Monday, March 17, 2008


Bad Guy. Icon. Hero to the Downtrodden. Bum. There’s always been a little of Tony “Scarface” Montana in Maradona. Beloved by millions… loathed, mocked, and just plain hated by everyone else the world over… Diego Maradona is a football superstar no one can be passive about. Sure, it’s easy to laugh at his eccentric on and off the field buffoonery, drug and alcohol excesses—but it’s impossible to deny the man’s talent or the importance of his legacy. It’s been a little over ten years since the rotund and fierce juggernaut of the pitch retired amidst scandal due to his drug addiction and the notorious 1994 World Cup incident in which Maradona was accused of taking the drug ephedrine and was subsequently booted from the tournament after playing only two matches, and so it is perhaps a bit convenient to forget the marvels the young boy from the slums of Buenos Aires graced the world with.

For anyone who still has their doubts, Maradona: The Autobiography of Soccer’s Greatest and Most Controversial Star should help jar the memory. It’s all here: the rags to riches story of the precocious young Maradona’s rise to stardom in Argentina playing for a number of clubs, including his beloved Boca Juniors, the inevitable big money tease and lure from the fat cat European clubs, his short and less than glorious time with FC Barcelona in the early 1980s (where he also picked up his cocaine habit), his stellar and controversial time playing for Napoli in the Serie A, where he took the club to heights undreamt of before his arrival (two domestic league championships, a Coppa Italia championship, a UEFA Cup championship, and a Supercup championship), and Maradona’s World Cup appearances. This, of course, is what most fans will want to read about and Maradona doesn’t skimp on the details or excitement of the tournaments. The 1986 World Cup quarter final against England is classic stuff and has been written about ad nauseum. But here, as told by Maradona to his two ghostwriters, El Diego’s idiosyncratic syntax snaps us to attention in all its coarseness and exuberance. The audaciousness of the “Hand of God” goal and the pure brilliance of the second, more entrancing goal are appropriately lavished upon, as is the complete burnout of the 1994 World Cup games held in the United States.

All of that is worth picking up the book in and of itself, but I found the rise and fall of Maradona’s time playing for Napoli to be the most interesting. The team, which had always performed respectfully though permanently in the shadows of the bigger, more lucrative Serie A teams, snatched Maradona up from Barcelona for a then unheard of 6.9 million pounds and transformed the squad into a spectacular new era. For bringing glory, revenue, and championships to the team and the city, Maradona was heralded as a living god of the pitch. Of course, the downfall came like a bullet—rumors of friendship with the local Camorra (the Neapolitan mafia), cocaine abuse and fathering an illegitimate son. Regardless, El Diego’s appetite for self-destruction knew no bounds….

For some… including myself as a child… Pele was the perfect embodiment of football—he had the grace, charisma, good humor, and the style to fuel a million adolescent daydreams. But Maradona appeals to the adult in ways Pele unfortunately never can. Maradona certainly proved on the pitch—the only thing that matters in the end—why he was Pele’s equal and nemesis. Certainly, his life off of the pitch fascinates as well. For all his prowess as a football superstar… he seems so desperate to impress, oblivious to his frailties yet such a willing victim to his own inflated ego. He seems so utterly human and sadly recognizable. His fleet-footed gifts were so spectacular and he had a prodigious personality to match. But underneath the showbiz gregariousness resides something so painfully weak and essentially identifiable to us lowly mortals. Locked in the perpetual cycle of ascension, ruin, and suffering that seems to be his lot, one day it will all cease. And then… everyone will speak of him as if he were the brightest star that ever burned.

Maradona: The Autobiography of Soccer’s Greatest and Most Controversial Star is available from Skyhorse Publishing for the first time in English and should be obtainable from the usual suspects.

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