When it comes to debating the best player the world has ever seen we usually end up contrasting two generations of players with Pele/Maradona and Ronaldo/Messi at the forefront of most people’s minds. For anyone that watched the Maradona documentary last week on tv it becomes even more apparent why this debate is an interesting one that has raged for decades.
Diego Armando Maradona was a child prodigy when it came to football. Talent spotted at the age of 8 his life changed as he was recruited to the nursery of the Argentinos Juniors where he would spend 7 years and become their youngest player to make a professional debut just 10 days before his 16th birthday. He went on to score 115 goals in 167 appearances which paved a move to the famous Boca Juniors in 1981.
Despite a less than spectacular World Cup in 1982 where Argentina were eliminated in the knockout stage Maradona agreed a World Record fee of $7.6million to Barcelona. This was a move thought to be made in heaven but for Maradona it would become a school of hard knocks as he was often targeted in Spain and found it difficult to attain full fitness due to a bout of hepatitis and then suffering a broken ankle after a bad challenge. After 2 seasons he scored 38 goals in 58 games but it was his last game in the Copa Del Rey where he was most remembered where he started a 22 man brawl in the middle of the pitch which then extended to staff and spectators alike. This was a violent encounter which seen 55 people injured in front of a packed 100,000 capacity crowd. Maradona was too much of a liability and Barcelona paved the way for a transfer.
To put some perspective on what happened next, we have a player that was moving from one of the biggest, if not THE biggest club in the world – then signing for Newcastle/Celta Vigo/Augsburg/Nantes! It was at the time an incredible move for someone of his stature. The Italian league was at this time the best in Europe boasting players of the ilk of Baresi/Maldini/Zoff and the league title usually ended up in Central or Northern Italy at the end of the season, in fact no team from the South of Italy ever won the league. Added to the fact that Napoli were battling with relegation in the previous few years this move was something of an enigma to say the least.
Maradona’s determination to succeed was seen from the offset as he attempted to break Juventus’ dominance on the league in what looked like mission impossible. He surrounded himself with people that would allow him flourish with fitness guru Fernando Signorini largely given the credit for motivating Maradona to his peak fitness with grueling individual sessions, thus allowing him to rarely miss a game through injury. Napoli finished 8th in his first outing but the mentality was changing and this was followed up with a 3rd place finish as Napoli built a team around the brilliant Argentinian. Maradona flourished in his midfield role behind the strikers where he held the keys to unlock even the tightest of Italian defences.
1986 was a pivotal year with an unfancied Argentina arriving into the Mexican World Cup having stuttered in their qualification route – but with Maradona peaking to his finest the world was about to witness the genius of a man with it all to prove. They drifted through the group stage with ease with 2 wins against South Korea and Bulgaria before sharing the spoils against Italy. Uruguay were put to the sword in the first knockout game which setup the dream tie against a much fancied England in the quarter finals. This match had the backdrop of political turmoil with the War in the Falklands very much to front of the minds of all witnessing this great encounter.
Maradona was at the centre of possibly the biggest controversy to ever be witnessed by billions but missed somehow by a Referee and Linesman when he lifted the ball over the ailing Peter Shilton with his hand and into the English net. If that was not enough to gain the tag of villain he then turned it on his head by scoring one of the greatest individual goals of all time when he pirouetted in the centre of the pitch and with 11 beautiful touches of the ball ghosted past 5 English outfield players while having the calmness to put the keeper on his back with a feint before slotting the ball into the net.
Maradona was the king but before he could be crowned he needed to lift the World Cup. Belgium were put away with another virtuoso display in the Semi Final which setup the grand finale finish against West Germany. With the Germans testing the officials by taking turns fouling the Argentinian the gameplan was coming into fruition having come back from 2-0 down, but Diego was not going to be undone on this occasion when he cut open the middle of the park sending Burruchaga clear to score the winner. This would be the 10th score or assist he would make for the Argentinian cause to go along with the 90 dribbles, more than 3 times anyone else in the competition.
Maradona would celebrate with his countrymen long into the summer but he showed his desire for further success by arriving back for duty in Naples wanting more than the biggest trophy on the planet. This was the time of Naples and this was the time of Maradona to cement his place in history. He pledged to the Neapolitans that he would bring success and on the 9th game of the campaign away in Turin against Juventus he produced a masterful display to down Goliath and make Napoli the frontrunners for their first ever league title.
With the style of the Italian league being of a defencive variety this was not a problem for Napoli even when they double marked their brilliant captain. Napoli would go the rest of the season losing only 3 times and with 10 clean sheets they would go on to capture their first league title pipping Juventus to the post on the final day. History had been made and within 6 seasons Maradona would be their Top scorer for 5 of them. By the time the next World Cup in 1990 would come around they would add another title to their cabinet as well as 2 second place finishes.
Now nearing 30 years old, Maradona was beginning to show signs of his lifestyle and with a cocaine habit looming large over his personal and professional life it became increasingly difficult for him to find any sort of peace. When Argentina arrived at the World Cup in 1990 the air of expectancy was huge around himself and his team. An early scare against Cameroon seen them lose their opening game and they only got out of the group in 3rd place.
This brought them up against a very good Brazilian side that were expected to make short work of them. But Argentina dug deep and once again it was Maradona who opened the defence to setup Claudio Caniggia for the only goal of the game. They managed to scrape past Yugoslavia in the quarters which setup an incredible fixture against the hosts Italy in his home Stadio San Paolo, in Naples! Maradona pleaded with the Neapolitans to come support him in this game – as he had given them 6 great years and unlimited success. He gave his all for them 365 days a year and asked they do the same for him. Once again this was a pivotal point in his career as Argentina knocked out the hosts after an ill-tempered affair. The Italians would never forgive Maradona for turning their international stage into civil war between their people. Germany won a very forgettable final by a single goal which was the last time Maradona played in a Final on the world stage.
When he returned to Naples after the World Cup he was hit with a series of bans and fines. Drug tests followed him and eventually a ban for 15 months was submitted which basically ended his career in Italy. He was then sold off and went through a number of countries and clubs until he was forced to retire.
When judging and comparing a character like Diego Maradona, you must pay particular attention to his 6 years in Italy. He rebounded from Barcelona into a situation where even the most confident of individuals might be forgiven for wilting. Playing in a foreign league, with 15 other Italian homegrown players would be a very intimidating place to be. Players accustomed to being in relegation dogfights, playing to survive but never to win the big titles. The gulf in class is something that very few of the modern day greats ever had to overcome. Did Messi ever play with a team of mediocre players in his career? Anything less than International Class? Did Pele ever win a World Cup without being surrounded by a team of Galacticos?
In the toughest league at that time Maradona managed to dethrone Juventus and go on to Captain his team to a World Cup win, while topping the scoring charts from Midfield not to mention score one of the most iconic goals of all time. Ronaldo would have something to say about winning a European Cup with an unfancied Portugal team but again he has rarely if ever taken to the field with less than a full team of proven Internationals to aid him in his glories.
For me, Maradona is the greatest. The skillset of Messi, the ruthlessness finishing of Ronaldo, the amazing presence and confidence of Pele. Singlemindedness. The ability to deliver on the big stage. The game versus England typifies his personality by doing anything to win, even if it means deceiving everyone on a world stage, then moments later producing something that is timeless, effortless and incredible enough to be still talking about it to this day.