Sport The mad and magical moments that made Diego Maradona
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The mad and magical moments that made Diego Maradona

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In a world where celebrity is easily gained and lost, the football world has a story to tell you about Diego Maradona, who died on Thursday aged just 60.

An iconic figure who united and divided in equal measure, the legendary Argentinian rose above humble origins to cement his status as one of the game’s all-time greats and a man who lived even larger off the field.

Perhaps then it was fitting that Maradona’s passing came four years to the day after the death of his hero and fellow revolutionary, former Cuban leader Fidel Castro – a man Maradona sported in a tattoo on his celebrated left leg.

Maradona’s life was marked by such moments as he swerved between fame and irrelevance, on-field brilliance and belligerence, sublime skills and obesity, and social campaigning and drug abuse.

From the slums of Buenos Aires the young street kid was recognised early for his gifted foot skills and natural arrogance with the ball – eventually leading his nation to a controversial 2-1 World Cup quarter-final win over England in 1986.

His clear handball to score the first goal has never been forgotten, or forgiven, by England players and fans, with goalkeeper Peter Shilton telling AAP on Thursday the “cheating” still bothered him.

“As he ran away to celebrate he even looked back twice, as if waiting for the referee’s whistle. He knew what he had done. Everybody did – apart from the referee and two linesmen,” Shilton said.

“It was partly by the hand of God and partly with the head of Maradona,” the unapologetic Maradona said at the time.

What remains, though, is Maradona’s second effort four minutes later when he scored one of the greatest goals of all time – slicing through England’s defence to seal a famous victory.

The Argentine’s heroics against England, coming so soon after the Falklands War, sent his fame stratospheric and in many ways he never returned to earth.

The years that followed were marred by drug and alcohol use and erratic behaviour.

He led Argentina to a losing World Cup final in Rome in 1990, but in 1991 received a 15-month suspension for doping, testing positive for drugs again at the 1994 World Cup in the United States.

After retirement in 1997 the stories about his partying, his overeating and his other appetites made tabloid fodder around the world, although he did get a second act as a turbulent coach of Argentina, where it made the 2010 quarter-finals in South Africa.

Still, Maradona remained never far from the headlines, and news of his death at such a young age came not unexpectedly after years of drug and alcohol-induced health problems.

Giving back to the poor

In paying tribute, many fans on social media have recalled with fondness Maradona’s efforts to boost charities in his home country and around the world, highlighting the opportunities that football had given him.

In 1984 when playing for Italian sleeping giant Napoli, the star played in a fundraising match on a muddy field to fund a sick child’s health care, despite the Serie A club being none too impressed.

Always the showman, in April 1996 he also fronted up to fight his friend Santos ‘Falucho’ Laciar in a three-round exhibition fight to raise cash for a local junior club.

Rock star partying, with conditions

Maradona’s partying, like his football skills, were legendary, but it came with a dark side and some dodgy connections.

Cocaine appeared to be his drug of choice, with urban myths claiming personal supplies were shipped soccer balls that he would carry around the world.

That may be a stretch, but true was the toll that drugs would take on his body. He battled obesity and cocaine-induced heart problems almost claimed his life in 2000.

Maradona’s fame even saw other celebrities starstruck, with Oasis frontman Liam Gallagher once detailing the time he and brother Noel joined the festivities after a concert in Argentina, only to be told by a minder that if the rock stars left with any of the girls Maradona would “have you shot”.

Shoot first, ask questions later

While the Gallaghers escaped without injury, not so four photographers and reporters who were camped outside Maradona’s home in February 1994 as his drug crisis escalated.

Maradona received an unserved prison term after firing an air gun at the media outside his Buenos Aires country home, pictures of the incident showing him deliberately leaning over a car to shoot.

His relationship with the press was often fiery, with one reporter also publicly copping a slap for the sin of winking at the footballer’s ex-wife.

But, ultimately, Maradona’s sublime skills on the field will remain his enduring legacy. He inspired young, underprivileged footballers around the world with his enthusiasm and example.

His countryman, and successor to the title of best in the business, Lionel Messi said it was a sad day for all Argentines and football.

“He leaves us but does not leave, because Diego is eternal. I take all the good moments lived with him and send condolences to all his family and friends. RIP,” Messi said.

The pair had once taken part in a football-tennis match, where the veteran Maradona had still held his own, offering a joyful glimpse of the old street kid at play.

As the tributes and brickbats flow, it’s worth remembering that Maradona’s larger-than-life 60 years were the product of a tough upbringing and street smarts that was supersized by fans and the media beyond the ability of any individual to please everyone.

Once stardom hit, Maradona could do little but be his flawed self.

On the America sports website Theringer.com, writer Guillermo Blanco was quoted about a night he’d once spent around a home-town campfire with an older and wiser Maradona.

On the fame and his missteps, Blanco recalled the legend uttering perhaps his most tragic sentence: “What the people have to understand is that Maradona is not a machine for making them happy.”

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