By Gregory Bryce
“You were the first thing that came to my mind when I signed for Napoli. Wearing the blue shirt will mean even more from now on. Napoli lost a part of its soul today. You were, and will always be, an inspiration to all of us. If my name has ever been placed next to yours, I apologize. I will never be at your level. What you did for ‘our’ city will go down in history forever. It was an honour to have met you, my idol,” were the heartfelt words from Napoli player, Dries Mertens in reaction to the news that football icon Diego Maradona had died.
Like Mertens, the entirety of the football world was sent into mourning after it was announced that Maradona had passed away. For many, Maradona was one of the sport’s greatest entertainers, an inspiration to many and a man who lived larger than life. Despite his controversies, including drug addiction, substance abuse and rumored mafia ties, Maradona left a legacy of success, fame and determination.
“Football is the most beautiful sport in the world. I have made my mistakes and I have paid for them. But despite it all, the ball is never stained,” Maradona said.
Maradona was born in Lanus, Buenos Aires in Argentina on October 20, 1960. During his youth, he showed major football promise, earning him the nickname ‘El Pibe de Oro’ (The Golden Kid).
Maradona left South America in 1982 when he was transferred to Barcelona for $7.6 million, setting the world record for the highest transfer fee at that point.
Despite his talent, he found it hard to settle at the club. Leaving his home country, Maradona was unprepared for the classist, racist and xenophobic nature of the rival fans, and his time at Barcelona was overshadowed by illness, injuries and tempers.
In one of his last games for Barcelona, Maradona was involved in a massive fight that left 60 injured and practically ended his time at the club. During a match against Athletic Bilbao, Maradona was taunted with racist chants from the crowd, and was often bullied, kicked and stomped on by the Bilbao players. After being racially abused by a Bilbao player, Maradona lost his temper.
He head-butted the Bilbao player and elbowed another before driving his knee into the face of the goalkeeper – knocking him out instantly. Maradona went on a rampage, kicking and punching anyone in a Bilbao shirt.
After the fight, a Barcelona team executive was quoted for saying, “When I saw those scenes of Maradona fighting and the chaos that followed I realized we couldn’t go any further with him.”
Maradona was sold to Napoli the next season for $10.5 million – becoming the first player to set the record for the highest transfer fee twice.
The move was one that raised a lot of brows, as Napoli was regarded as one of the poorer and less successful teams in Italy. In fact, before Maradona’s arrival, the team had never won a single league title.
His arrival to Napoli saw him heralded as a savior for the club.
Sports writer, David Goldblatt wrote, “They were convinced that the savior had arrived. Despite the lack of a mayor, houses, schools, buses, employment and sanitation, none of this matters because we have Maradona.”
It was at this time in Naples that Maradona found his home away from home. While the world mourned the death of the football icon, Naples mourned the death of a deity.
“For us, Maradona is the one who made Naples and Neapolitans dream — with his genius, his uniqueness, he gave us happiness. Many have named their sons Diego, for he was able to redeem a city that was often the target of prejudices and discrimination,” said Luigi De Magistris, the mayor of Naples.
In his honour, Napoli has decided to rename their stadium to the Diego Armando Maradona Stadium and on the night of his death, they left the stadium lights on to commemorate his time at the club and the fans marched the streets with red flares and memorabilia.
In his home country, Argentine president Alberto Fernandez announced three days of national mourning in the wake of Maradona’s death.
It was Maradona’s skillful flair – and cunning tricks – that won Argentina the World Cup title in 1986.
Former Argentine teammate, Jorge Valdano said, “At the time that Maradona retired left Argentina traumatized. Maradona was more than just a great football player. Maradona offered to Argentines a way out of their collective frustration, and that’s why people loved him. He was a divine figure.”
Gregory Bryce is a freelance sports journalist.
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