The wizard leaves

November 29, 2020

Argentina won the World Cup for the second time and it was Diego Maradona, who ran the show from beginning to end with a display never seen in the history of football’s premier show – before or since.

Argentine football wizard Diego Maradona who passed away last Wednesday was the joint winner with Brazilian Pele for the Player of the Century announced by FIFA in 2000. This was to be decided by votes on FIFA`s official website, their official magazine and a grand jury. Maradona won the internet-based poll by wide margins with Pele a distant second. Though Portuguese Eusebio da Silva, who was Pele`s contemporary, finished third in the poll, many voiced that the internet nature of the poll could have led to a skewed demographic of younger fans who had seen Maradona in action but not Pele. Hence, FIFA added a second poll for which a “Football Family” committee comprising football journalists, officials and coaches voted. They overwhelmingly voted Pele the best player of the century. Hence, both were named joint winners of the award.

A precocious talent, Maradona wasn`t even 10 when he was selected by the junior team of Argentinos Juniors, one of the top clubs of South America. As a 12-year-old ball boy, he mesmerised spectators by his jugglery with the ball during the half-time intervals of club`s first team`s matches.

In 1976, 10 days before his 16th birthday, he made his professional debut for the Argentinos Juniors. Only a few months later, his first international cap arrived. Maradona was one of the last three players dropped from the 1978 World Cup when manager Mennotti finalised his 22-player squad. Argentina lifted the FIFA under-20 World Cup in 1979, with the 18-year-old Maradona winning the Golden Ball.

He was expected to make his mark at the global stage during the 1982 World Cup. Argentina, the defending champions, bowed out in the second round. Maradona played all the five matches scoring two goals. He was tightly marked and repeatedly fouled in all the matches. Maradona’s temper eventually got the better of him in the last game against Brazil and he was sent off for a serious retaliatory foul against an opponent.

In 1984, Maradona had been sold by Barcelona to Napoli, in Italy’s Serie A, for a world record fee of $10.48 million. Barcelona had earlier bought him from Argentina in 1982 for the then world record fee of $7.6 million. Maradona was the first player to have earned the honour of being the world’s most expensive transfer, twice.

It was the 1986 World Cup where Maradona earned a permanent place in the annals of history. The 25-year-old Maradona had grown into a battle-hardened pro. Argentina won the World Cup for the second time and their captain ran the show from beginning to end with a display never seen in the history of football`s premier show - before or since.

Figures speak: During the tournament, Maradona attempted or created more than half of Argentina’s shots at goal, embarked on 90 dribbles, three times more than any other player and was fouled 53 times, winning his team twice as many free kicks as any other player. Of Argentina’s 14 goals, Maradona scored five and assisted another five. His country’s victorious campaign was rightly summed up, ‘For Argentina, it was Maradona and 10 men’.

But it was more than the bare statistics. He reserved the best for the knockout stage. Four of his goals came in the quarter-final and the semifinal. Argentina faced England in the last eight. The two nations had fought a bitter war over the Falkland Islands just four years back. Argentina had lost that war and many Argentines saw it as a prospect for revenge.

The tie is now a part of football folklore; not for one but two incidents both involving Maradona. The opening goal, in the 51st minute, was ‘made’ by Maradona as the replays showed the ball was punched by him into the goal. He himself was evasive, describing the goal scored “a little with the head of Maradona and a little with the hand of God.” Within four minutes, “the hand of God goal” was totally eclipsed by the greatest of all the goals. Starting in his own half, Maradona sprinted 60 metres, neatly eliminating four defenders one by one through breath-taking dribbles before rounding the goalkeeper to score, and stun hundreds of millions of viewers worldwide. It has been officially voted as the “goal of the century” by FIFA.

In the semi-final against Belgium, he provided yet another effervescent show scoring the only two goals of the match, the second of which was again the culmination of a jinking run, and is ranked no 4 among FIFA`s top World Cup goals.

Little surprise, in the final, the Germans had tightly marked Maradona. But the legends always find a way. In a classic encounter, Argentina won 3-2. Maradona couldn`t get his name on the score sheet but had a hand in every goal, including the clincher in the 83rd minute. Jorge Burruchaga scored after being put into the clear by Maradona’s defence-splitting pass; one of the finest assists ever seen.

Maradona went on to win the Golden Ball along with the World Cup trophy. A statue of him scoring the ‘Goal of the Century’ was built and placed at the entrance of the Azteca Stadium.

In the 1990 World Cup, Maradona again captained Argentina. Troubled by an ankle injury, he wasn’t that dominant. Again, the most marked player in the tourney, he didn`t score a goal but his playmaker role was vital to Argentina making it to the final where they lost 0-1 to Germany.

After the 1990 World Cup, Maradona did not play international soccer for three years. The new national coach Alfio Basile had built up the squad for the 1994 World Cup with emphasis on youth. It seemed to pay off as Argentina won Copa America (South American Nations Cup) both in 1991 and 1993. But they faltered during the qualification for the 1994 World Cup. Argentina lost their last match in the South American zone against Columbia 0-5. This meant a winner-takes-it-all home and away tie against Oceania champions Australia. SOS was sent to Maradona, who responded to the call. Argentina won 2-1 on aggregate.

At his fourth World Cup in 1994, Argentina and Maradona began well. He scored in the 4-0 win over Greece and contributed in both the goals against Nigeria in a 2-1 victory.

But the legend made a very unfortunate exit from the international arena as he failed a drug test for ephedrine doping.

Maradona had argued that the test result was due to his personal trainer giving him the power drink Rip Fuel. His claim was that the US version, unlike the Argentine one, contained the chemical. As he had run out of his Argentine dosage, he was given the US formula unwittingly by his trainer.

But Maradona`s international career was over. The world knows about Lionel Messi and Christiano Ronaldo more for their exploits for clubs than for the country. They have played for fashionable clubs studded with a number of highly paid international stars, and with a long history of success at home as well as at the European competitions. Messi: Barcelona. Ronaldo: Manchester United, Real Madrid and Juventus.

Here too, Maradona stands out. After two not-so-happy seasons with Barcelona, he transferred to Napoli in Italy`s Serie A. No team from the country`s impoverished Southern part had ever won the title. During Maradona`s stay, Napoli twice won the Serie A title, in 1986-87 and 1989-90. They have never won since. Their sole European title, UEFA Cup (1988-89), also came during that period.

Murals of Maradona were painted on the city’s ancient buildings, and newborn children were named in his honour.

He also had a coaching stint with the Argentine national team. Under his tutelage, Argentina struggled to qualify for the 2010 World Cup. At the World Cup itself, Argentina reached the last eight, after four wins out of four, only to be defeated 0-4 by Germany.

Fame has its own pressures. Maradona was addicted to cocaine from the mid 80s to 2005. He also had had various health issues. The 60-year-old legend died at his home in Tigre in the outskirts of Buenos Aires after suffering from a heart attack. He had been discharged from hospital a fortnight ago following a brain surgery.

His death has been widely mourned all over the world. The Argentine president declared three days of national mourning. People are flocking to the presidential palace in Buenos Aires where his body has been placed. Around a million are expected to visit his casket. Thousands of miles away in Italy, fans gathered outside Napoli’s San Paolo stadium, which was lit up in tribute to Maradona.

A minute’s silence took place before Wednesday’s Champions League matches. A number of heads of state have sent official condolence messages.

Deigo Maradona`s exploits at the 1986 World Cup set a new bar for individual performances that may not be reached again.

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The wizard leaves