‘Maradona Is Better Than Pele’, An Argentinian Tale – By Pablo Toledo

*This blog is run by Rush Soccer Coaches, for Rush Soccer Coaches. The blog expresses the opinion of the individual author and not Rush Soccer, The Rush Way or the Rush Coaching Education Department. 

Pablo Toledo is Rush Soccer’s Executive Assistant and leads on developing some technical projects like Globall Coach and the Rush Soccer Blog. Apart from coaching licenses, he holds an Ms. in Sports Training with two post graduate certificates: one in Soccer Conditioning, and another in Sports Nutrition.

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Not everything that we write or share has to be educational, so here it goes, this is my non-educational post. Or maybe it is, if we consider the historical aspects of the story.

One way or another, this post is about what really drives the sport, that are the dreams of children, the pride of countries, the miracles on the field, and mostly one of our core values: an immeasurable passion.

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“Brazilian, Brazilian, you look bitter today, because Maradona is better, better than Pele” – you hear thousands of Argentinians chanting, jumping and waving their arms, mocking their country neighbors for they think Diego Maradona was better than “O’Rei” (The King) Pele, but truth is that in the albicelestes hearts Diego was the greatest of all, not only on top of Pele, but also of the other Argentinian legends like Leo Messi, or Alfredo Di Stefano. All four of these players could be argued to be the GOAT, so why Diego Maradona in particular?

Understanding this is, at the end, understanding Argentina.

Please look at this video of the famous “goal of the century” Diego scored in 1986 against England, during the World Cup Quarterfinals in Mexico, which Argentina won. Victor Hugo Morales’ narration has become an icon of the country’s football history.

Maradona has the ball, he has two behind him. Maradona controls the ball, starts from the right and moves forward, the world’s football genius …

Argentina is a country with a vast history of diverse European immigration. During the late 19th century, the country emphasized liberal economic policies and promoted such immigration, which in combination with the natural resources and decrease in mortality led the country to be the seventh largest economy in the world by the early 20th century, with its population growing five times its size and the economy growing 15 times during this period. By this time. Argentina’s income per capita was 70 percent higher than Italy’s and 90 percent higher than Spain’s. Exports of wheat, frozen beef and the development of the railway (assigned to British companies) created a thriving economy, and the hopes of a prosperous future were spread throughout the society.

The old world, on the contrary, was going through social and political struggles that led to the darkest years of world wars. Therefore, for the hard-working middle-class Europeans, Argentina arose like a promised welcoming land, far from the wars and the conflicts, what led to continuous waves of immigration.

One of these immigrants was Sir Alexander Watson Hutton, a Scottish teacher and sportsman, who brought the game of football to Argentina, founded the most successful Argentinian Soccer Club “Alumni” until its dissolution in 1911 and helped found the precedent institution to the actual Argentinian Football Association (AFA).

The country in the following decades did not manage its glowing economy the right way and never took off as the promised land it was believed to be. Buenos Aires rapidly became a land of nostalgic middle-class European immigrants and descendants, expressing their feelings through the heartful / nostalgic / melancholic tango, believers of the country’s potential and fans of football. The idea of La Nuestra (our way), as the high potential, technical and stylish way of playing soccer, grew strong within the society, and the image of the pibe de oro (the golden boy) started being associated with an industrial, dirty faced, street-smart, middle-low class boy, who’s talent and skills overcame physicality. The pibe de oro was the ambassador of the culture and the heritage of overcoming any difficult origins, like those families that emigrated from their beloved home countries seeking a better future.

And then, in October 30, 1960, in the marginal neighborhood of Villa Fiorito, Buenos Aires, under the name of Diego Armando Maradona, the golden boy was born. The diamond in the mud.

… He dribbles the third rival and is going to pass it to Burruchaga. He doesn’t. Always Maradona!

Legends and urban myths in Argentina tell that Diego was so gifted that he used to walk from his house to school, even going up ladders and crossing streets, juggling with the ball, and that it wouldn’t touch the ground, ever.

By the age of 9, a neighborhood friend took Diego for tryouts at Argentinos Juniors. Francisco Cornejo, Diego’s first coach ever, said that when he first saw him he didn’t think there was anything special about him, but that as soon as he touched his first ball he realized he was in presence of a football genius.

Diego was the best at the tryouts and altogether with a group of kids integrated the 60’s category of Argentinos Juniors, which competed in several tournaments around the country with amazing success under the name Cebollitas (the little onions) to become famous within the club. When they lost the final of a nationwide tournament on penalty kicks, Diego broke in tears, only to have one his rivals come to comfort him and tell him: “Why do you cry? You’re going to be the best player in the world.”

In 1971, when Maradona was 10 years old, he would attend the first-team matches as a ball-boy. During half time he was asked to juggle to entertain the supporters. He was so good and impressed everybody so much that the people started chanting “let the kid stay” as a mockery to the first team’s performance.

Not very long after, Diego was on TV as the country became curious about this boy that everybody believed to be the incarnation of the pibe de oro. Diego showed juggling skills in the video and then, when interviewed about his dreams, he responded: “My first dream is to play in the World Cup; the second is to win it.” It was the prophecy coming to reality.

GENIUS! GENIUS! GENIUS! ta-ta-ta-ta! GOOOOAAAALL!!! GOOOOAAAALLLL!!

Maradona’s debut as a professional player was on October 20, 1976, 10 days before his 16th birthday (I repeat, he was 15 years old). The first ball he touched, he nutmegged his marker.

From that day, he played 167 games in five years with Argentinos Juniors, scoring 115 goals. He finished top scorer of the first division league five times.

By the age of 18 he was capped for Argentina’s National Team and, despite being the most promising player in the world at the time, coach Cesar Luis Menotti left him out of the group that won the World Cup in 1978 to protect him from the permanent pressure he was already being held upon. Diego never forgave Menotti for this, but over the years came to understand the coach’s decision.

In 1979, Menotti did call him for Argentina’s squad to play the 1979 Youth World Cup, in which Argentina won every single game, Diego being the star and awarded with the Golden Ball for best player of the tournament.

In 1980, a day before Argentinos Juniors played against Boca Juniors, Boca’s legendary goalkeeper Hugo Gatti declared on TV that “Maradona is a fatty, he’s not as good as they say, the newspapers exaggerate about him.”

Diego, that was 20 years old already and his hard temper was becoming more notorious, replied: “He used to be a great goalkeeper, now he’s getting old; I think he’s jealous.” Then he went to his manager Jorge Cyterszpiller and told him “I’m not going to score two goals tomorrow; I’ll score four.” The following day Argentinos Juniors beat Boca 5-3, and Maradona scored four goals, just like he said. The legend was emerging.

In 1981, River Plate wanted to buy Maradona for a sum of money Argentinos Juniors, a relatively small club, couldn’t reject. But Diego was a Boca Juniors fan, so when a reporter asked him about River’s interest in him he replied: “I’m not going to River Plate, I’m going to Boca. In fact, I have everything arranged with them.” This was a complete lie. He had nothing but wanted to declare publicly that he wanted Boca Juniors to make him an offer.

Boca Juniors was struggling economically in those days, but they called Diego and reached an agreement. He made his dream come true, playing for Boca Juniors, and he won the league with them, becoming one of Boca Junior’s all-time idols. But from there the pressure from the European clubs became too much for Argentinian club’s to retain him and Boca had to sell him to Barcelona for a record of $7.6 million.

But as the Argentinian history and collective belief in amazing talents, promised lands and heroes that bleed mark, Diego failed to be the prophetic savior during the World Cup in 1982, with his side eliminated to eternal rival Brazil and Maradona being sent off for losing his temper and kicking a rival in the stomach.

I WANT TO CRY! HOLY GOD! LONG LIVE FOOTBALL GOLAAAAZOO!! DIEGOALLL!! MARADONA!! I’M SORRY I’M GOING TO CRY …

Maradona’s stage in Barcelona was not his highest peak, despite winning the Copa del Rey in 1983 and beating Real Madrid with an astonishing goal in which he dribbled the goalkeeper and then stopped to dribble defender Juan Jose, who was desperately trying to stop his finishing by a sliding tackle, to then easily kick the ball to the net. In that game, the Real Madrid fans at the Santiago Bernabeu stadium stood up and clapped for Maradona, the first time in history that a Barcelona player was praised by Real Madid supporters.

Shortly after the hero bled again, sick to hepatitis and injured with a broken ankle by a criminal tackle from Athletic Bilbao’s Andoni Goikoetchea. A man of miracles, Diego returned to the field way faster than expected, but things didn’t go much better. By the final of the 1984 Copa del Rey, Barcelona lost to Athletic Bilbao and, after receiving another hard tackle from Goikoetchea that wounded his leg, Maradona stood up and a mass brawl took place. That game triggered an increasing friction between Diego and Barcleona’s president Josep Lluis Nunez (legend says that once he denied Diego from going on tour with the Argentinean squad, so Maradona started breaking the club’s trophies in the office to force him to let him go).

His misconduct was clear, but Argentina felt they had in Diego someone willing to do anything for the country.

By the end of 1984, he forced his way out of Barcelona. Having multiple offers from the top clubs in the world, he chose instead to go to Napoli, an Italian club with a strong identity fighting for survival in Serie A, that at the time was the best league in the world. That was Diego the player, someone who would stand up for the weak and make miracles happen, and that’s what he did.

MARADONA, IN A MEMORABLE RUN, IN THE BEST PLAY EVER!

When Maradona was presented at the San Paolo Stadium in Napoli, 75,000 supporters came to welcome him. Serie A was dominated by the rich powerful clubs of the north (AC Milan, Juventus, Inter, Roma), and Napoli had never won a championship. Shortly after, an already adored idol of the club, Maradona declared that the north of Italy discriminated the south, which turned him into a symbol of the civil conflicts the country had.

In Napoli, Diego reached his highest peak, made the impossible possible once again on an off the field. In five years he led the team to two leagues, finished runners-up twice, won the Coppa Italia, the UEFA Cup and an Italian Supercup. By the time he left, he was the all-time leading goal scorer at the club with 115 goals. Years later, the club decided to retire the No. 10 jersey in his honor.

To the date, Diego is the maximum idol of Napoli, his face painted in the city walls, his picture standing right next to San Gennaro’s saint, the catholic protector of the town.

The legend of Maradona kept growing. With him, the weak could overcome any obstacles. With him, the weak could beat the strong and powerful. But the soccer god was also facing his own demons: cocaine.

COSMIC KITE, WHAT PLANET DID YOU COME FROM?! TO LEAVE SO MANY ENGLISH ON THE WAY, SO THE COUNTRY CAN BE A CLENCHED FIST SCREAMING FOR ARGENTINA! ARGENTINA 2, ENGLAND 0.

If Diego could make the impossible possible, it was clear during the 1986 World Cup in Mexico.

Four years before the tournament, Argentina and England went to war over the Falklands Islands (for Argentinians, the name is Malvinas Islands), an archipelago located in the country’s continental platform, which has been dominated by the British empire since the early 19th century. An impossible war Argentina could have never won resulted in 649 Argentinian’s deaths, mostly young men between the ages of 18 and 30. The conflict encouraged a sense of resentment against the English.

When Argentina went to the tournament in 1986, the squad was under huge criticism from the media. Carlos Bilardo had replaced Cesar Luis Menotti as the national team’s coach and was highly questioned for his defensive approach after the successful stage the country went through with a stylish offensive play his predecessor defended as Argentina’s historical type of soccer.

Argentina reached the quarterfinals and played England in the most memorable game in World Cup history as Maradona scored the two most famous goals of the tournament.

The first goal was the “Hand of God,” a mischief play in which he used his left hand to anticipate Peter Shilton’s clearance. Diego declared after the match that “the goal was scored a bit with the head of Maradona and a bit with the hand of god.” The fact that he didn’t admit cheating deeply offended the English, but for many Argentinians it was a form of revenge and a feature of the golden boy street-smart capacity. Diego never avoided relating football to politics and later on he declared that he felt “like he took a wallet from the English’s pocket.”

The second goal, the “goal of the century,” was the alternative representation of the Argentinian prophecy: the extreme talent that overcomes any type of physicality or obstacle.

Diego won that day, and the following days as well, and lifted the trophy for his country. The ‘pibe de oro’, the diamond in the mud, the kid that entertained the audiences during halftime, had become the ultimate soccer god he was destined to be.

DIEGO ARMANDO MARADONA! THANK YOU, GOD! FOR FOOTBALL, FOR MARADONA, FOR THESE TEARS, FOR THIS ARGENTINA 2 – ENGLAND 0.

The Maradona who played the World Cup in 1990 was not the same. His personal problems and his increasing age were slowing him down, but Argentina had hope because everything was possible with him. Diego didn’t shine as he did in 1986, particularly affected by a second-degree ankle sprain that any normal person would not even be able to walk with, but Maradona’s heart was too strong: he was hero and his magic still had enough sparks.

The most memorable moment came during the Round of 16 when Argentina faced Brazil, a clearly better team. Brazil dominated the whole match and it was almost a miracle that the score was still 0-0 when Diego’s genius showed up. He took the ball in midfield and dribbled past the Brazilians, dragging them all to assist Claudio Paul Caniggia, who was cutting in from the other side of the field. Diego fell on his knees and prayed for “Cani,” who dribbled Taffarel to the outside and finished with his left foot.

Argentina won 1-0 that day. They went to Napoli after defeating Yugoslavia in quarterfinals and played the host nation, Italy, eliminating the Azzurri on penalty kicks. The city was divided that day, between the Italian supporters and those who had higher esteem for their soccer hero rather than the country that discriminated them.

Diego had done it again, another miracle and Argentina was in the final against Germany. The Italians in the stadium jeered the Argentinian national anthem, so Maradona looked at the camera and insulted them repeatedly. Another misconduct, but a patriotic act for the Argentinians.

That day there was no miracle, and Germany beat Argentina 1-0 with a pretty controversial penalty kick called by referee Edgardo Codesal. Maradona never forgave the referee for what he considered a mistake and blamed it on pressure from Joao Havelange, the Brazilian FIFA president, who did not have much sympathy for the Argentinian squad nor Maradona.

Diego’s tears that day are remembered as one of the saddest moments of Argentina’s soccer history. The hero, the half-god half-human player, was bleeding again, and it wouldn’t be the last time.

After that World Cup and the stage in Napoli, Diego was never the same. There were other sparks and miracles, like his return in 1994 to help the national team reach the World Cup in the USA, but his personal problems, misconducts and drug abuse faded the genius away until he finally retired in 1997, playing for his beloved Boca Juniors in a 2-1 win over rival River Plate. He was substituted by Juan Roman Riquelme that day, who over the years became Boca Junior’s maximum idol.

In 2001, at Boca’s iconic stadium La Bombonera, Diego had an honorific retirement match. He was over weighted and seemed to struggle to move normally. World stars like Eric Cantona, Carlos Valderrama, Rene Higuita, Hristo Stoichkov and Davor Suker attended to honor the eternal soccer hero. After the match, he took a microphone and tearing himself talked to a crying full stadium that kept cheering his name. He said: “Soccer is the most beautiful and healthy sport in the world. That you shouldn’t ever doubt. Football shouldn’t pay for one’s mistakes. I made mistakes and I payed for them, but the soccer ball … the ball does not stain.”

Maradona will always be Argentinians’ greatest, because Maradona is Argentina, and Argentina is Maradona. Diego represents the collective belief of the country: the promised land, the diamond in the mud, the hopes of a better future, the genius that overcomes humble beginnings, the impossible comebacks, the hero who bleeds. What the country didn’t know how to sustain remains in soccer and lives through Diego.

Thank you, Diego. You will always be my football hero.