The passing of Diego Armando Maradona at the age of just 60 years old is undoubtably a tragedy. Few have brought more joy with mere pigskin to so many. Even fewer have lifted the greatest prize in football, as the Argentine did at the 1986 World Cup in Mexico, almost single-handedly (ahem). But there is something almost fitting about the footballing icon checking out in 2020, this least fun of years. It’s almost as if El Diego got tired of all the pubs being shut and just thought, “Fuck it”.
Maradona – like Bowie or Prince, he scarcely needed a full name – was the most rock’n’roll footballer of all time. To see him on the pitch, whether for Italian side Napoli between 1984 and 1991 or his national team Argentina between 1977 and 1994, was to see artistry equal to that of the greatest of musical greats. The fun went up a notch when the stadium gates shut for the night. In 1994 he made headlines for firing an air rifle at journalists who encroached on the doorstep of his home. Months later, after playing just two games in Boston at the 1994 World Cup, he was sent home for failing a drug test for ephedrine doping.
Drugs were unquestionably Maradona’s downfall, but before the addiction and the disgrace, there was the seemingly never ending sesh, which frequently ventured into the world of rock ‘n roll. “We were in Argentina,” Oasis’ Liam Gallagher told Noisey in 2017. “We’d done a gig and were sat in the bar having a fucking drink. Then about 30 people have come, legging it in. We were going, ‘Who the fucking hell is that?’ I found out it was Maradona, who had gone upstairs with a load of fucking madheads and a load of women of the night. We were going ‘Look, can we go up and meet him?’ to the fucking interpreter.”
Oasis weren’t the only pop greats who shared a moment with Maradona. When Queen headed to South America to promote their album, ‘The Game’, in 1981, the tour took in two consecutive nights at Buenos Aires’ Estadio Velez Sarsfield. The band drew a crowd of 300,000 people, among them a young Diego; Freddie Mercury had met him previously at a party in Castelar, just outside the city. Freddie invited Maradona to see the show, then onstage to announce ‘Another One Bites The Dust’. Backstage photos exist of Diego wearing Brian May’s Union Jack t-shirt and Freddie wearing an Argentina shirt with Maradona’s number 10 on the back.
“To see him on the pitch was to see artistry equal to that of the greatest of musical greats”
There was a mild fury when said photos made their way into the Argentine press during England’s war with the country in 1982. It didn’t last long. Argentina could forgive the mercurial Diego anything. In a recent documentary, HBO’s astonishing Asif Kapadia-directed character study Diego Maradona, the iconic player links his infamous ‘Hand of God’ moment at the aforementioned 1986 World Cup to the war: “It was a nice feeling like some sort of symbolic revenge against the English.” Who else would say such a thing? As Julio Grondona, President of Argentina FA, once put it: “In Argentine football there is a before and an after Maradona.”
In Naples, Diego turned up to a club in inertia, in a city entrenched in poverty, their mascot a real-life donkey, led around sadly on a string before home matches. Born dirt-poor in Lanús in 1960, these were Diego’s people. A local newspaper declared, “Mayor, houses, schools, buses, employment and sanitation – none of this matters because we have Maradona”. By the time he left seven years later, he’d scored 115 times in 259 matches. He was a demi-god, Napoli now one of the most famous clubs in world football, the side winning the Scudetto in 1986/87 for the first time in their history. And yet Maradona left with his head bowed after testing positive for cocaine, subsequently serving a 15-month ban from the sport he adored.
Maradona’s playing was so delightful, so thrilling yet brutish, so unmistakably human, it’s not surprising that an extensive discography exists celebrating his achievements. That first Serie A title saw the Neapolitan singer-actor Nino D’Angelo release the film Quel Ragazzo della Curva B, its plot hanging around a Napoli fan celebrating the city’s historic achievement. Footage exists on YouTube of Maradona singing the Euro-disco spin-off single ‘Napoli’. If you’ve ever wondered what the pinnacle of joy looks like, you know where to look.
Then there is ‘La Vida Tombola’ (‘Life Is A Raffle’) by the French-Spanish legend Manu Chao; the song memorably describes football governing body FIFA as ‘thieves’. There’s also the 2007 hit for Neapolitan brothers Jovine, ‘O reggae e’ Maradona’, but much better known is ‘La Mano De Dios’ by cuarteto music legend Rodrigo Bueno. The song celebrates the player’s infamous goal against England in Mexico and, lyrically speaking, Bob Dylan will not be losing any sleep over it (“in a village he was born / It was God’s will to grow and survive the lowest circumstances / To face adversities”). Footage of Maradona singing this ode to his own brilliance exists in the 2008 documentary Maradona by Kusturica.
Hero, villain, genius, cheat. Maradona was all of these things, a fact perhaps best demonstrated in Diego Maradona. “In a way, it’s a bit like what rock stars or actors do,” Asif Kapadia told football magazine Four Four Two. “When they become famous they have a persona, and there’s another person they’re trying to protect. Having no education, Diego came up with that concept himself to say, ‘This is who I am; without Maradona I’d have never made it out of the slums’, but by becoming Maradona you create chaos.”