longer the great Maradona,” he had said, before the event. “They will see the real Diego at the World Cup.”
He tested positive for five types of ephedrine. The man with the enormous appetite for life, and all its temptations, was using the stimulant for appetite suppression. It had been working, too. He dropped a few pounds. He scored a goal and had an assist in Argentina’s first two matches.
He disappeared for a while. Then Maradona came back after his suspension to play some more professional soccer, to produce a few nostalgic moments, until his retirement in 1997. But, really, he had not taken care of himself and this was no longer the Maradona that we remembered. The drugs claimed their toll, as they had done for the likes of Dwight Gooden and Darryl Strawberry around the same time. The Maradona who dazzled fans and willed Argentina to a World Cup title in 1986 and a final in 1990, would never be seen again.
No soccer player, in fact, has since equaled his creativity and precision, forged from anarchy.
Not Cristiano Ronaldo, who plays an entirely different sort of game at Juventus. Not even Lionel Messi, a fellow Argentine who comes the closest but lacks the sheer, reckless passion of his predecessor. Messi has failed to produce the same successes at World Cups, another reason he is not quite as beloved as Maradona in their native country.
In full flight and at his peak, black hair flopping, Maradona was a sight to behold. He might do anything, at any moment. He might deliver the perfect assist. He might dribble through the entire England team, as he did in one of his most famous goals, in 1986. Or he might simply punch the ball in with his hand, as he did against that same opponent in the World Cup, that same year. His trademark “Hand of God.”
Only Maradona, it seemed, could dare get away with such a trespass. In many ways, he was the anti-Pele, the Brazilian maestro, who remains the only other comparable talent. Pele played his beautiful game by the rules, inside the lines. And yet, he too could appreciate the virtuosity of Maradona. Maybe more than anybody else.
“Certainly, one day we’ll kick a ball together in the sky above,” he said in a statement, after news of Maradona’s death.
The statistics cannot tell the whole story of the man, but they tell a lot. Maradona scored 259 goals in 490 club games with the likes of Boca Juniors, Barcelona and Napoli. When he coached Argentina at the 2010 World Cup, Maradona wanted his players to show the same flair and ardor that he once demonstrated. Instead, they fell flat to Germany and lost 4-0 in a quarterfinal. He did not take it well and quit the job shortly thereafter.
“This is the most difficult experience of my life,” he said. “It’s like getting punched by Muhammad Ali. I don’t have any energy left.”
His health problems worsened after that. In 2004, he was hospitalized with cardio problems that doctors said were related to his drug use. Cameras caught him fainting in an executive suite while attending the Argentina-Nigeria match at the 2018 World Cup in Russia. He suffered internal bleeding in the stomach in 2019 and underwent emergency surgery to relieve bleeding in his brain just a few weeks ago.
The nation of Argentina, which has endured its own ups and downs over the decades, will honor its soccer hero with three days of national mourning.
“You took us to the highest place in the world,” tweeted Argentina president Alberto Fernandez. “You made us immensely happy. You were the greatest of all. Thanks for existing, Diego. We are going to miss you the rest of our lives.”
Source: Filip Bondy