I think the word we’re looking for is “badass.”
Diego Maradona has one Golden Ball – from the ’86 World Cup – and two balls of pure steel. He’s a football divinity, a larger than life personality, a celebrated savior to a nation. He’s half Paris Hilton, half Pope, and though Maradona doesn’t have his own reality show, he does have his own church.
Really. Founded 43 D.D. “Despues de Diego.”
The most staggering thing about Maradona’s return to the World Cup is not his lack of managerial experience, though his few years in club play aren’t much. It’s that, at age 49, he’s still alive to make such a return in the first place.
Perhaps this alone is proof enough that Maradona is in the hands of God himself – the same God that used his fist to break a 0-0 tie to England in the ’86 Mexico City quarters. The same God that touched the referee looking on with blindness.
Despite his blessings, El Diego is not what you’d call a gracious man – the definite article preceding his name suggests as much. And yes, after qualifying for Cup South Africa play, he told his critics in the press to “suck it.”
“And keep sucking it.”
Diego Maradona can say these kinds of things because, when you have God on your side, you can say and do anything you damn well please. Maradona played World Cup Italia high on cocaine. And led his team to the finals. He has a long-standing beef with Pele – perhaps the only other soccer figure big enough to earn his scorn.
Maradona once petitioned FIFA to retire his No. 10 jersey from international competition. He was voted by this same institution the century’s best player, but spurned the ceremony when told he’d have to share the award with Pele… who also wore 10.
Before he had name and legend enough to spar with immortal predecessors, Diego was a little man in the slums of Buenos Ares born of a dirt poor mother (not a virgin). He caught the eye of a talent scout by 10, and within 24 months, was dazzling crowds with sleight-of-foot ball skills during intermissions of local minor league games.
The boy wonder made his professional debut days short of his 16th birthday. By 17, he was good enough to be left off the ’78 World Cup roster purely on ego. A year later, he dominated the World Youth Champions, throttling the Soviet Union in the finals and so developing a Napoleonic complex fit for his 5’5″ frame.
During his stint with Argentinos Juniors, his team rejected a 180,000 Euros bid from English club Sheffield United. Maradona deemed this small potatoes, signing with Barcelona some three years later for the record transfer fee of 3 million Euros. In the time between, the attacking midfielder brought his squat frame and sorcerer’s feet to a global audience, playing every minute of Argentina’s ’82 World Cup, save the final minutes to Brazil when he was booted for “serious foul play.”
His days in Barcelona from ’82-’84 served a microcosm for life in general. Part captivating, part cataclysmic, the hot-headed phenom scored 22 goals in 36 appearances, willed himself back from a career-threatening broken leg, and came down with a a potent case of wonder-how-he-got-that hepatitis. He made team directors’ jobs a living hell, so much so that they’d ship him to Napoli years later for another record fee.
If those familiar with El Diego had long known his connection with the Divine, it was the ’86 World Cup that opened the eyes of everybody else. With the wounds from the Falklands War still fresh in mind, Argentina met England in the Mexico City quarterfinals in front of 115,000 strong at Azteca Stadium.
Enter “The Hand of God.”
Six minutes into the second half of a 0-0 game, English midfielder Steve Hodge misplays a clearing hook off the side of his foot, setting up a jump ball between keeper Peter Shilton and a hard-charging Maradona. The latter man puts it in the back of the net “un poco con la cabeza de Maradona y otro poco con la mano de Dios.”
Just four minutes later, El Diego scored a goal so spectacular that it left the play-by-play man in tears: ten seconds, 60 meters, five humiliated English defenders, too many dropped jaws to count.
Argentina eventually captured the title on the strength of Maradona’s Golden Ball-worthy heroics. He finished the tournament with five goals, five assists, and has since left “scoring” and “assists” primarily for cocaine and communist governments respectively.
At one time or another, El Diego’s had ties to the Napoli mob, an illegitimate son and a nose full of snow. He donated the proceeds of his autobiography to Fidel Castro. He has a tat of the Cuban president on his left leg and one of El Che on his right arm. He called our last president “human garbage,” adding on Hugo Chavez’s weekly TV show that he “hated everything that comes from the United States with all my strength.”
He was sent packing from the ’94 World Cup for doping on ephedrine, then claimed it was FIFA’s idea – they needed his star power, and he needed to lose weight.
He once fired an air rifle at a reporter. He ballooned to the size of a small house. He owes the Italian government 37 million Euros, part of which he tried to pay in earrings and watches. His “managerial career” entry on Wikipedia is roughly five paragraphs long, yet he finds himself leading one of the best teams and best players in the world.
He overdosed on coke in 2004. He was reported dead three times in 2007. Fans have mobbed hospitals to throw him impromptu funerals that never transpired. He met his son for the first time on a golf course, when a then 17-year-old hopped a fence to sneak up on him.
Coach El Diego’s used 100 different players in his first 18 months on the job. He is by all accounts unfit to run a team, let alone his own life.
And if God still has any say in World Cup soccer, you have to believe that Diego Maradona will be champion once again.