We could not have known Diego Maradona was playing his last game for Argentina when he left the field at Foxboro Stadium during the 1994 World Cup. After leading the Albiceleste to a 2-1 win over Nigeria, he complained they had been up against so many “Mike Tysons” and he was going to have his jaw X-rayed. Instead, Maradona tested positive for ephedrine and was suspended, effectively ending his international career.
But with Maradona, who died Wednesday, hardly anything happened without complications and contradictions, exaggerations and excesses.
Before being banned by FIFA, Maradona’s world had seemed relatively calm as Argentina trained at Babson College and the team advanced during the group stage.
Maradona had returned home following a tempestuous career in Europe, playing for Newell’s Old Boys in Rosario, where Lionel Messi was learning to walk and where Che Guevara had grown up. Maradona played seven games for Newell’s, then announced his retirement. But after Argentina lost, 5-0, to Colombia at home, he decided to make a comeback. Though Maradona did enough to help the team in two qualifiers, there were questions about his ability to handle the physical demands of the World Cup. When Maradona arrived in Boston, his personal trainer, Fernando Signorini, assured everyone he had gotten in shape simply by working out long and hard. Later, Signorini said he had been administering an over-the-counter weight loss medication, purchased at a Tremont Street pharmacy, and claimed the labeling had caused a mixup.
In any case, Maradona believed FIFA president Joao Havelange simply wanted an excuse to get rid of him. The presence of Maradona at USA ’94 had helped make the event a success, but now he was expendable.
Before the World Cup, we had traveled to Argentina on assignment to preview the World Cup, but Maradona was unavailable. Journalists had besieged his home and Maradona had fired back — with a pellet gun. So, we went to a Boca Juniors game at La Bombonera, where supporters unveiled a 180-by-90-foot banner with a red heart and Maradona’s name.
Maradona had become a bigger-than-life figure, but to understand him, it helps to take a ride to Villa Fiorito, a shanty town on the outskirts of Buenos Aires. The taxista who drove us to Maradona’s childhood home pointed out open sewers and a speeding, horse-drawn wagon with two shirtless youngsters eyeing scrap metal, something Maradona and his father had done for a living. The area was considered dangerous, especially at night, but not as bad as when Maradona was growing up, apparently.
The Maradona home was a flat-roofed, primitive structure, and there was an open canal running in front of it. Maradona would have had to walk across a short bridge to get to the dirt playing field, complete with makeshift wooden goals, where he learned the game.
When Argentinos Juniors signed a 15-year-old Maradona in 1975, the entire Maradona family moved to an apartment near the club’s headquarters. Pictures of a 5-foot-3-inch teenage Maradona wearing overalls, flanked by parents and siblings, provides an idea of his humble beginnings.
When Maradona moved to Barcelona in 1982, then Naples, a part of him still felt like the innocent youngster living in poverty.
The move to Europe turned out to be the start of Maradona’s demise. First, the drugs. It began with what were called he used painkillers to overcome the injuries, caused by some exceedingly rough treatment by opposing defenders, a prelude to recreational substance abuse. Asif Kapadia’s “Diego Maradona” film provides some incredible close-up shots of just how precarious Maradona’s existence had become on the field, as well as off.
Then, there was the Camorra. On assignment in Naples in 1989, I was told how the “toto nero” black market bookies relied on Maradona to generate business. Considering the combination of drugs, gambling, and the Mafia, you do not need much imagination to see where that might be heading.
Maradona had become a divine figure in Napoli. A few years later, I went by a church and on the door was spray-painted, “Dio non c’é, c’é Maradona / There is no God, there is Maradona.”
Journalist Daniel Arcucci noted that Maradona signing a five-year contract in the early ’90s became the death knell to his career. Maradona did not know what he would be doing “two hours from now,” much less in five years, so he soon began to feel trapped.
Problems started piling up. Naples, which had been united behind Maradona, turned against him after the 1990 World Cup, when he said Northern Italians opposed the Neapolitans and they should support Argentina — then led the Albiceleste to victory over Italy (thanks to a misplay by future Revolution coach/goalkeeper Walter Zenga). There were legal issues — a paternity suit and unpaid taxes. Maradona got busted for drugs, and he probably felt a sense of relief, because that got him banned from playing, but also freed him from what had become a figurative prison sentence.
By ’94, Maradona was 33, but his body and spirit had been battered. The World Cup was his last shot, and Argentina looked like it could challenge for the title. But not without Maradona.
After serving a suspension, Maradona performed for Boca Juniors until ’97. The paternity suit was settled, and he acknowledged Diego Armando Maradona Jr. as his son. Maradona appeared on Italian television shows juggling a raw egg, or a one lira coin (which was thinner than a dime). He got into coaching, went to Cuba for rehab, spending time with Fidel Castro, received an honorary degree from Oxford, continued to speak out against corruption in FIFA. Maradona became enormously overweight and nearly died because of heart problems. Then, he returned to coach in Mexico — it had to be Sinaloa, which has had its problems with drug cartels. Two weeks ago, he underwent brain surgery but was expected to return to his job coaching Gimnasia y Esgrima de La Plata in Argentina.
As a personality, Maradona exhibited monumental flaws and as a player his skill level was beyond phenomenal. When Maradona was young, he was lithe, speedy and could do incredible things with the ball. Nearly everyone has seen Maradona punching in a goal, then running nearly the length of the field to score against England in the 1986 World Cup. Of course, those were not just goals, they became political statements, Maradona justifying the handball as vengeance for the British invading the Falkland, or Malvinas, islands.
My own moment of incredulousness occurred while covering a match in 1989, when Napoli won its second-ever Serie A title. The game with Inter was scoreless in the second half, and Maradona took the ball to the left of the Inter net. He juggled it briefly, then flipped a blind pass 50 feet backward. The result was the winning goal.
I always wondered how he did that, and eventually realized he must have had a mental picture of how things were developing before he ended up unsighted — yet it was an extraordinary feat to both conceive and execute the play, and have it work against what was then Italy’s best defensive team.
In a Globe story before USA ’94, journalist Daniel Arcucci expressed concern for Maradona’s future. He had been a rebel, not a diplomat, like his rival, Pelé. What would he be doing when he was in his 50s?
A few years ago, Maradona tried to bring his family to Disney World, but could not obtain a visa. Then, Harvard invited Maradona to the campus, but even Harvard could not get Maradona a visa, and he never returned to the US.