How often have you heard folk talking of the greatest ever player? Many times no doubt. I have been fortunate enough to have watched several of these outstanding players including George Best, Marco Van Basten, Ruud Gullit, Michael Platini, Eric Cantona, Kenny Dalglish and Liam Brady. But without doubt there is only one that I can honestly say was out of this world - Diego Armando Maradona.
No article about Napoli, Argentina or world soccer could be written without mentioning his name. Hes done it, seen it, sniffed it, worn the T-shirt, made the video, recorded the song, retired and made so many comebacks that even Elvis Presleys manager would be proud of the publicity.
What Diego meant to football in Naples is something almost too complex to explain. He was the symbol of the 80s. Without ever seeing him, or knowing a Neapolitan at that time, it is impossible to conceive what he meant for the inhabitants of that sprawling, almost third world city.
He was loved immediately on his arrival. He was every mothers son, everyones brother, every girls boyfriend. He was the man who would show the rest of the world that Napoli could and would teach everyone else how to play football. Apart from his calcio skills, his social importance was of enormous benefit to peoples self esteem and he soon became the idol of the people.
Naples is not a rich city and the slums, where he was put on the same pedestal as the Virgin Mary, were atrociously poor. However Diego, unlike so many of the greats, helped people forget their problems. He alleviated the pain and misery that walked hand in hand down the flapping, washing line-strewn back streets. He was the peoples champion. He was seen as a liberator for many, somebody who could give them an aim in life.
Neapolitans are famous for their spontaneity, for their happy-go-lucky approach. They have to be, otherwise they would die of hopelessness. Once you are aware of this passion that beats inside them then you can appreciate how and why the citizens went bananas over him. He was a hero for everybody.
To think it all started in a run down slum in Lanus, a small city in the province of Buenos Aires. Born on October 30, 1960, he was given his first football as a three-year-old by his uncle Cirilo. At eight he was the star of Estrella Roja Red Star, where a scout for Argentina Juniors, Francisco Cornejo claimed: "He came from another planet. From the start he seemed able to do whatever he wanted to do with the ball. He dribbled better than the others and he showed such sharp control when stopped or turning. He could also hold the ball on his head or his left foot for ages."
A year later Diego and his pals started their own team, the Little Onions. They were so good Argentina Juniors signed the whole team up en bloc as one of the clubs junior sides. Ten days before his sixteenth birthday in 1976 he made his first team debut for Argentina Juniors as a sub. The following week he made his full debut against Newells Old Boys. In February 1977, he made his full international debut against Hungary in a friendly.
Then two years later in 1979 he was captain of the Argentina Youth team that won their version of the World Cup. A year later saw the first of many records broken when was sold for £1m to Boca Juniors. In 1982 Barcelona came in with another record fee of £5m and took him to Spain. At that time Spanish football was particularly brutal and he came in for some of the barbarous treatment that saw him unable to play without pain killing injections later in his career. One particularly notorious assault by Andoni Goicochea saw the worlds most expensive player sidelined for four months.
So when Napoli came in with a £5m offer in 1984 he jumped at the chance to get away from Spain. In Naples, a team that had won nothing for all their devoted support, he was welcomed like a returning king. It was the third time he had broke the world transfer fee and in his first season he played 30 matches. His 14 goals led Napoli to eighth position as Verona won the title.
In 1986 he led his country to a World Cup final. Argentina, inspired by Diego, beat Germany 3-2 and he was voted player of the tournament. A year later he inspired Napoli that elusive first Scudetto, a title no club from the south had ever won. And they completed a superb double by lifting the Coppa Italia. By now he was God in Naples and could do no wrong.
The following season the club came second, three points behind Milan after a disastrous run when they lost a five-point lead. In 1989 they came second again, this time to Inter. But they did win the UEFA Cup.
However, the following season the club won their second title. It was a real feat considering that previously the title appeared to belong to a cartel of northern clubs. Diego and Napoli symbolised the poor forgotten south against the wicked oppressive north. David had beaten Goliath for the second time.
It is impossible to describe how much Diego and those title wins meant to Neapolitans, football fans or not. Perhaps a few figures can give some idea of how much football and Diego meant to the city. In his first season some 67,000 season tickets were sold. In 1985-86 the club had more than 70,000 season ticket holders. Wedding rings, cars and family heirlooms were sold off to buy tickets. Over 15,000 fans hit the road to Turin for a title showdown with Juventus that year.
His undisputed popularity was of course based on his footballing skills. But his fame could not have been possible were there not parallels between his outrageous style and that of the citys. He was skilful, a joker, cunning, a lover of the dramatic and was forever in the company of friends and family.
Banners in the legendary Curva B displayed such metaphors as: Napoli raise your eyes and look at the sky, its the only thing greater than you. The immensity of the sky is not enough to express our love for you. The Blues, youre Beethovens tenth. After God, Diego and Napoli, Long live the south. My personal favourite was a banner displaying all the playful contrivance of the irony of the club and the citys position in the grand order of things in Italy: Children of the sun snatch the Championship from the children of the cold.
As an outsider used to the thinly disguised self-congratulatory slogans of English stadiums, these self-mocking slogans were all the more original. Responding to the outright racism of the northern fans and the typical banners of theirs that said things like Welcome to Italy Neapolitans, the Napoli ultras replied: Milan, Turin, Bergamo
is this Italy? Its better being Africans.
All this joy was down to one man, Maradona and no matter what the media would have you believe Diego made a lot of people very happy. He was great player, incomparable. "Pele was the supreme player of his era; Maradona is the pre-eminent player of his time. You cannot compare them. Such greatness does not submit to comparison.," said Cesar Luis Menotti, former manager of Argentina.
However, it all started to go wrong. But not before Maradona led Argentina back to the 1990 World Cup final only to be beaten by a cynical Germany 1-0. In 1991 he failed an Italian FA dope test and was banned for 15 months after the test proved positive. Diego and his fans claimed it was a plot and a revenge for the goal that knocked Italy out of the 1990 World Cup. Although at the time it seemed paranoia, with the serious problems today surrounding the very same lab where the test were made after Zdenek Zemans accusations, maybe Diego had something after all.
He left his beloved Napoli after falling out with the management and in 1992 attempted a comeback in Spain with Seville but the following year he was given the sack by the club. He moved back to Argentina and tried again with Newells Old Boys and was restored as captain in the World Cup play-off games with Australia.
Argentina squeezed through but in the 1994 finals he was sadly found positive after another drugs test after the second game in the finals. He was subsequently banned again but still refused to accept his fate and defied the world again with his snarling grin into the cameras after scoring his last ever World Cup goal.
In October 1995 Oxford University gave him an honorary Masters degree with the title Master Inspirer of Dreams. And that is probably the best place to leave Diego, a man more than any footballer before him, who really represented the people who he played for.
Diego, just pure magic
I was lucky enough to watch Diego for two whole seasons in Naples. With my father-in-law being a Neapolitan, it wasnt too hard to get tickets even when they were sold out! For one game in 1987-88, against Fiorentina, I was sat level with the halfway line opposite the main stand.
Halfway through the game goalkeeper Galli flung the ball out to Diego. He was 15 feet away from me when he started his run. With a momentary glance over his shoulder, he allowed the ball to fall on the Achilles heel of his right foot. He then flicked the ball up his back and over his head as a poor deluded Fiorentina defender came steaming in.
Catching it again on his left thigh, he pushed the ball up over the head of the defender, side-stepped him, caught the ball on its way back down. Before it could touch the ground, he volleyed it to one of his teammates running up through the middle. Breathless and breathtaking, it all happened in one movement lasting perhaps two or three seconds. He then ran forward to reach the penalty area, received the ball back and unleashed a powerful, unstoppable exocet into the top corner. Pure magic.
STAR RATING 9/10 A brilliant performer who single-handedly turned sleeping giants Napoli into a world force and raised the spirits of their down-trodden fans. Although now sadly in the headlines more for his off-field activities, his sheer footballing genius will never be forgotten.
Diego Armando Maradona
Born: Lanus (Argentina), 30/10/60
Ht/Wt: 5.5 ft 12st 5lbs
Clubs: Argentinos Juniors, Boca Juniors, Barcelona, Napoli, Seville, Newells Old Boys, Boca Juniors
International record: 90 games 33 goals