That rage, that insatiable, brilliant, magnificent, rage, is at last calmed. Diego Maradona is gone.
Nine ambulances, called to his home in San Andres, north of Buenos Aires, could not save him. Three days of national mourning were immediately declared. ‘He leaves us, but does not leave,’ wrote Lionel Messi, ‘because Diego is eternal.’
And so he is. The arguments will continue to rage over where he resides in football’s pantheon. How he compares to Pele, or the modern greats Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. Yet what was plain, as the news spread on Wednesday evening, was that to a generation of footballers, Maradona was the greatest.
The football world is mourning following the tragic death of Diego Maradona at the age of 60
To a generation of footballers, the Argentine legend (pictured during an iconic moment against Belgium at the 1982 World Cup) was the greatest to have played the game
Maradona’s scream celebration at the 1994 World Cup perfectly encapsulated him as a player
They posted their snapshots like besotted fans, spilled their memories of days spent trying, and failing, to emulate his talent. Few were referencing the Hand of God, his most infamous goal, or the darker traits that propelled him too soon to oblivion. They paid tribute to Maradona, the genius.
The player whose skill could produce extraordinary moments, extraordinary triumphs, who steered his country to global domination, took Napoli further than they have been before or since. There will never be another quite like him, for he played at a time when defenders could exact a most brutal revenge on those with talent; and he won.
To secure this battle — and those who saw how painfully he moved in later life might argue it was a strange, twisted victory — it helped that Maradona had his own ferocious motivation. Bronca, he called it. The word taken from lunfardo, the language of Argentina’s slum dwellers.
Maradona was raised in Villa Fiorito, a famously violent barrio 25 miles from Buenos Aires, in a house his father built from metal sheets and loose bricks, 10 family members in three rooms. There was no electricity, no running water and much crime.
A lot of lunfardo slang is the invention of prisoners who wished to speak freely in front of their guards, meaning syllables are frequently inverted. Bronca derives from mixing up the Spanish word for bastard, cabron, and was described by Marcela Mora Y Araujo, translator of Maradona’s autobiography El Diego, as representing ‘anger, fury, hatred, resentment and bitter discontent’.
Lionel Messi took to Instagram to post this picture of himself smiling alongside Maradona
‘For Maradona it is the most familiar of emotions,’ she added, ‘and he is constantly referring to it as his motivator, his fuel, his driving force.’
El Diego remains a compelling read, not least because it is Maradona unfiltered, but also because it so honestly reveals what drove him. Fury. Fury as a player, as a manager, as an individual. Fury as the well of inspiration.
Few have channelled anger into genius as successfully as Maradona. He does not talk of scoring against teams, he talks of vaccinating them, with the psycho-sexual rage that implies.
After winning the World Cup in 1986, Maradona recalls returning to the dressing room to sing what he describes as ‘the rudest chants from the terraces’.
Maradona admits he had a very different personality to manager Carlos Bilardo, who had been much criticised and in that moment rounded on him. He ordered his coach to get it all off his chest, to say everything that was inside him, the anger, the resentment, the rage he must feel against those that doubted his team. Maradona was then startled by Bilardo’s reply. ‘Leave it out, Diego,’ he said. ‘This is something I have wanted for a very long time and it’s not against anybody.’
Maradona said he felt small, humbled, that he found Bilardo’s response amazing. So what did he do? ‘I carried on screaming, swinging my shirt, demented, in the middle of a changing room that was out of control.’ Bronca.
And that is what motivated the man, his whole life. On rare occasions in his orbit there was always an element of ferocity, even in triumph. As a player he wanted to put opponents to sleep with his talent, as a coach he was motivated by vengeance against those who doubted.
Napoli legend Maradona’s fire from within drove him to become arguably the greatest ever
The former Barcelona star will be very fondly remembered as the people’s footballer
Few footballers have channelled anger into genius as successfully as Maradona did
In Montevideo in 2009, an Argentina team coached by Maradona qualified for the 2010 World Cup. It was close. He had used 78 players in the campaign and going into the final match against Uruguay, Argentina could still have finished sixth in a 10-team round robin, and gone out at the qualifying stage.
When they won, Maradona invited his critics to suck his c**k, live on national television. Then he came into the press conference and did it again. More than once, in fact. He interrupted a reporter talking live to camera and extended the invitation but louder. He was raging, screaming.
He said he had a list of all the people who had criticised him and he would have to be dragged from office by his ear-rings. Then he announced only four players were certain to be going to the finals — and did not place Messi among them. Argentina, he said, were ‘Javier Mascherano and 10 others’.
He walked from the room shouting that Argentina were going to Germany ‘through the front gate’. He was at times impassioned, bizarre, lunatic and deeply unpleasant. And angry, of course, that goes without saying. Always angry.
And a little sad. Because with Maradona there remained the sense that the game sold him out. Yes, later in life, he revelled in that outsider image — hosting a TV show called De Zurda, which translates as The Lefty, and physically mocking Pele as a FIFA puppet — but Maradona came from an age when Claudio Gentile could foul him 23 times in one World Cup game in 1982, and only receive a booking — the same punishment that Maradona received for complaining of his treatment, except he got the caution first.
Maradona celebrates after his Argentina side qualified for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa
So when he later failed a drugs test in 1994, when he later became addicted to stimulants, football bore some responsibility. Some — not all — of what Maradona took, he used just to get out of bed. It was pain-killing, pain-numbing — the pain of repeated kickings received at a time when the authorities allowed the game to be played like the Wild West.
For this was an astonishing talent. He was eight when he went to Argentinos Juniors to trial. The club thought he must be much older and a midget, but suffering malnourishment. Age confirmed, he was given pills and injections to build his physique — and would provide half-time entertainment for the crowd with his ball-juggling tricks. By 11, he had a national profile and Los Cebollitas — Argentinos Juniors’ youth team — went on a 136-game unbeaten run.
He made his Argentina debut against Hungary, aged 16, was swapping shirts with Franz Beckenbauer at 18, scored his 100th goal at 19. When he moved to Boca Juniors, the finances of the entire club depended on showcasing Maradona in a ludicrous number of friendlies. More pills, more needles, more pain.
His next destination was Barcelona where he was put out of the game for four months by Andoni Goikoetxea , the Butcher of Bilbao. By the time he got to Napoli he was wearing two pairs of shinpads, front and back, to protect his achilles tendons. And on it goes.
Maradona, pictured at 2010 World Cup as Argentina boss, was just as fired up as a manager
Yet, somehow, for much of his career he rose above the professional cynicism. At the 1986 World Cup, England were unfortunate to run into a player who dominated the competition as much as Pele had the 1970 edition. The goal that followed the Hand of God is arguably the finest individual offering any World Cup has seen, and is the reason Maradona’s genius will outlive his notoriety.
He will be remembered as the people’s footballer. Not just standing in front of a battered fence as a child, clutching the ball that is his most prized possession, but because he played for clubs that have associations with the soul of the game. Boca Juniors, Barcelona, Napoli — people’s clubs, passionate and intense, the way Maradona played and lived.
2012 found him in Dubai, managing Al Wasl. There was a banner in Arabic pinned behind one goal. ‘Every day there is a match,’ it read, ‘every day there is a war.’ It seemed strangely appropriate. ‘Even now, when I suffer a loss it still feels like a first loss, the first I suffered as a player,’ Maradona told me. ‘And when I win, it is like my first win, too. This is me, this is my personality, it is who I am and will always be. I tell my wife, “You know, sometimes I will not be able to calm down”. This anger will stay. It is deep within me.
‘The passion I have will continue until my last breath. That is why it doesn’t matter to me whether there are 100,000 fans watching me at San Paolo in Napoli, or just 2,000 fans here. I will always have this, no matter where I am.’
Who knows where he is now; but wherever it is, the football will be wonderful. And someone will be getting a very hard time.
Napoli fans gather outside the San Paolo stadium to pay tribute to the club’s legendary player