With the possible exception of Muhammad Ali, has a sportsman ever packed more into his life and career than Diego Maradona, who celebrates his 60th birthday on Friday.
From the Buenos Aires slums, El Diego has become one of the most recognisable faces on the planet, rivalling Pele and Lionel Messi as the greatest footballer of all-time, and certainly the most charismatic.
He has been idolised and hated, lived in both poverty and opulence and experienced all kinds of highs; from winning the World Cup single-handed, pun intended, to a lifetime battle against drug addiction.
Diego Maradona is carried aloft after inspiring Argentina to World Cup glory in 1986
Only true legends have full names used to emphasise their greatness and like Elvis Aaron Presley, everyone knows Diego Armando Maradona.
When legendary Latin band Manu Chao wrote a song in his honour, it was called La Vida Tombola. The perfect metaphor to describe Maradona’s life of revolving, and thrilling, fortunes.
Not everyone agrees with the romantic notion of Maradona. ‘I’ve seen other players cheat and apologise. But he won’t so I’ll never shake hands or acknowledge him,’ says Peter Shilton, England’s goalkeeper beaten by the notorious Hand of God in 1986.
But others revere him. ‘What Zidane could do with a ball, Maradona could do with an orange,’ assesses the great Michel Platini.
Maradona beats England goalkeeper Peter Shilton to the ball during the 1986 semi-final
Messi said earlier in his career he’d never come within a million miles of Maradona. In terms of sustained brilliance on the football pitch, Messi is now No 1 to many. But in terms of impact, there will always be a gulf.
Those at the 2010 World Cup watched Messi, the greatest player in the tournament, ignored by the global media in South Africa because their eyes were on his manager, Maradona. In X-factor ratings at least, Messi is right – he will never be another Diego.
Genius isn’t always hard to find and Maradona’s ascent was rapid from the impoverished Villa Fiorito barrio in Argentina’s capital where he grew up.
His very first team was local boys side Las Cebollitas (The Little Onions) who won 136 games in a row. Word spread quickly about their star asset who could juggle the ball all day. Maradona made his league debut for Argentinos Juniors at 15 and was still a teenager when he came close to making Argentina’s squad that won the World Cup on home soil in 1978.
A teenage Maradona poses in a Boca Juniors shirt in Buenos Aires back in 1974
By 1982, his fame had spread beyond his home country. His Panini sticker for that summer’s World Cup noted in admiration he already had a full-time agent and other staff working for him – unheard of during that era.
He didn’t shine in Spain, sent off for a petulant kick against Brazil, and his first spell in Europe at Barcelona (1982-84) lasted only two years before Terry Venables sold him to Napoli – and signed Steve Archibald as a replacement.
The move to southern Italy was a match made in heaven. In some ways, it was both the making and breaking of Maradona.
Maradona with his former Barcelona and future England manager Terry Venables
Feeding on his own rebellious nature and the fact that Naples was looked down upon by the rest of Italy, Maradona galvanised the local population and his team, winning two Serie A titles and enjoying success in Europe.
Italy’s league boasted the best players in the world – Platini, Zico, Roberto Baggio, Ruud Gullit and Marco van Basten among them – but Maradona stood above them all. In Naples, devoted fans worshipped him like one of their Catholic Saints.
In the midst of his seven-year stay, Maradona won the World Cup for Argentina and his impact compared to Pele. During the same game against England, he scored arguably the best and most controversial goals in history.
Yet the unprecedented amount of fame and power Maradona yielded started to have damaging consequences.
Maradona celebrates winning his first Serie A title with Napoli in 1987
The Neapolitan mafia, initially introduced to his inner circle for protection, became increasingly important in his day-to-day life. To escape the pressure, Maradona indulged, then became addicted to drugs.
Though his abuse was initially overlooked by the authorities – Maradona was a hugely popular figure – he became a target after urging the Naples public to support Argentina against Italy in a World Cup semi-final there in 1990.
Maradona’s excesses made him easy to catch. In 1991, he was banned for 15 months after testing positive for cocaine – signalling the end of his career with Napoli.
It wasn’t the end of his narcotics problem though. Failing a drugs test during the 1994 World Cup led to another worldwide ban, the wild celebration into the camera after he scored against Greece leaving little to the imagination.
The Argentina captain celebrates his goal at the 1994 World Cup – days before his drugs ban
Maradona claims he’d have been even better if he’d stayed clean. ‘I gave my opponents a big advantage due to my illness,’ he said. ‘Do you know the player I could have been if I hadn’t taken drugs?’
The following years became a rollercoaster pattern of drugs busts, health scares and keep-fit drives.
His admiration for former Cuban President Fidel Castro led to convalescence on the island from 2000 to 2005 to treat his cocaine addiction. A documentary charted his life there. One scene showed him watching his beloved Boca Juniors on television and calling the head of the TV company to get him to get a close-up of his daughter who was in the stands – a request duly obliged.
Unsurprisingly, given Maradona’s lifelong excesses, he later accepted paternity claims regarding three children he allegedly fathered during his time in Cuba – taking his total number of official offspring to eight.
Maradona with late former Cuban leader Fidel Castro in 2001 – he stayed in Cuba for five years
Given Maradona’s standing in the game, football never completely abandoned him, despite his unreliability and war on the establishment, once insulting FIFA by declaring: ‘The directors are all over 95 years old. They cannot even drive a car so how do they lead the world of football?’
His playing career petered out at Sevilla, Newells Old Boys and Boca Juniors until it ended in 1997. His managerial career has been even more eccentric; taking him to The United Arab Emirates and Mexico before taking over the modest Argentine club Gymnasia La Plata in 2019.
The managerial highlight was taking charge of Argentina’s national team for the 2010 World Cup. He celebrated qualification by telling journalists: ‘They can suck it and carry on sucking it.’ Unfortunately for him, the run ended in the quarter-finals when Maradona’s tactics were criticised following a 4-0 defeat by Germany.
Lionel Messi is congratulated by then-Argentina manager Maradona at the 2010 World Cup
His obesity and past health issues, he collapsed while watching Argentina play Nigeria at the 2018 World Cup though he put it down to too much white wine, put him at serious risk of Covid-19.
He continues to manage Gimnasia who have resumed action following the pandemic but is currently self-isolating after one of his bodyguards tested positive.
It means Maradona will have to take it uncharacteristically easy celebrating his milestone birthday. Then again, he’s already had enough thrills, spill and parties to last several lifetimes.
El Diego deserves to have the final word himself and his personal summary of his life’s work is typically forthright. ‘Those who say I don’t deserve anything, that it all came easy, can kiss my arse.’
Maradona gestures while managing Gimnasia in the Argentine Primera Division in February