Part I: “A foot more like the paw of a cat”
Few have used a World Cup as a platform to enthrall the planet. Fewer still have used the same tournament to self-destruct and sully their own name. No man has done both to such radical extremes as Diego Armando Maradona, the Argentine icon who, in a career of excess, utilized the World Cup as the stage for both his greatest triumph and shattering humiliation.
In 1986, the strutting No. 10 delivered the most virtuoso performance a World Cup has ever witnessed, inspiring an otherwise unexceptional Argentine team to victory. Just eight years later, El Diego tested positive for ephedrine doping (or fell victim to his thirst for an innocent energy drink called Rip Fuel, depending on whether you believe FIFA or the player himself) and flamed out midtournament.
Maradona’s career was always built on brilliance, blurred boundaries and spectacular overindulgence. Squat, impudent and omnipotent, the player was part urchin, part prince. Though just 5-foot-5, his low center of gravity made him one of the greatest dribblers in the game. A French broadcaster once described his inimitable control by suggesting his “foot was more like the paw of a cat.” Almost impossible to knock off the ball, Maradona knew his opponents would attempt to boot him off the field, yet he would always quickly dust himself off and demand the ball again, drawing strength from the knowledge he was draining defenders of their energy.
Part II: A Taste for Deceit
Maradona’s 1986 campaign is oft-celebrated, and for good reason. The firestarter propelled his team to victory by all means necessary. In a roiling quarterfinal against the English, played at the Azteca in the shadows of the Falklands conflict, he scored twice to seal a 2-1 victory. The first goal, when he used his left fist to reach over 6-foot-1 goalkeeper Peter Shilton and punch the ball into the net, became known as the "Hand of God" in Argentina, after the peacocking player poetically told reporters it had been scored "a little with the head of Maradona and a little with the hand of God." In England, it was referred to as the "Hand of the Devil."
Four minutes later, while the English were still reeling, he scored a goal that even a deity would struggle to replicate. A spectacular 60-meter display of the gambetta, the Argentinian art of dribbling, in which the player propelled himself “like a little eel” (listen to this remarkable English radio commentary) past six England players, the last two of whom desperately tried to take out the man rather than the ball. After witnessing the feat, the startled Argentinian commentator could only proclaim, “Good god! Long live football! Cosmic Kite, what planet do you come from?”
Maradona's teammate, Jorge Valdano, would aptly later tell journalist Marcela Mora y Araujo that there are two elements to the art of the gambetta: “The first is ability: to show that I, with my foot, have the skill to do anything; the second is feinting, I have to deceive my opponent, make him believe exactly the opposite of what I'm going to do. This is also very Argentinian, the taste for deceit.”
Part III: “They will see the real Diego at the World Cup”
After Argentina were beaten in the final in 1990, Maradona’s 1994 World Cup was all about a taste for deceit: chaos begat by chaos. He had already worn out his welcome in Naples, the city that had embraced him like a deity after his 1984 eye-popping $11.8 million arrival delivered long-suffering Napoli fans their first Serie A titles.
The man Southern Italians hailed as “El Pibe De Oro” had ultimately fled Europe with his career imploding and personal life in meltdown. A 14-month ban earned in 1991 after testing positive for cocaine was the least of his problems. The player had been charged with smuggling $840,000 worth of the drug into Rome’s Fiumicino airport in 1990, and his reputation was further pockmarked by rumors of paternity suits, tax charges and intimate connections to Naples’ Camorra crime family.
A beleaguered, corpulent Maradona returned home to Buenos Aires in search of sanctuary. As he arrived, the notion the player was physically or mentally ready to lead the national team to the World Cup appeared as believable as a storyline from a Philip K. Dick fantasy.
Within three weeks of Maradona’s return, the Argentinian media were summoned by police to rubberneck as the fallen icon’s home was raided. After being arrested for taking cocaine, he was ordered to kick the habit under medical supervision.
No writer, musician, artist or public figure in Argentina could match his international status. His myth-soaked life narrative proved it was possible to emerge from the poverty and trauma of the barrio to become globally revered. Back in 1990, President Carlos Menem had leveraged the player’s popularity amongst the Argentinian masses by appointing him the nation’s "ambassador to all the world of sport." Maradona used the diplomatic passport that had accompanied this symbolic role to walk free.
If a playing comeback was on, it began badly. A rehabilitation spell with Newell's Old Boys in the Argentine league ended prematurely after the now-bloated star failed to turn up for training. Maradona’s most accurate shots were those he fired from an air rifle at journalists doorstepping his home.
Though he had been ignored by the majority of pundits in the buildup to USA 1994, the star resurfaced sensationally on the eve of the tournament, having somehow shed 26 pounds in a month. His message was one of redemption. "I am tired of all those who said I was fat and no longer the great Maradona,” he proclaimed. “They will see the real Diego at the World Cup." The icon did not know how true those words would prove to be.
Part IV: “A lunatic, flying on a cocktail of adrenalin and every recreational drug known to man”
Even the U.S. Department of State turned a blind eye when it came to El Pibe. "There are certain agreements with the World Cup," an official said. “Now that doesn't guarantee anyone a visa, of course, but it does pretty much say we'll do what's within our effort to allow participants for the World Cup to come here.”
Age 33, the little warhorse prepared to drag his tattered body into battle one more time, and his fourth World Cup would begin against Greece at Foxboro Stadium. A light aircraft buzzed above the field pulling a banner that proclaimed "Maradona -- Prima Dona" ahead of the game, and the star lived up to his billing. In the 60th minute of the 4-0 victory, he received the ball in the box, jinked to his left, and rifled the ball into the top corner before celebrating the achievement in hopped-up style, grabbing a sideline television camera and pressing his maniacal mug against it. Tight-lipped after the game, Maradona would only declare “I'm letting my actions speak for themselves."
Four days later, the player was selected for random drug testing after a 2-1 win against Nigeria, and FIFA quickly announced the Argentine had tested positive for five variants of ephedrine, an ingredient of over-the-counter cold medicines. "Maradona must have taken a cocktail of drugs because the five identified substances are not found in one medicine," said Dr. Michel d'Hooghe, a member of FIFA's executive committee.
The Guardian would later note the way Maradona had celebrated his goal against Greece was as conclusive as any drugs test: “Broadcast around the world, his contorted features made him look like a lunatic, flying on a cocktail of adrenalin and every recreational drug known to man.”
Part V: "The king is dead, we play on."
Faced with the disgrace of being expelled from the tournament, Maradona first sought pity on Argentinian television. “They killed me” he said. "They have retired me from soccer. I don't think I want another revenge, my soul is broken." He then proceeded to appeal to his nation’s easily fired-up paranoia, adamantly declaring, "They didn't beat us on the pitch. We were beaten off the pitch and that is what hurts my soul."
As the team moved on to meet Bulgaria in Dallas' Cotton Bowl, Maradona loyalists in the Argentine media seized on the idea of a conspiracy theory. FIFA dispatched Sepp Blatter, the organizations' general secretary, to smother any doubts. "The king is dead, we play on," he declared.
A shattered Argentinian squad mustered the requisite soundbites about "winning it for Diego." Yet leaderless and disoriented, they proceeded to wilt against Bulgaria -- losing 2-0 -- and were dispatched in by Gheorghe Hagi, Ilie Dumitrescu and the elegant Romanians in Round of 16.
The Independent newspaper injected a sense of rationale into the drama, opining, “What is surprising about the demise of Diego Maradona in this year's World Cup is not the discovery that he was caught using drugs and banned from the tournament ... The astonishing thing is that given the seriousness of the charges and convictions related to his drug habit in Italy, Maradona got to play in the World Cup in the first place.”
Yet Maradona could never be confined by reason. Back at the World Cup, when a suspended Maradona walked into the broadcast booth to watch his teammates take on Bulgaria, the stadium around him stood up in ovation. In contrast to Pele, the sports’ first human billboard whose well-documented imperfections as noted by The Guardian newspaper were airbrushed out so he could act the global pitchman, Maradona’s enduring popularity lay in his flaws, not despite them.
As the Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano wrote, “He was a filthy god. A sinner. The most human of the deities. Anyone could see in a him a walking synthesis of human weaknesses.”