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4 minutes: The genius of an irreplaceable Diego Maradona (Part 3 of a 4-Part series)

Scoring those two decisive goals – the first dubiously dubbed as ‘miraculous’ with the invisible ‘Hand of God’ supposedly involved, and the second one eternally acclaimed as divinely celestial – to clinch victory against a rival nation that stood for most Argentineans as an oppressive colonial master of sorts instantly turned Maradona into the timely hero of the nation and elevated him overnight almost into a deity, albeit not without disastrous consequences as his insatiable indulgence in the forbidden fruits and excesses of his success came with an exceedingly exorbitant price.

Living that aftermath of instant international acclaim and adulation soon proved to be infinitely a tougher challenge than the ones the maestro Maradona easily tackled in football arenas.

Roberto Perfumo, a former Argentine captain blessed with not just football machismo but also supreme intellect, once made an interesting comparison in alluding to the footbal wizard. He quipped that the highly revered and feared Emperors during the era when the Roman Empire ruled with an iron hand over most of Europe had advisers walking quietly behind them every step of the way, constantly whispering reminders in their ears that they were only mortals and not supreme otherworldly immortals to be worshipped by the subservient masses. In the case of Maradona, almost the entire Argentine population fell at his feet proffering obeisance to him and pandering to his ego. That was a really incisive observation by Perfumo.

All limits were taken off him and for the Argentine there were no bounds or inhibitions both in Argentina and Italy where he reigned supreme, while playing the best football of his club career.

Maradona’s quiet journey to the pinnacle began with Argentinos Juniors, though not much is remembered of that perios. Then he had a brief but fondly remembered spell with Buenos Aires giants, Boca Juniors.

Before one could bat an eyelid, he made his major shocking move to Europe to join Barcelona for a short 2-year stint before bidding them a hasty adieu to make his grand entry into Napoli, where he obviously felt more at home, as he readily identified with the population in the south of Italy and their aggrieved hurts due to northern discrimination.

Buoyantly inspired, he razzled and dazzled his way on the pitch to help carry Napoli to two rare league titles at a time when the Italian championship was considered the best in the world. And once again, just as in Argentina, he was exceedingly indulged. It is worth noting that it was in Naples, of all places, that he developed that cocaine addiction that was to be a major blight in his football career and personal life not long after.

More compassionate and understanding souls may have understood his cocaine addiction to have been possibly the desire to blot out physical pain inflicted on his body as Maradona’s playing career coincided with a physical evolution of the game at that time, and that was way before referees gave more protection to skilful players who were most heavily marked and targeted for the most physically abusive, violent tackles.

Week in week out the diminutive, most-dreaded striker was on the end of brutal treatment from opposing defenders just dying to take him out any way they could, and as a redult fo constant injuries being inflicted against him, he was clearly in physical decline even as he took an unillustrious Argentina side to the final of the 1990 World Cup.

That World Cup was the watershed from when things spiraled downshill for El Diego. The slide began when he was suspended for testing positive for cocaine, and when he gave it another go to make a comeback in the 1994 World Cup, he was hauled up for having taken an illegal substance to aid his weight loss and was subsequently booted out of the competition.

Minus the discipline of football that had always served as a counter-balance in his colorful life, the vacuum in that second half of his life was filled to the brim with obsessive, chaotic indulgences. His weight went kilos off the scale and he was put through numerous health scares that instantly generated much publicity.

Then came the period when the footballer negan dribbling into politics – he became an outspoken political figure and was even once linked with Argentina’s military dictatorship and then with right wing president Carlos Menem, ultimately drifting left-wing, becoming friends with Fidel Castro and tattooing himself with the image of Che Guevara!

Ultimately it was still in football that he was able to temper and satiate that restlessness in him, giving him the much-needed potent fix he sought, albeit off the field and in the stands. As a fan, Maradona the wizard with the ball glued to his feet became the impassioned spectator, turning up at the stadium of his beloved Boca Juniors, taking off his shirt and swirling it wildly around his head and leading the chanting.

Finally he opted to work as a coach, taking charge of teams in Mexico and the Middle East as well as Argentina where he coached the Argentine national team at the 2010 World Cup.

For many of his diehard fans, Maradona’s invincibility as a footballer and his fallibility as a mortal were all part and parcel of his intriguing, magnetic appeal. His admirers gushed gaga-eyed and thrived on the way he would repeatedly fall down only to clamber up again. All that only humanised a figure whose epic life was as mercurial and mazy as one of his zany left-footed dribbles.

Maradona had the distinction of having broken the world transfer record twice – first in leaving Boca Juniors for Spanish side Barcelona for £3m in 1982 and then in joining Italian club Napoli two years later for £5m.

His globally-publicised arrival by helicopter in the Italian city was uproariously greeted by more than 80,000 star-struck fans in the Stadio San Paolo clamoring to get a glimpse of, and welcome their new, adopted hero. This was where he played the best club football of his career, constantly feted by zealous supporters as he inspired the side to their first league titles in 1987 and 1990 and the Uefa Cup in 1989.

A mammoth party lasting five days with hundreds of thousands on the streets was organized to celebrate the first triumph but Maradona was suffocated by the attention and high expectations instead.

“This is a great city but I can hardly breathe. I want to be free to walk around. I’m a lad like any other,” he said.

The instant overnight icon at Napoli struck 81 times in 188 games but somehow became inextricably linked to the Camorra crime syndicate, and was dragged down into the abyss by a cocaine addiction, besides being embroiled in a paternity suit.

The 1-0 loss of Argentina to Germany in the final of Italia ’90 was followed up with a positive dope test the following year, triggering a devastating 15-month ban.

But Maradona being Maradona, the feisty, incorrigible striker managed to arrest his slide, and seemed to get his act together to play in the 1994 World Cup in the USA.

This time, he alarmed viewers with a maniacal on-camera, full-face goal celebration and was withdrawn midway through the tournament after he was found to have taken the banned substance ephedrine. Yet another public disaster for the man who again failed to keep his demons in check.

Left ultimately with no other recourse after his third positive drug test three years later, he retired from football on his 37th birthday, but the problems persisted in tormenting him nonetheless, beginning not least with him being handed a suspended jail sentence of two years and 10 months for an earlier incident where he shot at journalists with an air rifle.

The twin evils of his cocaine habit and alcoholism reared their sinister heads, leading to several health issues. Weight ballooning to 128kg at one point, he suffered a major heart attack in 2004, with him stranded in intensive care. This was followed up with a gastric-bypass surgery to help stem his obesity, where he sought sanctuary in Cuba whilst battling to overcome his drug addiction.

Yet, despite all this frenzied turmoil and turbulence, Maradona was named manager of the Argentina national team in 2008 and actually took the side to the World Cup quarter-finals two years later before his reign ended with an anti-climax as a result of the 4-0 defeat by Germany in the quarter-finals.

What came after that devastating defeat were various managerial roles for a figure who continued to make headlines of the wrong sort, like needing reconstructive surgery on his lip after one of his pet shar pei dogs bit him, and even publicly recognizing his son Diego Armando Junior who was the offspring from an extra-marital affair.

Another cameo appearance featuring an eclectic snapshot of his haphazard lifestyle came when he attended Argentina’s match against Nigeria at the 2018 World Cup in Russia where he felt inspired by whatever muses whose influence he was under to unveil a banner of himself, danced with a Nigeria fan, prayed to the heavens before the game kicked off, wildly celebrated Lionel Messi’s opening goal, fell asleep and gave a double middle finger salute after Argentina’s second goal. All in that precise order!

Some reports surfaced after that suggesting he needed immediate medical treatment.

Graceful, disgraceful, inspiring, deliriously entertaining – and definitely over-the-top. That, in the proverbial nutshell, barely suffices to sum up the much-loved and incomprehensible Diego Maradona.

His was a life definitely less ordinary.