Prima Dona

At his best, Diego Maradona can be as graceful as Magic Johnson. At his worst, he can be as disgraceful as John McEnroe. The question is: which one will show up at the World Cup?

This article originally appeared in the May 14, 1990 issue of SPORTS ILLUSTRATED.


Diego Armando Maradona, who is from the backside of Buenos Aires, is the best soccer player in the world, but he is also among the worst at dealing with the world. He goes from being an ugly, prickly caterpillar to being a graceful, fluttering butterfly each time he steps onto the 110-meter pitch. When he steps off it, he devolves again into a petty little slug of a man, described by various sportswriters around the world as "indiscreet," "flawed," "explosive," "vulgar," "spoiled," "surly," "mercurial," "petulant" and plain "rubbish."

The past year has caused a growing number of soccer analysts to say "Mr. Disagreeable" is no longer so wonderful on the field, the one place where Maradona has always been at ease. He was described last winter as being "a few pounds overweight and a yard too slow" by English soccer writer Steve Tongue of The Sunday Correspondent. Tongue added that in a friendly match between Argentina and Italy in Cagliari, Sardinia, on Dec. 21, "Maradona bore as little resemblance to the dominant footballer of the eighties as his country did to reigning world champions; and although writing off sporting genius has always been a hazardous pastime, there is considerably more evidence than Thursday's tiresome match...that the peak of his career should be located nearer to the middle of the past decade than to any date with nine as its third figure."

Maradona is 29, and he has been beaten up in a sport that has grown increasingly violent in recent years, not only in the stands but also onfield, as teams send out the equivalent of hockey goons to shadow, harass and, if need be, injure star scorers on the opposing sides. Maradona, who is an attacking midfielder for Napoli in the Italian league as well as for Argentina's national team, has been tripped, kicked and flat-out tackled so often that he is lucky to have two functioning legs these days. He has chronic back problems and two screws in his left ankle, the result of a vicious foul by a Spanish defender in 1983. He rarely trains the way he should, and on his 5'5" frame every extra ounce of fat shows. Still, part of the perceived demise of this athlete is the wishful thinking of those who are sick of his capricious personality and boorish off-field demeanor.

Typically, he scoffs at his critics. "Do you want to know the truth? I'm better than in 1986," he boasted recently, referring to the year he led Argentina to the World Cup championship, in Mexico City. "My weight's better, my health's better, not to mention my will to play. If I need to spell it out, I'm aiming to have another great World Cup." 

Yes, Maradona has lost 20 pounds on a recent crash diet. But his regimen, which involves taking cortisone treatments, is considered risky by many doctors, and when his physician found out about it, he quit Maradona's service.

Manny Millan/Sports Illustrated

For some veteran observers, Maradona is a symbol of all that has gone wrong with the sport of soccer. He is aloof and mercenary, whereas most great former players were supposedly kind, grateful and dedicated beyond the limits of monetary reward. Now in the fifth year of a nine-year, $23 million contract with Napoli, Maradona has enough off-field endorsements and business income to earn about $8 million a year, which makes him the highest-paid soccer player in the world. At times he appears to have no allegiance to anything except his paychecks. Instead of playing for Argentina in an important World Cup tune-up match against Scotland in Glasgow on March 28, Maradona flew to Japan to pick up a tidy $2 million for promoting a multinational company based there. Without him, Argentina had no offense and lost 1-0.

When Pelé "handed down his inheritance as the best player on earth," wrote Jeff Powell of the London Daily Mail in a 1989 year-end column, he could never have imagined "the ugly environment or aggravating manner in which Maradona would pick up the mantle." Maradona, some would have us believe, is not just a symptom of an ailment; he is the disease itself. And yet, in Naples, where he recently led his club team to its second Italian league title in four years, he is revered by thousands upon thousands of fans, and his likeness and number—10—are painted on countless walls. When he is at his best—dribbling impossibly between two, three, half a dozen opponents, starting and stopping like a jackrabbit, the ball magically attached to his foot, shin or knee—Maradona pleases all who see him. He has been described by the Italian journal La Gazzetta Sportiva as "bold and defiant as a Caravaggio Bacchus, vibrant as a cobra, tender of movement, elegant, a beautiful mortal."

Because he improves the performance of his teammates, Maradona gets a pass from most of them for his flighty behavior. "Maradona can do 100 good things, but as soon as he does one bad thing, everybody jumps on him," says José Luis Brown, the sweeper for Argentina who played on the 1986 World Cup team. "The truth is that Maradona is a great person. You will never find his teammates speaking bad of him, because we know him as a person as well as a player. We know what he is like inside."

If no one else knows, so be it. Folks who are right out on the edge aren't always easy for the rest of us to fathom. A great, troubled athlete can always claim that he is simply misunderstood by the public. Certainly it is hard to understand how a man who claims he is sick of publicity can appear in the Italian weekly magazine 7 wearing a wreath of fern leaves on his head and a bikini in one shot and relaxing under a beauty salon hair dryer in another, as Maradona recently did.

Maradona's Argentine teammate Jorge Valdano acknowledges that the star has made some PR mistakes. "But who hasn't?" he asks. "And just because he's Maradona, small things become gigantic things and are reported in the world's newspapers."

This undeniably is true. When Maradona said in December that the 1990 World Cup draw was rigged, the news traveled around the globe faster than a space shuttle. Likewise, when he chartered an Aerolineas Argentinas Boeing 747 and flew a few hundred friends from Rome to Buenos Aires for his million-dollar wedding last November in that inflation-wracked country, it made the gossip sheets everywhere. No one will deny that Maradona is whimsical, emotional and naive. Even he will admit as much. "If at times I get angry or I complain, it's because I don't know how to keep my feelings quiet," he says. "And I don't want to learn."

Manny Millan/Sports Illustrated


San Siro stadium in Milan, home of the AC Milan soccer team, slowly fills with keyed-up fans clad in the red and black of their club as the long-awaited meeting between Milan and one of its biggest rivals, Napoli, nears. The cheering and foot-stomping of Milan's most rabid boosters in the second deck of the end zone are a reminder of the passion and, ultimately, the danger that certain spectators bring to soccer matches worldwide.

A small group of Napoli loyalists dressed in their team's colors (light blue and white) fills the far end of the upper deck, separated from the Milan boosters by the length of the field. The Milanese generally look down on Neapolitans as being lazy and corrupt. Neapolitans, for their part, feel their city glows with a passion, sensuality and openness that the relatively stiff, workaholic Milanese cannot hope to comprehend.

"Welcome to Italy from North Africa!" chant the Milan boosters, as Napoli takes the field. "Soap and water! Wash yourselves! Clean the steps before leaving!"

Maradona himself—short, dark, foreign and gifted—is the target for the most vehement jeers. "Swing from the trees and suck the banana!" chant the extremists. "Maradona, son of a bitch!"

The little man runs onto the pitch in his light-blue jersey, white shorts and light-blue socks, and stretches his heavily muscled legs. His sleeves hang clown past his wrists as if his shirt were a little boy's pajama top. Maradona is clearly shorter than anyone else on either team, though height is not that important a factor in soccer. His squatness puts him at a disadvantage for knocking down balls and for heading, but it plants him badgerlike on the turf and gives him a rock-solid base from which to launch his explosive left-footed shots. Any time he crosses the center line, he is close enough to score.

Maradona will do anything to put points on the board, even if it means using a part of his anatomy prohibited by the rules. In the quarterfinals of the '86 World Cup, he scored the first of his two goals in a 2-1 win over England by knocking in the ball with his fist, instead of his head. Picking up on Maradona's own humble description of the play, sportswriters dubbed it the "hand-of-God" goal. In March, after nearly four years of feigning innocence, he finally admitted on Italian television that "it was my hand and not God's" that had scored the goal.


As play begins in Milan, Maradona ignores the insults from the crowd and focuses entirely on the game. Indeed, when he confronts the ball, he seems somehow to expand, to grow out of his chunky, troubled, earthbound frame and become larger. It is the way Mike Tyson used to expand, pre-Buster Douglas, as he coiled to unload a block of cement onto the chin of a terrified foe.

Part of the public's love-hate fascination with Maradona stems from the fact that he is seen as an overstepper, that beneath his athletic, nouveau-riche exterior lies the soul of a simple hick who can be fleeced and chastened by sly folks everywhere. As recently as 1984, when he first signed with Napoli, he was broke. Even though he had already earned almost $3 million playing two years for Barcelona, bad financial advice from hangers-on had done him in. Now he probably has too much money ever to lose it all. But it's also likely that once Maradona finishes playing, he will not be sought after for many commercial endeavors. "He's not like Pelé, who because of his smile and warmth continues to be popular long after his retirement," says Daniel Arcucci, a Buenos Aires sportswriter who has covered Maradona for years.

In 1976 at age 15, Maradona signed his first professional contract, with Argentinos Juniors (a first-division team in Buenos Aires) for about $400 a month, and his rise to fame after that was swift and sure. In 1977, he became the youngest player ever to join the national team, but when he did not make the cut for Argentina's World Cup squad the following year, he was wounded terribly. The World Cup finals were held in Argentina that year, and the home team won the championship before an adoring crowd. Maradona, the naturally gifted kid from the Villa Fiorito slum, had been denied his first real chance to be a big man. "Not playing in the World Cup in Argentina is the greatest frustration of my career," he said years later. The rejection placed a chip firmly on his shoulder, subliminal baggage that has never quite fallen off.

Leaving Argentina for Barcelona in 1982 was no big deal. Maradona is nothing if not the quintessential free agent. Though he loves his country and spends up to $15,000 a month on telephone calls to his mother, Dalma Franco, his father, Diego, and his four siblings still in Argentina (two others live in Europe), he has not lived in his native land full-time for nearly a decade. However, he does own several apartments and a floor of a building in downtown Buenos Aires, in addition to his $1 million villa, $500,000 apartment and two offices in Naples.

Put simply, Maradona follows the cash and whatever impulse strikes him, the way a poor kid would. He has talked of leaving Napoli after his contract runs out in 1993 and returning to Argentina to finish out his career with Boca Juniors, the team he played with before going to Barcelona. It is his mother's dream, he says, for him to play at least one year in Buenos Aires with his brothers Hugo, currently with a second-division team in Spain, and Lalo, who no longer plays competitively.

Diego recently told reporters, "Remember, I don't speak what I don't feel." That may explain his statement in December that the World Cup draw was a sham, prearranged to put Argentina in the most difficult group and Italy in the easiest, with the drawing itself done "just for the fun of the television audience." Joseph Blatter, the general secretary of FIFA, the governing body of world soccer, announced that Maradona's accusation constituted "a very grave offense," and that he could be banned from the World Cup for it. Blatter added that Maradona's comments amounted to "idiocy beyond belief. I do not know what to think. Either he is stupid or he is bad."

Lost in the uproar was the fact that Milan's major newspaper, Corriere della Sera, backed Maradona, saying he had only stated "what many had thought and some had let be understood between the lines." The paper continued, "It has long been known that World Cup draws are skillfully predetermined, but nobody ever protested. Now that Maradona...said it openly, it's too easy to attack him."

It's always too easy to attack him, but as usual, he got the last word in on the matter. "If I must apologize for my remarks, I will apologize," he said. "But I am not going to recant anything."

Basically, Maradona can do whatever he wants, both on and off the field. He routinely skips practice for unannounced reasons. In late December, he missed practice for a few days, claiming his daughter, Dalma Nerea, 3, wasn't feeling well and made it difficult for him to sleep. (Maradona has another daughter, Gianinna Dinorah, who turns one this month.) He joined his Argentina teammates in Cagliari just before the friendly match with Italy, having chartered a plane for $6,000. Last summer, Maradona stayed away from training camp for a month, claiming, among other things, that he was tired, and that there were vague "threats" against him. Maradona said the camorra, a Mafia-style organization in Naples, had threatened him because he had considered signing with the French team Olympique Marseille. Napoli's general manager, Luciano Moggi, said, "Maradona will play for us, or he will not play at all," and the club filed a civil suit for damages against its star. Maradona eventually arrived at camp and was confronted by Napoli team president Corrado Ferlaino.

"You are the greatest soccer player in the world," said Ferlaino. "But precisely because of this you have greater duties than others." The president then insisted that Maradona clean up his act, get in shape, stop skipping training and travel with the team to away matches instead of arriving late by private plane. Maradona also had to pay the team a $24,000 fine. For his part, Maradona asked Ferlaino to give him better protection from the media, which had had a field day linking him to the camorra and drugs, running such headlines as MARADONA MAY ARRIVE, BUT NAPOLI WILL SNUB HIM. Press problems continued after his return to the team, so he avoided contact with reporters whenever possible and reiterated his policy of charging $10,000 for an exclusive interview.

Twenty minutes after the game with Milan ends in a scoreless tie, Maradona sits patiently in front of reporters, who are obviously stunned by his willingness to answer their questions about the game. No one expected him to appear, and for a time there are no questions. Dressed in a conservative beige sports coat, navy blue slacks, blue shirt and a striped tie with the Napoli team crest on it, he looks elegantly subdued and businesslike. Only the gold pinkie ring on his right hand and the diamond earring in his left ear detract from the image.

Suddenly Milan's head coach, Arrigo Sacchi, enters and embraces Maradona. The two chat, and after Sacchi leaves, the reporters grill Maradona. What is the meaning of this? Is he going to join the Milan club?

Maradona explains that he simply likes the man. "We met and started to speak football," he says. "Now, if we stay together two hours, we speak three hours of football." He adds with a charming smile, "Remember, I never speak what I don't feel."

Of course, the rumors fly, and the next week Italy's sports pages are filled with headlines speculating about all sorts of nonsense, MILAN-MARADONA, WHAT IS IT ALL ABOUT? screams Tuttosport, one of the country's national sports dailies. The article elaborates: "After the match at San Siro, we saw an exchange of such warm compliments between Diego and Sacchi that we suspect the Argentine could wear the red-and-black next year. This is not the only evidence of the biggest deal of the century...."

In the interview room a reporter says to Maradona, "Sacchi said that you are worth the price of a ticket, even if you are not at your best." Maradona smiles again and says, "I thank him very much. He knows and loves football."

La Stampa columnist Gian Paolo Ormezzano, a cheerful man who is more bemused than angered by Maradona's immaturity, calls out, "But Diego, remember that today the tickets weren't very expensive!"

No one is certain how Maradona will respond, but he laughs heartily, and everyone in the room joins in. Maradona clearly is in a good mood, and as he leaves he is asked by Ormezzano if he will allow himself to be interviewed by an American journalist, with Ormezzano acting as interpreter. Maradona nods and says, "Si, Naples." And then he is gone.


One wonders if any athlete could buck up to the scrutiny that a soccer god must undergo. Maradona has been skewered in the papers since 1986, when a Neapolitan woman named him as the father of her illegitimate son and sued for child support. The suit is still pending. A couple of years ago, an Italian scandal rag gave cover billing to what it claimed was a nude photo of Maradona's wife, Claudia, his sweetheart for the past 16 years. The picture inside showed a fully clad Claudia with a single breast exposed as she nursed Dalma.

But then there was always Edson Arantes do Nascimento of Brazil, the great Pelé, the soccer god who never seemed to have an off day at the office, no matter how rough the work got. Pelé was the Ernie Banks of soccer, always smiling, kissing children, helping opponents from the turf, convincing the masses that no matter how much he was getting paid, he was playing this game for the sheer joy of it. Maradona is still the suspicious, uncertain kid from the slums, whose dad was a night watchman. Like Roger Maris, of whom Tommy Devine of the Miami News once wrote, "If it weren't for sportswriters, Roger Maris would probably be an $18-a-week clerk in the A & P back in Missouri," Maradona is sometimes despised just because such awesome physical gifts have appeared in such a stubborn and unrepentant human being.

But on the ragged playing fields in the slums 13 miles south of Buenos Aires none of that matters. On a recent day in Maradona's old Villa Fiorito neighborhood, little boys, shirtless and barefooted, play soccer on one of the two dusty fields that haven't yet been taken over by rickety tin shacks and a garbage dump. The tiniest of the group, 6-year-old Gaston Gomez, complains bitterly that he has been forced to play goalkeeper, to guard an area the boys have defined with two broken bricks. "I bet Maradona never had to play goalie," he says sadly. "I want to be Maradona."

"They all want to be the next Maradona," says Armando Bermudez, 73, watching the game from the square hole that serves as the only window in his makeshift abode. 'Ask them what they want to be, and they don't even say 'a soccer player,' they just say 'Maradona.'"

Simon Bruty/Sports Illustrated

There is little chance of that happening; Maradona is a phenomenon, something that occurs only rarely, which is why people are so fascinated by his actions both on and off the field. His wedding last November in Buenos Aires was a suitably gauche and entertaining moment for all concerned, with 1,200 guests, an 80-piece tango orchestra and the bridal couple riding in a Rolls-Royce Phantom III said to have been owned by Joseph Goebbels. There was the sense that Maradona was thumbing his nose at the Argentine upper crust at the same time that he was proving he now belonged to it.

"You have to remember, he came from a very poor family, and suddenly, when he was 16, still basically a child, he was thrown into the public eye and faced with a lot of pressure," says his friend Valdano. "It's very difficult to be Maradona. I would not want to be Maradona."

Two days after the Milan match, Maradona is missing from practice. Where is he? No one knows. Moggi, the weary general manager, responds to the reporters' questions with shrugs of futility. "I walk on eggs around here," he says.

Writer Giuseppe Pacileo of Naples' Il Mattino gazes serenely out at the field. A gray-haired, potbellied man with pipe, glasses and a strong resemblance to Santa Claus, Pacileo angered Maradona recently by grading his performance in a game as a 3.5 on a scale of 10. Maradona approached the writer later and, holding up the newspaper, said, "I'll give you this to eat!"

"Then we were separated," recalls Pacileo. "It would have been bad for him, too. I have these." He raises his fists menacingly. Pacileo is one of those critics who sincerely believes Maradona has hurried his own demise through intemperate living and carelessness, and that the loss is all of ours. "He goes to rock concerts, he drinks, he has women, he is not living like an athlete," says Pacileo. Like most Italian sportswriters, Pacileo is impressed by Maradona's weight loss and rededication to training. But, he says, "Maradona cannot compensate in three months for 10 years of irregular life. He is still clever with his foot, but in modern soccer one must be in amazing shape. Never more will we see the Maradona of 1986."

The next day Maradona returns to practice, claiming he has been out treating a leg injury—with his own private doctor, of course. In the practice he seems to come alive, rejoicing in the splendor of a dance he performs so well. His teammates respond to his passes; he yells and urges them onward in a half-field scrimmage. There is no doubt that he loves the game, that the purity and simplicity of the contest thrills him.

He stays after practice, working on kicks with 24-year-old teammate Gianfranco Zola. Maradona places a ball slightly behind the end line, eight yards from the goal. Then with a magnificent left-footed blast, he arcs the ball around the post and up into the far corner of the net. It is a shot that does not seem humanly possible. Zola, who is sometimes called "the little Diego," looks reverent. He tries the kick and cracks the ball directly into the post. He tries again. Boom, same thing. "Don't worry," says Maradona as the two leave the field. "When I was young I couldn't make the shot, either."

Eleven years ago Maradona said, "I dream of a soccer field where only children are allowed to go, where even the program sellers are children." But how quickly the adults intrude.

Ormezzano asks him politely if he is now ready to speak with the American journalist, and Maradona shakes his head vigorously. No. There is no time for interviews; he doesn't want to talk, all this must be set up far in advance with his secretary. He knows, of course, that Ormezzano has gone through his secretary before, that the secretary has suggested paying a big fee, that all this is just rudeness and bluster, Maradona being just...a child. The player walks up the hill behind the field, and one of the sportswriters gathered below mentions to the others that she has been waiting to talk to Maradona for two months. "He could be an ambassador, but he is not," says Marco Cherubini of Milan's Il Giornale, summing up many people's thoughts. "Freud would be lucky to know him."

Against Cremonese on Sunday, Maradona scores two goals in an easy 3-0 victory. The defenders are no match for Napoli's attack or for Maradona's darting moves, which resemble Barry Sanders carrying the ball against a junior college secondary. Some of the fanatic Napoli boosters in the end zone, the "Southboys," with their smoke bombs and Confederate flags from the American Civil War, sing their traditional chant, "Maradona is better than Pelé./We practically killed ourselves to get him." But they seem to want something more.

They would like, no doubt, a display such as the one Maradona put on at halftime of a pro game in Buenos Aires nearly 20 years ago. Just 10 years old then, he walked onto the field and proceeded to juggle his soccer ball for the entire intermission—keeping it in the air by bouncing it off his feet, knees, chest, ankles, head and shoulders as if it were a balloon and his body a spring breeze. When the two teams returned to the field to resume play, the crowd began chanting to the wonder boy, "Stay! Stay!"

In the World Cup finals, which begin June 8, Argentina will play two of its three first-round games in Naples, and it will be interesting to see if the local fans back Maradona with the same passion they do when he plays for Napoli. If Maradona is revered for his skills, he is not loved for his persona. To soccer fans he is John McEnroe, not Magic Johnson. And this seeps under his skin. "It drives me crazy when they say, 'As a player, yes, but as a person, no,'" he told a journalist for an Argentine sports magazine last summer. "These people don't even know me as a person." Though he was speaking principally of sportswriters, he also meant his critics everywhere.

But how is anyone supposed to know Maradona as a person? He is removed by talent and choice from all but a select few, which is the way he wants it. Everything is the way he wants it. We are blessed, we must assume, simply to catch glimpses of him as he streaks by. "His is a calloused world," writes Rob Hughes in the International Herald Tribune, "and it is miraculous that he sometimes still is child enough to chase fantasy goals for us."

Certainly, this is true. And wouldn't it be nice if he chased just one more dream for us this summer in Italy, before autumn arrives.