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Diego Maradona, soccer star and Argentine legend, dies at 60

Nov 26. 2020
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By The Washington Post · Liz Clarke · NATIONAL, SPORTS, OBITUARIES, SOCCER

According to Argentine legend, Diego Maradona emerged from the womb on Oct. 30, 1960, kicking.

If so, it was surely with his left foot - the one seemingly touched by God; the one that scored the bulk of his 258 career goals and helped deliver the 1986 World Cup to Argentina with a performance as brilliant and controversial as his life.

That life came to an end on Nov. 25, when he died at age 60 at his home in Buenos Aires Province, his press officer Sebastián Sanchi told the news service EFE. With Maradona's death, the world lost one of its most gifted athletes and tormented souls. And in a scene envisioned by soccer historian Jimmy Burns in a 1996 biography, life in Argentina came to a halt as well, as fans mourned the loss of a champion alternately invincible and incorrigible - and ultimately inscrutable.

"The only certainty about Maradona," Burns wrote in "Hand of God: The Life of Diego Maradona, Soccer's Fallen Star," "is that when he dies, no matter how he dies, his funeral in Buenos Aires will be as big as Evita's, and even then people won't believe that he is dead."

A child of the Buenos Aires province barrios, Maradona devoted himself from age 3 to perfecting his soccer skills, competing in four World Cups (1982-1994) and coaching the Argentine side in one (2010). Yet he squandered much of his talent by bingeing on cocaine, alcohol and food, bloating from 150 chiseled pounds in his prime to nearly 300 at the height of his self-indulgence.

Peerless on the soccer pitch, Maradona was profligate and profane off it. A self-proclaimed champion of the poor, he led a lifestyle of toxic excess. He was ejected from the 1994 World Cup after testing positive for the performance-enhancing drug ephedrine. And his two-decade addiction to cocaine landed him in a mental institution for a time and twice brought him to the brink of death.

Maradona's faith and politics were no less controversial. He was a Roman Catholic who said he was disappointed by his meeting with Pope John Paul II: "I was in the Vatican and I saw all these golden ceilings and afterwards I heard the Pope say the Church was worried about the welfare of poor kids. Sell your ceiling then, amigo, do something!"

He counted two daughters as his legitimate children and characterized the others he sired during stays in Italy and Cuba as "a product of my money and mistakes."

Granted haven by Fidel Castro in 2000 to confront his drug dependency, Maradona believed he owed his life to the Cuban people and to Castro, whose likeness was tattooed on his left calf, and he proclaimed himself a disciple of the Argentine-born guerrilla leader Ernesto "Che" Guevara, whose face was tattooed on his right biceps.

As to his sport's enduring debate - whether he, "El Diego," or Pele was the greatest soccer player of all time - Maradona was utterly graceless. Responding to Pele's criticism of him as Argentina's coach in 2010, Maradona squawked that the Brazilian legend, who ruled soccer a generation earlier, "should go back to the museum."

When it comes to evaluating Maradona's career, keeping score was never a straightforward proposition, his sporting heroics so often undercut by inexcusable behavior.

And the dichotomy was never more evident than in Argentina's 1986 World Cup quarterfinal against England. It was a match laden with symbolism and simmering hostility over the 1982 Falklands War, which ended in a humiliating defeat for the Argentine military junta that launched it.

In a four-minute span during the World Cup, Maradona scored the most controversial goal in soccer history and the goal hailed as its greatest, streaking 70 yards past five defenders to knock the ball into the net.

The tainted goal came first, unfolding 51 minutes into the match, as the squat Maradona tried outleaping the much taller English goalkeeper Peter Shilton in an effort to head an arcing ball into the net. The ball caromed in for a score, but videotape indicated that Maradona had actually punched it in with his left fist. The referee did not see the illegal handball and allowed the score, which Maradona famously attributed to "the hand of God."

Groused England coach Bobby Robson: "It wasn't the hand of God. It was the hand of a rascal. God had nothing to do with it. . . . That day, Maradona was diminished in my eyes forever."

Diego Armando Maradona was born in the Villa Fiorito barrio of Buenos Aires province, the fifth of eight children and his parents' first son. All 10 lived without running water or electricity in a three-room house fashioned of corrugated iron, wood and brick.

At 3, Diego was given a leather ball as a gift. He slept with it at night, hugging it to his chest, and took it with him each time he left the house, dribbling up and down the dirt paths wherever he went.

"Everything I did, every step I took, was because of the ball," Maradona recalled years later.

That obsession hardly set him apart from other children in soccer-crazed Argentina. But his preternatural ability to get the ball to do his bidding did, and at 10, he began performing soccer tricks at halftime of local professional matches. With the ball at his feet, little Diego was a magician. Skeptics suspected he was a little person masquerading as a child.

Soon he was a star, dubbed "El Pibe de Oro" (the Golden Boy), after leading the children's squad Los Cebollitas (the Little Onions) to 140 consecutive victories.

At 15, he quit school to turn pro, distinguishing himself on Argentinos Juniors by motoring around defenders like a miniature diesel engine, impossible to derail and too fast to stop. Two years later, he became the youngest player named to Argentina's national team but was omitted from the 1978 World Cup roster after being deemed too inexperienced for the international stage.

After leading his next club, Boca Juniors, to the 1980-81 national championship, Maradona was sold to FC Barcelona for a transfer fee of more than $9 million and signed a six-year, $12 million deal. The Golden Boy was Argentina's national treasure but too coveted an asset for the debt-ridden nation to keep. Still, his country delayed the transfer until Maradona made his long-awaited World Cup debut in 1982.

It was a disappointment. Pummeled by defenders in each round, Maradona failed to impress and was ejected from Argentina's clash with Brazil after a brutal tackle.

Maradona led FC Barcelona to the Spanish title in his first season, but his coarse behavior, brawling on field during a match with King Juan Carlos in attendance, was frowned upon by the country's soccer sophisticates. His antics ramped up with his cocaine use, which reportedly began shortly after his arrival in Barcelona.

After two years, Maradona's contract was sold to Napoli for $10.8 million, and 85,000 soccer-mad Italians greeted him as a longed-for conquering hero in welcoming ceremonies at San Paolo Stadium in Naples. For his $3 million salary and an additional $8 million to $10 million in endorsements, Maradona pulled Napoli from the Italian league sewer (12th) to third in two seasons and delivered the club's first Italian league championship in 1987.

His performance in the 1986 World Cup, scoring five goals in seven matches en route to Argentina's second championship, solidified his status as a legend.

The following spring, his childhood sweetheart, Claudia Villafane, gave birth to a daughter, Dalma, and later to another, Giannina.

Their subsequent marriage in Argentina - gaudy by even Neapolitan standards - played poorly in Italy, in the midst of the soccer season. According to The New York Times, the gala cost more than $1 million, with a Roman Catholic ceremony followed by a civil ceremony, capped by a champagne- and caviar-drenched party that lasted until 8 a.m.

For the festivities, Maradona flew more than 200 teammates, former teammates and their family members to Buenos Aires. Although reporters were not allowed - Maradona punched an intruding photographer during the revelry - his management company distributed an eight-page color pamphlet detailing the rites, the wedding party's attire and the bacchanalian feast that followed.

Meanwhile, the Italian love affair with Maradona soured, despite the fact that in six years he had led Napoli to two Italian league championships, the national soccer cup and the European Cup. Fat and out of shape, El Diego refused to practice, was hit with a paternity suit and rejected a court-ordered blood test.

"They can say what they want about me," Maradona told People magazine on the eve of the 1990 World Cup. "Fine me. Withhold my salary. But I won't change. Remember, it's the players who bring 90,000 people to the stadium. I am Maradona, who makes goals, who makes mistakes. I can take it all. I have shoulders big enough to fight with everybody."

He further alienated Italian fans by leading Argentina to a World Cup semifinal defeat of Italy, host of the 1990 tournament. Argentina fell to West Germany in the final.

Italian soccer authorities suspended Maradona for 15 months in 1991 after cocaine was found in his system during a drug test. And his downward spiral escalated.

Once again named Argentina's captain for the 1994 World Cup in the United States, the 33-year-old Maradona was sent home in disgrace after the second match upon testing positive for ephedrine.

In September 1996, he entered a clinic for cocaine addiction, acknowledging to a Buenos Aires magazine: "I was, I am and I will always be an addict."

He retired from playing soccer in 1997.

Complete information on survivors was not immediately available.

During a seaside vacation in Uruguay in January 2000, he was rushed to an emergency room with a heart ailment. It was later reported that cocaine had been found in his blood. Soon after, he fled to a drug-treatment facility in Cuba, where he remained as Castro's pampered guest for three years.

Not long after Maradona's 2004 return to Argentina, he was again rushed to an emergency room. By then divorced and the object of another paternity suit (this one filed by a 19-year-old Cuban woman), Maradona had overdosed on cocaine, suffered a heart attack, choked on his own vomit and developed pneumonia after playing golf for six hours in the rain, carousing all night, and bingeing on a breakfast of cheese and beer.

Fans kept vigil outside, and the sporting world braced itself for a tragic loss, as a respirator labored to keep El Diego alive.

Discharged 12 days later, Maradona tried to return to Cuba, but relatives had him confined to a psychiatric hospital. To his fellow patients, the porcine man claiming to be the great El Diego was simply as delusional as they.

"Football was his life," Alfredo Cahe, a close friend of Mr. Maradona's, was quoted as saying at the time. "And I think he's lost without it."

A notably trimmer Maradona emerged in 2005 - the result of gastric-bypass surgery in Colombia - to launch a weekly television talk show called "La Noche del 10" ("The Night of the 10," his jersey number). The show was promoted by an ad campaign that boasted: "God has arrived on TV!"

While seemingly rid of his addictions and redeemed in many respects, Maradona, who had scant managerial experience, was a puzzling choice as Argentina's national coach in 2008. His tenure was rocky and brief. After his squad barely qualified for the 2010 World Cup, Maradona unleashed a profane tirade on live TV at reporters who questioned his credentials and was slapped with a two-month ban by FIFA, the sport's international governing body.

Nonetheless, Argentina was considered a threat to win a third World Cup in South Africa, led by the brilliant Lionel Messi, who appeared to pack all of Maradona's soccer gifts into a pint-size frame.

But the graying Maradona made himself the story of Argentina's 2010 World Cup, dogged by reports of the back taxes he owed in Italy (30 million euros), his lavish demands for accommodations while in Pretoria (a heated bidet in his personal suite; PlayStations for his players, as well as three desserts at every dinner and access to ice cream 24 hours a day) and his verbal swipe at Pele.

On the eve of Argentina's quarterfinal against Germany, Maradona told a group of schoolchildren: "This time we will not need the Hand of God [to win the World Cup] because it is the will of God!"

But Germany had a stronger will - as well as a more disciplined, relentless attack - and humiliated Argentina, 4-0. Maradona said the defeat was "the hardest thing I have had to go through since the day I retired from football. It was like a smack in the face from Muhammad Ali."

It was unclear whether Maradona's loutish behavior as Argentina's coach was a ploy to deflect pressure from his players - Messi, in particular - or simply his unbridled arrogance upon his return to the international spotlight.

Within weeks of Argentina's ouster, he was fired as national coach.

In the decade that followed, Maradona managed club teams in the UAE Pro League, the top professional football league in the United Arab Emirates, as well as in Belarus, Mexico and La Plata, the capital of Argentina's Buenos Aires province.

He also battled a series of health challenges, including a 2019 surgery to address internal bleeding in his stomach caused by a hernia.

This month, three days after celebrating his 60th birthday, Maradona was admitted to a clinic in La Plata with anemia and dehydration. The next day, he underwent emergency brain surgery for possible bleeding on his brain linked to a subdural hematoma, or blood clot on his brain.

Well-versed in testing the limits of death, Maradona inspired a fitting eulogy from his hospital room in 2004 as he clung to life with a respirator's help. Wrote Argentine journalist and historian Osvaldo Bayer: "Maradona is what a kid dreams when he steps onto the field. It's as simple as that. Later, he became something he never should have been. He fell from grace when he should have been a hero."

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