• Joe Freihofer

Maradona: The Rise And Fall of Soccer's Most Polarizing Player Ever


(Photo Credit: Esquire)


A set of silk curtains sways rhythmically in the soft Napoli breeze, seemingly gesturing the glow of street lights below to illuminate a grand bedroom. There is a waining murmur in the streets below that echoes throughout the infinite rows of identical apartments. A thin film of champagne combined with baby blue confetti riddles the winding crevices and grooves of the cobblestone streets. Deep in the distance, a flickering orange glow of a firework climbs effortlessly into the midnight blue sky. The sound of the thunderous explosion caresses the tops of each apartment before leaping past the silk curtains and filling the bedroom. A silhouette jolts from beneath the covers, gasping for air and uneasy. The shape lunges out from beneath the covers then reappears just above the balcony railing. Pure paranoia and terror grips a set of eyes belonging to a 29-year-old Argentine hailed throughout the world as the next Pelé. He wakes his girlfriend and gathers up all of the kids. They pack into the family van as fast as possible. As the garage door lifts and they attempt to drive off into the cover of nightfall, the vehicle is suddenly intercepted. Riding a motorcycle it is Carmine Giuliano, son of the most powerful Mafia Don in Italy. He simply gestures the Argentine onto the back and leads them deep into the heart of the city where hundreds of fans await with flags, music and cloaked in Napoli blue. The sea of supporters seems to part as Giuliano sheapards the family into an apartment above. Not a single person reaches begging for an autograph or picture. It was a demonstration of power. Maradona clings to his youngest daughter and situates himself on the balcony above. His gaze looses touch with reality as the chants and cheers below lull him into distant thought. Nowhere to run, no one to save him; it is too late. He snaps from his trance and pans over into his daughter's bright brown eyes. Her glance brings him back to life, and visions of his childhood flicker into view and seem to merge with the celebration below...

Villa Piorito, 1960 (Photo Credit: HBO)


Diego Armando Maradona grew up in the slums of Villa Piorito, the poorest part of the capital city of Buenos Aires. The intricate array of structures, erected out of sheet metal and flanked with chickenwire fencing, seemed infinite. Children and dogs scampered about festering mounds of trash, wide eyed as if sifting for gold. There were no paved roads, no sewers and very few had the luxury of running water. Maradona was the fifth and final child after four girls. The family shared the same single shack. Maradona remembers his father waking up at four in the morning, catching a ride into town only to come back dog tired and fall asleep right in front of young Diego.


A ball represented so much more than a toy; it was a way out, his salvation. Maradona played for his first club, Argentinos Juniors FC, at 11 years old. At the age of fifteen he signed his first professional contract and supported his family from that day on. People from the capital would drive in with cameras and document the young prodigy amongst the village squalor. The club rented an apartment for the entire family just 10 minutes from the stadium. From sunlight peering through the formation of cracks and holes in a ceiling, to now a spotlight in it's place illuminating a cascading staircase of the family's new apartment, it was a lot to take in for everyone. Maradona was not just chasing his dream, he was running from his difficult past.


Maradona moving into the apartment (Photo Credit: HBO)


From there, he then traveled to Spain to play for F.C. Barcelona at just 21 years old for a world record fee. It was there in the beauty of the Catalan city where Maradona is first introduced to his darkest demons.


Between a broken ankle with multiple torn ligaments and an on-field display of horror in a fight after a lost match, his stint was not long-winded. After Barça fell 1-0 to Bilbao, Maradona proceeded to elbow, head butt and even knee Bilbao players, managing to knock one out cold after being verbally provoked by one of the players. A brawl then broke out in front of 100,000 spectators, one of which being the King of Spain, and with over half of the country watching on television. Fans began hurling things onto the field and roughly 60 people, from trainers to players, were injured. This would be the last time Maradona would ever suit up in the infamous Barça colors. It was also in Barcelona where he was introduced to cocaine, the very thing that tainted Diego Armando Maradona's legacy forever.


Napoli Stadium Introduction (Photo Credit: Sports Illustrated)


Maradona was purchased for a world-record $11 million fee by S.S.C. Napoli, a club located in the poorest city in all of Europe at the time. For most, it was quite difficult to do the math on how the world's most expensive player could ever be purchased by a club in financial turmoil and without a trophy in over a decade. The city was overrun by a mafia known as the "Camorra", a family living in Napoli with as much if not more power than local government. Several papers suggested the money used to purchase Maradona was all from the Camorra, but the club President furiously fought against this logic and condemned any journalists who dared to chase the story.


He was welcomed to the stadium by over 70,000 fans. The Napoli faithful treated him like a demigod and claimed the entire city had been saved by his arrival. In the football sense, they were not wrong. The Argentine would help them to win the Serie A Title twice for the first time in club history, the Coppa Italia, UEFA Cup and Italian Supercup. Fans painted murals of him on ancient buildings and a local nurse even placed a vial of his blood in a Catholic church in the city. After their first league title, a carnival ran rampant in the city around the clock for a week straight. Napoli used to be laughed at by super clubs like AC Milan and Juventus, but Maradona changed everything, giving their attack a breathtaking burst of creativity and energy. He was highly respected in the locker room and eventually wore the armband when they took to the pitch. Within his first few seasons, the club went from fighting off relegation to never rounding out league play shy of the top three.


Maradona with Giuliano Family (Photo Credit: HBO)


In the midst of the most successful era of Napoli football ever and the revival of Maradona's career, he slowly lost control of who he was. The Camorra instantly snaked themselves around his family and his likeness. They controlled his every move, providing protection and keeping certain members of the press from asking questions. They used him for business openings and unveilings and in return, Maradona would sign a few autographs and take some pictures before leaving with a brand new gold Rolex every time. After dominating league play over the weekend, he would take to the night clubs and supporters, dancers and performers alike would swarm to him. The mafia supplied him with an infinite amount of cocaine and had him on a leash.


He soon began to lose his grasp on the only fragment of reality that kept him sane. The league began to crack down on drug testing and there was only so much the club front office could do to protect the Argentine. Everyone knew about his habits, but he would somehow still make it to training and leave entire stadiums speechless during the worst of his addiction. He would go out three nights in a row, then cleanse his whole body before the next match came around. It was impossible to be present for his family, and even when he was, his mind was not.


Football was his savior, the only thing that could motivate him enough to stay away from cocaine. It was his God-given talent that allowed his family to move into a real home. It was his passion for the beautiful game that brought him fame and fortune all over the world. Now, he was being eaten alive from within by a crazed affinity for partying. The only thing saving him would soon be taken away too...



Maradona facing the press (Photo Credit: The AP, Associated Press)


In an investigation known as "Operation China" launched by the Italian Government, wire tapping uncovered Maradona ordering prostitutes at close to four in the morning from associates of the Camorra mafia. He was running away from the world, drinking and using drugs as a way to numb the chaos around him that he was creating. During the recording of the call, one can hear the son of the associate in the background asking the star striker about the season and whether or not he will stay another season, seconds after Maradona had ordered a pair of prostitutes. Football was everything.


The same year he won Napoli the club's first league title, the best friend of one of Maradona's sisters gave birth to a baby boy and went to the press claiming the Argentine was the father. He denied and ignored all fuss from the press on the matter and managed to bury the headlines over the course of time. But bigger news was on the horizon.


He was fined $70,000 and banned from league play for over a year after traces of cocaine were found in a urine sample. The Camorra pulled away realizing their operation could be in jeopardy and members of the press began hunting him around the clock with the questions they never used to be able to ask. Italian police then declared the striker guilty on charges of drug possession and trafficking as he often offered his cocaine to prostitutes. After a lowly plea bargain, officials gave him a suspended jail sentence.



Maradona arrested in Buenos Aires (Photo Credit: New York Post)


The little Argentine was never the same from the moment he first set foot in Italy. After fleeing the country at the verdict of "Operation China", he was again arrested in an apartment in Buenos Aires with 1.5 grams of cocaine on him. It was then that the world knew the Diego Maradona everyone had once marveled at all over the world would never be the same.


He was sent to a rehabilitation hospital where his daughters would come visit. A tiny pair of hands would grip the cheap white sheets of the bed begging for their "Papi" to come down and play with them. Maradona admitted in an interview years later that the only thing on his mind in that moment would be cocaine. He was truly sick.


It would not be until 2016, after 30 years of denial, that he recognized the truth about his relationship with the mother of his alleged child and embraced his son for the first time ever. His haunting past of addiction still slinks around and surfaces in the media every now and then. During the 2018 world cup, after a late goal from Argentina's Marcos Rojo, a camera cut to Maradona celebrating in his box seat by gesturing two middle-fingers high into the sky and yelling. Moments later, paramedics rushed him to the hospital where he denied ever being treated.



Young Maradona (Photo Credit: Colgados Por El Futbol)


In my opinion, Diego Armando Maradona is easily in the top five for one of the greatest players to ever play the beautiful game. Single-"handily" carrying Argentina to World Cup glory at age 26, having his number 10 retired in Napoli and redefining the art of dribbling. His goals to this day leave fans and players speechless. I will forever remember the great number 10 for who he was as a young boy, taking his family out of the slums and choosing Boca Juniors over River Plate for less money but to play for the club he grew up dreaming to represent. I will forever remember his creative genius, his willingness to take on defenders twice his size and leave them retying their laces. But it was his humble youth and difficult childhood poverty that shaped him into a man forever sifting for his legacy in the wake of luxury and lust.

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