Argentina coach Diego Maradona writes another chapter in a turbulent life
Late one evening in September 1996, I sat sharing a table with former Argentine football star Diego Maradona in San Lorenzo’s in Knightsbridge, wondering if I was about to have my nose broken.
I had just handed the world’s greatest football player a signed copy of the first edition of the unauthorised biography I had written of him, instinctively knowing that he might not like it, but feeling nonetheless that this was a necessary defining moment by which I could measure his willingness to come to terms with himself.
I should have known better. Not for the first time, nor for the last, Maradona seemed to have difficulty in focusing, such was the volume of drugs and drink which had passed through his blood over the years.
He took the book, flipped through the pages, before throwing it across to his manager, and making a half-hearted lunge at a woman guest as she made her way to the toilet. Minutes later the small coterie of fawning admirers that had formed round him, led him out and into the night, with a security guard drawing a line behind them and me.
Maradona saved his comments for a few days later when a media pack caught up with him somewhere in Alicante, southern Spain. “Burns has p—– all over me,” he told the assorted hacks, accusing everyone who collaborated during the book’s extensive research period of betrayal.
There had been books written about Maradona before but they had been hagiographies, accounts of a genius in the field which made no attempt to see the man behind the myth. My project was intended as a mirror for Maradona, with his life portrayed as a tortured tapestry of magical moments and demons.
It was always thus and experience suggests that his future may be no different. His much-publicised and seemingly already troubled appointment as his country’s national coach is just the latest attempted comeback in the helter-skelter life of a flawed footballing genius. Diego has returned after a near-death experience forced him into a period of intense rehabilitation in a Cuban health clinic, courtesy of his friend Fidel Castro.
I would like to think, as his devoted fans do, that this is not just a comeback but a resurrection; that Diego had secured his impossible dream of coaching Argentina to World Cup victory in 2010, looked up as a demi-God by a crop of talented young players, and still idolised by millions around the world as the most talented football player that ever lived; that he has found the definitive motivation to lead by example.
And yet from years of following him from his roots in the shanty town outside Buenos Aires, to his first drug experiences in Barcelona, to the whores and mafias of southern Italy, and the glories and scandals of three World Cups, and his enduring struggles with ‘retirement’, I have learnt enough to know that his worst enemy, as well as his best friend, has been himself. He is an extraordinary survivor. But he has an inherent weakness of character that can make him come apart under the pressures of fame.
In Alicante, Diego escaped into the night, again, only this time ended up getting stuck in a lift. It turned into a nightmare trip. Maradona kicked the doors until his feet bled and he was bathed in sweat. When the fire brigade finally rescued him, he behaved like an unleashed animal, kicking out tables and chairs, screaming until daybreak when the hotel management presented him with a bill for the damage.
In remembering that episode, like so many others, I am always brought back to a discovery I made about Diego’s Uncle Cirilo while investigating his poverty-stricken childhood in Villa Fiorito.
One night Diegito, still a toddler lost his way in the dark and fell into the family cesspit. Cirilo saved him from drowning, leaving it to his mother to clean up the child. I was told that only when Maradona was much older, trying to make sense of his troubled life, that the experience allowed him to believe a little more in himself, the reassurance that however deep one falls, there can be recovery.
I have written before that being Diego’s unofficial biographer means surviving the missiles that life throws at you along the way. When my biography was published in Argentina, I received a death threat. Carlos Bilardo, at the time in semi-retirement, warned me that if I valued my life the sooner I got out of the country the better.
The next day a journalist working on one of Argentina’s leading football programmes cut most of a pre-recorded interview. “You’ve written a book about politics, about drugs, about mafias. It’s a touchy subject here. We don’t broadcast it because Diego might react badly,” he said. It was also a touchy subject in Naples.
The few days I stayed on that trip in Buenos Aires made the years I had worked there as a journalist during the regime of the bloody military junta seem almost a picnic by comparison. Such was Diego’s iconic status, I felt a curse had been issued by some demented priest from the Church of Maradona. At least I could see the Falklands War coming, and we won it!
When Diego came eventually to writing about his own life (ghost-written by two journalists), he justified the missiles he has thrown at other people over the years. Thus in Yo Soy El Diego (published in English as Maradona: The Autobiography of Soccer’s Greatest and Most Controversial Star) he hits out at referees, Fifa, money-grabbing players, corrupt politicians, placing himself on the side of the genuine fan, the true believer of the beautiful game.
While admitting to his own past drug addiction, he puts at least two dope tests down to fabrication, part of an unspecified conspiracy extending to a CIA-style plot against him in the US World Cup of 1994, and denies he ever took drugs to enhance his performance.
As for that game in the quarter-finals of the World Cup Mexico in 1986, the ‘Hand of God’ was sweet revenge for the Falklands War. It made him feel good, an Argentine version of the Artful Dodger, stealing an Englishman’s wallet. And, of course, only Diego can retell the true genius of that second goal, advancing down the right of the field, leaving Beardsley, Reid and Butcher for dead, seeing Valdano unmarked to his left but deciding to go it alone, shaking off Fenwick by feinting left then right, pulling Shilton out of position, and then scoring – poetry in motion.
More than 22 years on, I was neither surprised nor enthused by the news that Maradona had marked his 48th birthday by announcing that he had been picked to train the young dauphins of Argentine football, with Bilardo as manager. That the new Argentina are to play Scotland this week has a certain poignancy about it. Back in 1979, it was in a Scotland-Argentina match that Diego’s potential was revealed for the first time at Hampden Park: 62,000 Scots who were there that day would never forget the goal scored by an 18-year-old Maradona. Denis Law called it the cheekiest goal ever scored at Hampden Park.
Diego has come back from the brink. And yet, knowing him as I do, I know this could so easily end in tears.
- Jimmy Burns is the author of The Hand of God: The Life of Diego Maradona (Bloomsbury).