Once there was a boy with a magic left foot. His name was Diego Armando Maradona.
He was a poor boy from a poor neighborhood. At 10, he dazzled stadiums with juggling exhibitions during halftime at professional soccer games. He danced with the ball, making it float with his foot, his knee, his head, lost in impish rapture. When the referees tried to stop the boy and resume the games, the crowds booed.
At 19, he led Argentina’s national youth team to a world championship. The generals who ruled his country hyped his triumph to deflect investigations of their atrocities, an early sign that Maradona’s aura transcended sports.
At 25, his conquest of the 1986 World Cup crowned him best of the best. He became more famous than the pope. In the 200 nations where soccer is a religion, God was a short burly figure charging alone into an array of rivals, tree-trunk limbs chopping, black curls flying, carving through the defense until even the goalkeeper sprawled behind him. And the magic left foot fired the ball into the net.
But the story does not end there. Unlike Eva Peron, another 20th-century Argentine idol, Maradona did not die young and leave a legend frozen in its prime. In the 1990s, he has tottered through a prolonged decline, a painfully public struggle between two addictions: soccer and cocaine.
After yet another comeback attempt this fall disintegrated into yet another soap opera involving allegations of drug use, Maradona definitively uttered the words he had said before but never meant: I quit. The sudden pronouncement came during an agitated phone call to a radio show on the eve of his 37th birthday.
“This will be the saddest birthday of my life,” Maradona said. “The soccer player is no more. No one is sadder about this than me.” Then he retreated into seclusion. In early December, during the announcement in France of the draw for next summer’s World Cup, French fans held up a banner with a picture of Maradona and a forlorn slogan: “There is only one God.”
But the soccer world has come to grips with a future without Maradona. Like Michael Jordan or Muhammad Ali, he belonged to a select group of champions who invest every move with drama and style. Now he is a memory, although no one has emerged to replace him as the dominant international star. Argentines are left to take stock of a figure who epitomizes the best and worst of his sport and his society, whose heroics have been as prodigious as his scandals.
“It is hard to say who the real Maradona is,” said Guillermo Blanco, his former press spokesman. “He has all the human qualities that we all have. But most of us maintain a balance. He takes every quality to the exponential level. When he is kind, he is the kindest of all. When he is bad, he is really bad.”
Maradona brings out the philosopher, psychologist and sentimentalist in Argentines. Aldo Proietto, editor of the sports magazine El Grafico, once wrote a poem about Maradona and “the emotion of a man who sees the crowd pulsing around his idol.” Maradona’s fortunes are a question of state. Politicians once cozied up to him; more recently, he accused a politically ambitious governor of exploiting his fame by concocting a drug trafficking case against his manager.
Most Argentines adore Maradona as a prodigal son who brought them global glory. They are proud of the fact that he can’t walk down the street in Japan, Saudi Arabia or Nigeria without being mobbed. They tell the anecdote about the Argentine doctor who was accosted at gunpoint by guerrillas in Afghanistan and shouted Maradona’s name until the threats gave way to smiles of recognition and pats on the back.
Off the field, Maradona has made news with his mouth. He unloads verbal volleys at club owners, coaches, politicians, international sports officials and journalists. (He also has been charged with sniping at reporters with an air gun.) He sides with Third World against First, worker against boss. He admires Fidel Castro and talks about moving to Cuba. In Italy, where he became patron saint of Naples by transforming its humble team into a champion, he waved the banner of impoverished South against haughty North.
“He has a need for confrontation,” Blanco said. “He knows that he belongs to those on the bottom. He will never forget that there was a foreman who mistreated his father back in [the province of] Corrientes.”
Maradona puts it this way: “The people in the street support Maradona. And no one will ever break that.”
But the loyalty of the masses was tested by the chaotic recent events that turned out to be the final chapter. It was a rise-and-fall story: the latest of half a dozen comebacks since the night in 1991 when police hauled a dazed, unshaven Maradona out of a crash pad here and arrested him on charges of possessing cocaine. He admitted to a longtime addiction.
During the next five years, Maradona wandered among teams, injuries, tantrums and a short-lived coaching attempt before returning to Boca Juniors, the powerhouse team that launched him as a youth. Last year, a weight problem and a string of demoralizing missed penalty kicks pushed him into quitting Boca. He swore he had played his last game; he spent time at a Swiss rehabilitation clinic.
Maradona always has been chameleonic, changing moods as drastically and rapidly as he changes appearance: from shaggy to close-cropped, from warrior goatee to nerdy glasses. But during television appearances this year, he looked puffy-faced, tormented. He grimaced elaborately, railing against real and imagined enemies in disjointed monologues that suggested his demons were closing in on him.
Despite his earlier vow, Maradona signed a new contract with Boca for the fall season. He trained in Canada with an unlikely fitness coach, Ben Johnson, the Olympic sprinter who was banned from competition for steroid use. Maradona lost almost 20 pounds. He looked good.
Maradona had risen out of the ashes into fighting shape before. He did it in Barcelona in 1983, after a Basque fullback demolished his ankle with a thuggish takedown, and before the U.S. World Cup in 1994, when he got kicked out in mid-tournament after a drug test turned up a “cocktail” of stimulants.
This season, fans saw flashes of the old brilliance. He panted for breath on the field, but he could still deliver laser-sharp passes and unleash an uncanny stutter-step. There was talk that he should be enlisted, like a retired gunslinger returning for a last showdown, to play in the World Cup in France.
But after a game in August, his name came up for a random urine test. The results were positive. Cocaine, the rumors said, although officials did not specify. Maradona was suspended.
The ensuing melodrama had a deja vu quality. Maradona did not go home to his wife and two daughters, whom he showers with affection and describes as his lifeline. He holed up in the apartment of a friend who belongs to his notoriously decadent, nightclubbing entourage. He emerged to declare himself the victim of a conspiracy to plant drug-tainted urine in his test and destroy him.
“There is a dark hand in all this,” he said. “This is very ugly.”
As the league considered disciplinary action, commentators took pro- and anti-Diego positions. The headlines howled: “The nightmare"; “The idol falls again"; “Maradona: the show must not go on.” Die-hard fans took to the streets.
“They want to chop his legs off,” a sweaty youth in sunglasses roared amid a chanting, dancing mob at a pro-Maradona rally downtown. “They want to crucify him just like they did a guy named Jesus Christ.”
In a more reflective mood, a 22-year-old factory worker named Gaston compared Maradona to Mike Tyson, another talented and troubled athlete. Gaston described his idol’s exploits as if they were personal epiphanies.
“The best goal he ever scored was on Mother’s Day last year, on a free kick,” said Gaston, who wore a Maradona hat and T-shirt. “It was like his gift to me, because I don’t have a mother.”
Maradona’s woes, observers say, are part of a pattern of conduct that grew out of his upbringing in Villa Fiorito, a slum in the vast industrial landscape outside the capital. Maradona’s father, a slaughterhouse worker, was a migrant from rural Corrientes. His mother was the daughter of Southern Italian immigrants.
As soon as he went professional, Maradona embraced the role of breadwinner for his parents and eight brothers and sisters, the “tribe” that accompanied and doted on him when he was signed by Barcelona, one of Europe’s wealthiest clubs, in 1982.
“The fundamental problem of his formative years was that there was never an older person who established limits,” said Eduardo Rafael, a veteran sportswriter and editor of La Maga magazine. “His parents had too much affection for him to rein him in. The same happened with his teammates. Even though they were older, he was the leader.”
In contrast, the Brazilian soccer legend Pele lived in a hotel with stern older teammates as a rookie. Even after making his mark internationally, Pele still dutifully fetched cigarettes for his elders, Rafael said.
Maradona peaked in the second half of the 1980s, leading Argentina to the World Cup victory and Naples to two league titles. His addiction had begun by then. The timid young man was overwhelmed, said Rafael, who spent a month traveling with Maradona during the rookie period.
“Barcelona was too imposing culturally,” he said. “And Naples, with the Mafia and everything, was Villa Fiorito on a grand scale.”
Maradona felt at home among the festive, streetwise Neapolitans. He partied with Mafia bosses, who infested soccer as they did politics and business. Maradona’s tribulations multiplied: police investigations for involvement in prostitution and trafficking, a paternity suit. A failed drug test sent him packing to Buenos Aires.
Throughout his ordeals, Maradona stumbled back and forth between family and entourage, the staunch stay-at-home father at one moment and the partyer running wild in flashy club scenes at the next.
“I think that is his drama: knowing that despite all the love he feels for his kids, he has not been able to use that love to overcome his addiction,” Rafael said. “It’s impossible to grasp the dimensions of the fame he carries through the world. Soccer is a passion, [and] like all passions it is totally irrational. How can we expect this kid to handle that kind of burden?”
After his suspension was lifted this fall, Maradona played a few more undistinguished games in October. The reception of crowds in Boca’s stadium cooled down. His much-anticipated, this-time-for-sure retirement was greeted with relief among those who felt he had done unnecessary damage to his body and his image.
Maradona does not have the personality of an ex-player who will slide easily into a new career as a sportscaster or as a coach, although both are prospects. On Dec. 7, he broke weeks of silence to announce plans for a farewell world tour with a team of rookies and fellow veteran stars.
So the long goodbye will continue. Its most heartfelt moments will come from the streets, from the people who wanted to believe every time he took the field and who suffered every setback as if it were a family tragedy. People like Hugo Emilio Cossa of the province of Santa Fe, the author of a brief letter to the editor published last month in the sports weekly Ole.
“How do I make my son understand that he was the best, that there will never be another like him?” Cossa wrote. “My son, that guy you see there was the greatest. His left foot was a pentagram of musical notes. When his foot caressed the ball . . . he made it go places where a normal person could not send it with his hands.”
The letter ended with these words: “My son dries his tears because he sees how his father sheds tears for a soccer player whose name was Diego Armando Maradona.”