Earlier this week, Diego Maradona arrived in Buenos Aires to meet his son for the first time.
Diego Fernando had been born in February to Veronica Ojeda—Maradona’s ex-girlfriend—and on Tuesday the former Argentina international flew into the capitol from his home in Dubai, accompanied by current girlfriend Rocio Oliva, a 22-year-old River Plate ladies player.
Upon deplaning, all hell broke loose.
Ill-tempered and—according to one report—drunk, Maradona hurled a torrent of insults at the journalists surrounding him before being whisked off into the Buenos Aires night. (The Sun)
But it wasn’t over yet.
On the way to affluent Ezeiza in the southwest part of the city, the football icon and World Cup winner ordered his driver to stop the car, got out and confronted the paparazzi following him.
“Maradona made the car stop, got out with a Havana cigar in his hand, took some stones from the edge of the highway and started throwing them at reporters’ cars,” a paparazzo told radio station La Red. (Reuters)
It was later alleged that he had also started a row with a fellow passenger who had offered him an assortment of dietary supplements.
Contacted by The Sun on Thursday, Maradona’s spokesman had only this fragile explanation to offer: “Diego is experiencing some personal problems at the moment and I hope he will soon be able to resolve them in a favourable way.”
In Barcelona, my relationship with drugs began. I have to admit that that’s when I got going and in the worst possible way: When you go into it, in fact you’re wanting to say “no” and end up hearing yourself say “yes.” Because you believe you’re going to control it, you’re going to be okay...and then it gets more complicated. –Diego Maradona, in his 2000 autobiography, “El Diego”
Maradona’s history of substance abuse is long, and he has never made a secret of his struggles with cocaine and alcohol.
He began using cocaine during the 1983-84 season—his second at Camp Nou—and his addiction continued through the rest of his playing career and well into retirement. It is thought, although he denies it, that he was sold by Barcelona because of his cocaine problem, and in 1991 his illustrious spell at Napoli came to an abrupt conclusion following a failed drug test.
Maradona insists he would never have even been tested had his Argentina side not knocked Italy out of the 1990 World Cup at Napoli’s San Paolo—that there was a vendetta against him that eventually infected the corridors of FIFA. And while his argument has some substance despite its paranoia, he was always playing with fire.
Wherever football took him, from Barcelona to Napoli to the 1994 World Cup, the ending was always predictable—a cocaine-laced exit followed by acrimony and accusations. And yet, through it all, he played some of the most beautiful football in the history of the sport.
So great were his exploits on the field that they overshadowed, and continue to overshadow, his exploits off it.
And that’s saying something.
Man of the people
Maradona's final goal for Argentina, against Greece at the 1994 World Cup.
I am the voice of the voiceless, the representative of the people. I’m one of them, no different. It’s just that I get microphones shoved in my face, and I get the chance to speak for them. No one’s given those people a chance in their whole f***ing lives. Let’s see if we can get this point across once and for all: I am El Diego. –Diego Maradona, “El Diego”
But what if Maradona had never taken the first sniff, the first puff, the first sip? What if, like many of today’s modern, health-obsessed athletes, he had stayed clear of harmful substances, at least during his playing career?
Would he have been a better footballer?
Although he admits cocaine “discourages” and “dulls” and “is of no use to football” (El Diego), the stuff he delivered on the field of play week after week, and on the grandest stages of the sport, was mesmerizing and unforgettable—enough to put him in a stratosphere that only Pele and Lionel Messi inhabit.
In fact—and this is the tragic truth—addictions were part of the Maradona package. Maybe not as much as that left foot or the Hand of God, but a part of him, nonetheless—a noxious fibre in the composition of a character as fascinating as it was talented.
And part of that fascination has always had something to do with the man’s personal demons.
He’s right when he says he is one of the people. He may have wealth and trophies and girlfriends 30 years his junior, but his struggles are so startlingly everyday that it’s hard not to be captivated by it all.
On February 1, 1994, a mob of reporters showed up at Maradona’s country house in Moreno. Incensed, the then-33-year-old responded to the clamour on his doorstep by firing an air rifle into the crowd. Earlier that day he had ended his playing agreement with Newell’s Old Boys.
Later, in describing the episode, he would write: “It’s not relevant to my football story—none of my private life should be.”