The Highs and Lows of Diego Maradona's Career

Ryan Bailey@ryanjaybaileyFeatured ColumnistOctober 30, 2015

The Highs and Lows of Diego Maradona's Career

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    Carlo Fumagalli/Associated Press

    Exactly one week after we wished Pele a happy 75th birthday, it's time to celebrate a milestone of his biggest frenemy: Diego Maradona. 

    The Argentinian legend turned 55 on Oct. 30, giving us the opportunity to celebrate a career that has had more ups, downs, thrills, spills and crescendos than a particularly erratic roller coaster. 

    In lieu of a cake for El Diego's special day, we've recounted the highs and lows of his career, which features trophies, glory, fights, drugs, guns, the mafia and much more.

High: Club and International Debuts (1976 and 1977)

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    After coming through the youth ranks at Argentinos Juniors, Maradona made his professional debut for the club on October 20, 1976, a full 10 days before his 16th birthday. He wore the No. 16 shirt and a rather large haircut.

    Just four months later, he made his full debut for the Argentina national team in a game against Hungary. 

    He was left out of the 1978 World Cup squad that won the tournament on home soil but participated in the 1979 World Youth Championship and was a star of the side that won the tournament.

    That same summer, he bagged his first international goal for the Albiceleste in a 3-1 win over Scotland at Hampden Park.

High: The World Cup Spotlight (1982)

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    Associated Press

    After a Metropolitano-winning campaign with Boca Juniors in 1981, Maradona was a key player in Argentina's World Cup title defence in 1982. He played in all five of the Albieleste's matches but was shown a red card for violent conduct in a loss to fierce rivals Brazil in the second round.

    Shortly after the tournament, his status and reputation as one of the best players in the world was enhanced by a world-record transfer to Barcelona.

    He dazzled only fleetingly in his two seasons with Barca, but he joined a very short list of players to be applauded off the field by rival fans in a Clasico.

Low: The End of His Barcelona Career (1984)

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    Maradona's Barcelona career concluded when he was at the centre of a massive brawl following the 1984 Copa del Rey final against Athletic Club.

    Just look at how visciously he is fighting in the video above and try to imagine a modern player getting away with it!

    It was deemed that the Argentinian was exacting revenge on Andoni "The Butcher of Bilbao" Goikoetxea for a nasty challenge earlier in the season. Maradona had to apologise for the incident to the King of Spain, who was in attendance at the Bernabeu that day.

High: His Move to Italy (1984)

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    Bruno Mosconi/Associated Press

    In the summer of 1984, 75,000 Napoli fans filled the Stadio San Paolo to witness the presentation of their new saviour, who was brought in for another world-record fee.

    Maradona arguably reached the peak of his career with the Partenopei, leading them to their first Scudetto in 1987 and another in 1990.

    In August 2000, Napoli retired his No. 10 jersey. On his returns to the city—which have been sporadic because of tax issues that will be outlined later—he is still mobbed at the airport.

Low: Trouble in Naples (1984-1991)

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    Massimo Sambucetti/Associated Press

    Maradona's time in Italy was by no means trouble-free.

    His addiction to cocaine blossomed while at Napoli, and the BBC is among those to have noted he became "inextricably linked" to the Camorra crime syndicate.

    He also received large fines for missing training and became the subject of a paternity law suit

High/Low: The 1986 World Cup

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    Uncredited/Associated Press

    The 1986 World Cup was undoubtedly the high point of Maradona's international career, as he captained the Albiceleste to World Cup victory with a win over West Germany in the final.

    The dichotomy of his genius and dishonour was most overt in the politically charged quarter-final against England at around 8,000 feet above sea level in Mexico's Estadio Azteca.

    Maradona broke the deadlock in extremely controversial circumstances in the 51st minute with his infamous Hand of God goal.

    Referee Ali Bin Nasser saw nothing wrong with the 5'5" Argentinean beating 6'0" goalkeeper Peter Shilton in the air, so one of football's greatest examples of gamesmanship was rewarded with a goal.

    Four minutes later, El Diego rubbed salt in the wound by scoring one of the most incredible goals ever seen. Around 10 metres inside his own half, Maradona sprinted past four English players before dribbling around Shilton to score.

    It was a breathtaking performance that ensured he would be loved and hated in equal measure for decades to come.

Low: His 1st Drug-Test Failure (1991)

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    DON RYPKE/Associated Press

    The 1990s—when Maradona entered his 30s—appeared to signify the downturn in his fortunes.

    Soon after a very disappointing outing at the 1990 World Cup, Maradona was banned from the game for 15 months after his penchant for cocaine led to a failed drugs test. 

    He left Italy in disgrace and resurfaced at Sevilla, where he stayed for a season.

    Sadly, he was never the same player again.

Low: Tax Evasion (1984 to 1991)

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    Pier Marco Tacca/Getty Images

    Recollections of Maradona's time in Italy have since also been blighted by allegations about unpaid taxes.

    In 2013, Italian authorities claimed his unpaid bill stood at €39 million, having seized Rolex watches and earrings from him during subsequent visits to the country.

Low: His 2nd Drug-Test Failure (1994)

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    David Cannon/Getty Images

    Keen to make a better impression on the world stage than at Italia 90, Maradona lined up for Argentina at USA '94.

    However, he lasted only two games before he was banned from the tournament for substance abuse. Officially, it was the ephedrine in his system that ruled him out, although he tried to blame the drug-test failure on a sports drink he was given.

    He was banned for another 15 months and the curtain came down on his international career—as a player, at least.

High: Inspiring His Own Religion (1998)

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    Natacha Pisarenko/Associated Press

    Such was the mania surrounding Maradona in his home country that he inspired his own religion.

    In October 30, 1998, the date of his 38th birthday, the Iglesia Maradoniana (Church of Maradona) was founded. 

    Ten years later, the Guardian claimed the church had 120,000 practising members.

Low: The Incident with the Air Rifle (1994)

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    GEORGES GOBET/Getty Images

    In 1998, a year after he had played his final club game with Boca Juniors, Maradona was given a suspended prison sentence of two years and 10 months. The reason? He was filmed firing at reporters with an air rifle outside his Buenos Aires home in 1994.

    He probably should have left the shooting behind on the field. 

    A 37-year-old Maradona played no part in the 1998 World Cup, his first complete absence from the tournament since 1978.

High: His Player of the Century Award (2000)

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    AFP/Getty Images

    It's hard to believe a poll carried out by FIFA could result in controversy, but that is exactly what occurred when Maradona was voted Player of the Century by an online vote in 2000.

    However, FIFA also scrambled together an equivalent trophy for Pele, effectively giving the two players equal honours. 

    Diego wasn't too happy about this situation, claiming that Pele's award "isn't worth s--t."

High: Getting the Argentina Managerial Gig (2008)

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    Gero Breloer/Associated Press

    Despite his obvious folly and perceived disdain for authority, Maradona took over the Argentina national team in 2008.

    The Albiceleste narrowly qualified for the 2010 World Cup, at which point Diego told doubting journalists to "suck it," per Goal.

    At the tournament in South Africa—during which he cut an animated figure on the sidelines, wearing sharp suits and a luxury watch on each wrist—his side tumbled out of the quarter-finals following a schooling from Germany.

    His contract was not renewed.

    Happy birthday, Diego!