If you needed to pick one day in history to sum up Diego Maradona’s life, it would easily be June 22, 1986. In front of a crowd of almost 115,000 people in Mexico City’s Estadio Azteca, the Legend from Lanús was leading the Argentine National Soccer Team against rival England in a quarterfinal match of the FIFA World Cup Tournament. Most athletes would be happy to make just one of the most memorable moments in the history of their sports on its biggest stage. But on this day in 1986, a single moment of glory wasn’t enough for Maradona. Then again, very few people would have the cajones to claim that Maradona is anything like most other athletes.
It all started six minutes into the second half, with the two football powerhouses deadlocked in a scoreless tie. A fellow teammate tried to set up Maradona, but the pass went awry, ending up at the foot of an English defenseman. Attempting to clear the ball out of the zone, the Brit connected awkwardly and unintentionally lobbed it towards the goalkeeper. As the ball hung in the air, Maradona, whose listed height of 5’5” may be as generous as that of Mother Theresa, broke for it and jumped in front of the goalie. With his arm tucked close to his body, the Argentine reached out and poked the ball with his fist, sending it over the goalkeeper and bouncing into the goal. Though it seems obvious on television replays and YouTube videos, it was then impossible for the referee to see what had happened in real time. Maradona would say after the game that the goal was scored partially with his own head, and partially with the “Hand of God.”
While this is the goal that most Londoners prefer to talk about, what happened next was even more amazing. Four minutes after the “Hand of God” goal, Maradona received the ball about ten yards from the middle of the field. He then proceeded to run 60 meters, making more than half of the English team look foolish as they tried to stop him. (Just in case their kids or grandkids are reading, the embarrassed British players were: Stephen Hodge, Peter Beardsley, Peter Reid, Terry Butcher, Terry Fenwick and goalie Peter Shilton.) Ten seconds later, the ball was again in England’s goal, and Argentina had a 2-0 lead. This amazing feat was voted “The Goal of the Century” by FIFA in 2002.
Argentina won the game 2-1, and went on to win the World Cup, though some England fans still claim that the victory was illegitimate. Argentina supporters often retort that the British should have been disqualified for playing two different men named “Terry.” Nevertheless, the game serves as the perfect metaphor for the life of Maradona. Only he could mix excellence and controversy so perfectly, and have so much fun doing so.
Maradona’s incredible skill, humble beginnings and outspoken nature have made him a mythical and irreplaceable figure in Argentine culture. For example, since Maradona’s jersey bore the number 10, cashiers routinely ask for “un Diego” when selling goods costing $10 pesos.
This football legend’s only real competition to the title “Greatest Footballer Ever” is Pelé, although most knowledgeable soccer fans who are not already loyal to Brazil know that this comparison isn’t even close. As the rest of the world attempts to anoint the fleet-footed Leo Messi as the heir apparent, Argentines scoff at the notion, knowing that there will only every be one true Number 10.
Whether he was starting for Argentinos Juniors, Napoli or the Argentine National Team, there has always been more to Maradona than just football. The public often loves watching their heroes fail, possibly so they can feel, if just for a second, a little closer to greatness. Maradona has given his fans plenty of these opportunities. Mixing financial problems, custody disputes and health issues, his personal life has kept Argentina enthralled for decades. Perhaps the most publicized of these issues is his drug use. He has had alcohol and cocaine problems throughout the years, and was kicked out of the 1994 World Cup for testing positive for illegal ephedrine doping. Maradona claimed innocence, though his sordid past did not help his image in front of the FIFA jury.
Maradona has always been outspoken about his political beliefs. A vociferous supporter of both Carlos Menem and Hugo Chavez, he has a picture of Fidel Castro tattooed on his left leg to match the Che Guevara tattoo on his right arm. He has spoken out publicly against the United States and former President George W. Bush (though, who hasn’t done that?). Even more recently, Maradona expressed his support for Iran by sending an autographed shirt to be displayed in the Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs Museum. His frankness has only added to his legend and has transformed him into a character that really is bigger than life.
As the current head coach of the Argentine National Team, Maradona has been given a new pulpit from which he can speak his mind. Although after years of controversy and glory, Maradona’s hijinks are rarely surprising. Not long ago, Pelé questioned his longtime rival’s status as a role model for children, citing his history of drug abuse. Maradona responded by saying that Pelé “lost his virginity to a man.” Nobody even blinked. If anyone else would have said that, chances are he would lose his job. With Maradona, however, it’s just another day at the office.
Maradona’s popularity is not limited to Argentina. He is one of the most well-known celebrities in the entire world, and continues to inspire awe in those who watched him play. For instance, the Church of Maradona was founded in Rosario in 1998. Today the church has over 100,000 registered members, from more than 60 different countries. Inter Milan coach Jose Mourinho admitted to wanting an autograph for his son when he heard Maradona was coming to Italy to watch a game. Likewise, Scottish halfback Alan Hutton made a similar request leading up to an international friendly against Argentina.
With the 2010 World Cup fast approaching, Maradona will likely garner even more attention and will certainly add to his ever-growing legend. He will have even more microphones shoved in his face, and will be in the center of the world. And that’s right where the world, especially Argentina, wants him to be.
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