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Tuesday, March 22, 2011

he God, the bad and the ugly

Artist, party animal, hero, villain, intellectual muse, populist icon, the ultimate poor boy come good and torn apart by his own demons. Susy Campanale profiles Diego Armando Maradona, Football Italia’s top foreigner of the last 30 years
Ask any Italian football fan who the greatest import into Serie A was and they’ll reply Diego Armando Maradona. He is still treated as a God in Naples with giant murals plastering the city walls and thousands of young men who can say their parents named him after El Pibe de Oro.

In Argentina there is a Church of Maradona complete with calendar starting from his birthday – 0 d.D. However, Diego transcends club loyalty as one of those figures who made football into an art form. Intellectuals held conventions to discuss his importance to the culture of Italy, while underprivileged Neapolitans took him to be the ultimate poor boy who found fame and fortune.

His story is that of the classic football legend. Growing up in the shantytown of Villa Fiorito outside Buenos Aires, he learned to play in the streets and was spotted by a talent scout when only 10-years-old. The tiny terror was already hogging the spotlight at 12, when as a ball boy he would entertain the crowd with tricks and skills during half-time.

From Boca, where he was only on loan, to Barcelona for what was then a world transfer record £5m in 1982, his career was almost terminated by hepatitis that kept him out for three months and a broken leg that would forever rob him of 30 per cent of the mobility in that ankle. The next time he faced the player who had caused the injury – Athletic Bilbao’s Andoni Goikoetxea – the fiery Argentine took out his frustration by sparking a huge brawl.

Napoli invested another record fee of £6.9m in 1984 and Diego was welcomed as the saviour of the club with 70,000 packed into the San Paolo for his presentation on July 5. The fans unfurled a huge banner that read: ‘There are many stars in the sky of Naples, Maradona shines brighter than them all.’

He was almost the death of it too, as it’s rumoured President Corrado Ferlaino didn’t have the cash to complete the transfer, so deposited an empty envelope with the authorities, ready to put the contract in there at a later date. It took two seasons before the rest of the team caught up with him and 1986 was the year he truly became the legend.

After the triumph of the World Cup, complete with Mano de Dios as well as the Goal of the Century in the same game against England, Maradona conquered Napoli’s first Scudetto on May 10, 1987, and the Coppa Italia, sparking a party in the city streets that lasted for weeks. Statues were given blue jerseys and a famous sign hung over the cemetery: ‘They don’t know what they missed!’

“A Scudetto in Naples is worth three times as much as elsewhere,” confessed Diego. Despite dominating for long periods of the next campaign and Maradona’s Capocannoniere title of 15 goals, Milan leapfrogged Napoli in the final weeks. His team added the UEFA Cup to its haul and in 1989-90, after a period on the sidelines, Maradona was decisive in taking them to another Scudetto.

It all started to go wrong for Diego at Italia ’90. Knowing how much of a hero he was to the people of Naples, he urged the locals to support his Argentina against Italy in the San Paolo semi-final. “The north doesn’t consider Naples to be a part of Italy, but you are my people. I understand the Neapolitans.” A large portion of the crowd followed his advice and he scored in the penalty shoot-out victory after a 1-1 draw. The people of Rome retaliated by jeering throughout the national anthem in the Final with Germany, which ended with the famous images of Maradona sobbing at the 1-0 defeat.

Although Napoli won the Italian Super Cup by demolishing Juventus 5-1, he was starting to think himself bigger than the team. Maradona hired a private jet to attend the European Cup game at Spartak Moscow, turning up a day later than his teammates. He racked up thousands of pounds in fines for missing training and even games.

Off the field, his life was also swept up by unsavoury characters, an illegitimate son that to this day he will not acknowledge and on May 17, 1991, he tested positive for cocaine after a Serie A match with Bari. The 15-month ban was the end of Maradona’s Napoli career.

Sevilla, Newell’s Old Boys and Boca Juniors followed with his weight ballooning and star waning. The 1994 World Cup prompted another doping scandal and his expulsion from the tournament, but he eventually hung up his boots on October 30, 1997, the day of his 37th birthday.

Despite the ravages of time and his controversial career as Coach, director of sport and even chat show host, Maradona remains an almost biblical figure in Naples. There is a shrine with his photograph in the Napoli jersey on Via San Biagio de Librai, where fans can pray to their football God before games.

There was a convention of intellectuals called Te Diegum – a play on Te Deum, the Christian song of praise – to discuss his contribution to the world. “We are not here to talk about football, but of Art with a capital A. We celebrate the seven years spent in ecstasy at your left foot. Diego was the living embodiment of Beauty. Diego is Neapolitan. Among the various reasons for our love there is that recognition of the scugnizzo – the creative, smart, rule-breaking, often impertinent, but always generous poor kid from the streets.”

The mutual love story isn’t over yet. He has been invited for a special game to mark his 50th birthday at the San Paolo and could make it a permanent move. “I have been the manager of Argentina, but my other dream is to be the Coach of Napoli. I spent seven years in Italy, which being in Naples counts as 14, and will always carry those people in my heart.”

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