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Diego Maradona, 1960-2020

Diego Maradona and Alessandro Fenica celebrate after a goal for Napoli against AC Milan, May 1988. Photo: David Cannon / Getty Images

“The year was 1985. I was playing for Sampdoria, with [notable British players] Trevor Francis and Graeme Souness on the team, but the reason I chose to move to Napoli was Diego Maradona. I had transfer offers from other teams, some of the big clubs up north, even a few abroad, but I had seen the images of a full San Paolo stadium when Maradona arrived in 1984, with 80,000 people going just to watch him juggle the ball. The club didn’t have a reputation for success, but I knew I had to follow my instincts.

“At that time Naples was looked down on by the north of Italy. The city had experienced a cholera outbreak in 1973. Fans would chant about that and also about Mount Vesuvius erupting and destroying the city. I grew up in Verona, in northern Italy. Perhaps no other city’s people were nastier about Naples at that time, and I wanted to challenge that terrible stereotype by moving there. So when I got a call from Corrado Ferlaino, Napoli’s then-president, I knew I had to go and play with Maradona.

“For someone who loves football, having the privilege to train with the best player of all time was special. It made you turn up to work excited. I would watch him with the ball at times and ask him, ‘How is this possible?’ I would think about the things he did in training back at home afterwards. It was incredible, something divine.

“I only went on a night out with Maradona once or twice. The truth is, he would go out at night because it was the only chance he got to breathe a bit. I would go home and rest, otherwise I could never have played for Napoli. I couldn’t even have a glass of white wine if I wanted to play well in Serie A [the top league in Italy]. Maradona was born a footballer. I became one. That’s the difference. He could do whatever he wanted and still be the greatest there ever was.

He would sign so many autographs he would have to bandage his wrist because it would become inflamed”

“We would often line up next to each other for free kicks, but he always chose who took the kick. I would usually shoot from a distance and him from up close. The most amazing thing I ever saw him do was the 70th-minute goal in a 1-0 win against Juventus on 3rd November 1985. It was a free kick in the area, the wall was about three metres away, and he made the ball do an impossible parabola. I’ll never be able to explain how he did that. The wall was so close, it was an impossible strike. You won’t ever see another goal like that.

“Diego was a player who would run onto the pitch after having received painkilling injections, just to avoid missing a game. He had problems with his back, with his ankle [because of repeated bad fouling by the opposition]. He sacrificed his body for the team, so he would look down on any player not wanting to play in every match. He didn’t understand it, although he never yelled at us. In fact he always complimented us, even too much at times. He never let the fact that he was the most important player in the world weigh on you. He wouldn’t just bring together the team, but everyone, from the masseur to the kit man to the cook.

“I never saw Maradona angry. I can’t think of a single time where he lost his head and screamed at someone. You want to know how nice he was? Before the famous Juventus-Napoli match on 9th November 1986, which we won 3-1, the year of Napoli’s first Scudetto [Serie A title], he had a black eye, the white part turned red with blood. It was my fault. On Friday training I went to kick the ball and kicked him right in the eye. I thought I had detached his retina. Normally when something like that happens, at the very least they try and punch you. The moment he saw me worried, he said: ‘Ale, don’t worry. You didn’t do anything to me.’

“That was Diego. His first thought was to take away my guilt by assuring me he was fine, even before he knew he would be fine. It wasn’t just the divine way he played football, but the kindness he had towards us and even the opposition who often tried to hurt him. I would lovingly call him ‘Dieguito’ [‘Little Diego’].

“I once went to a hospital with Maradona and Fernando De Napoli, another teammate, to visit children with terminal cancer. He would do this whenever he could and would always bring a few of us along. There was one kid in a terrible condition, who wanted a signed shirt and photo with Diego. Three days later the kid died. Diego was able to give him a final smile.

Diego Maradona signs autographs for Napoli fans in October 1986. Photo: Etsuo Hara/Getty Images

“That’s what made me realise how important Diego really was for Naples. Neapolitans would do anything just to see him. He was not just a god of football. He was a god for the people. Diego was incredibly intelligent, but it’s too bad that he didn’t use that intelligence for himself. He always gave too much of himself to others. Maradona would sign so many autographs that he had to bandage his wrist because it would get inflamed. You know how many times I saw this happen? You can’t imagine how many people would come to see him. Not tens, not hundreds, but thousands. There was always a procession in front of him. And it wasn’t like today where a player is celebrated for signing three shirts. He would be there as long as they would let him, then walk in and get treatment on his wrist.

“My ex-teammates and I still struggle to talk about him, because we were so close. He was someone who you couldn’t help but love. At our first training session after the 1986 World Cup, we all felt a bit embarrassed. Seeing someone who had taken a fairly mediocre Argentina national team to World Cup victory coming into pre-season after two years of not winning anything with us, we thought: ‘What the hell is this guy going to say to us?’ Instead he turned up and he was so kind, humble as always.

“Unfortunately Diego Maradona was surrounded by people who wanted to make money off him. People who didn’t have his best interests at heart. He gave all of himself to everyone. His death needs to be a lesson for young people. Even the greatest champion, unbeatable on the pitch, who could overcome the big clubs of the north, who had the generosity to go and play in the south with all its difficulties, was invincible, could lose their life to cocaine [In 1991, his last year at Napoli, Maradona tested positive for cocaine and was banned from all competitions for 15 months and later described himself as a drug addict.] We all have our vices, but it’s a sad and ugly story. He was the best in everything, but the drugs always win. It devastated me to see him fall apart like that.

“In 1996, five years after we’d left Naples, I had twins who were born prematurely. The first died at birth and the second was fighting for her life. In those difficult days, Maradona was the first to call me. He assured me that he would pray for her and that she would survive. It was reassuring to know that someone so divine was putting in a good word. She made it.

“That’s just how he was with everyone, even after his playing career. We all have stories of him calling us at a time of need, years after we had all retired. This was Maradona. Today football is so scientific, the players are robots. There isn’t much fantasy left. Dieguito created one-of-a-kind moments thanks to his god-given gift. You won’t find that kind of gift again.”

We hope you enjoyed this sample feature from issue #41 of Delayed Gratification

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