The greatest. Photo: Steve Powell/Allsport/Getty Images

November 26, 2020   6 mins

In the darkness, he was the promise of light. For Argentina, 5 September 1993 was a night of the deepest humiliation. They had won the previous two Copas América. They had stuttered a little in World Cup qualifying but nobody really doubted they would make it to the USA in 1994. And then they lost 5-0 at home to Colombia. As fans tried to process the horror, they called on their messiah, Diego Maradona, who was raging in his VIP box at El Monumental.

Argentina is the utopian dream that never quite came to pass. In Radiografía de la pampa, written in 1933 in response to the first of the coups, the poet and essayist Ezequiel Martínez Estrada wrote of the pain of being an exile, depicting an Argentina that was forever European but not Europe. That sense of dislocation has become a common theme: after the massacres of its indigenous population throughout the 19th century, Argentina became, for theorists at least, a tabula rasa.

That encouraged a utopianism, a sense that this was a land in which a new, better society could be created, unhindered by pre-existing structures and traditions. Argentina is a land of myth, where messiahs have always had their place. The first Europeans who went there were dreaming of El Dorado. Juan Perón, the arch-populist, all things to all men, and Evita perhaps even more so, inspired a faith far beyond what was justified.

By the 1920s, there was a wave of nostalgia for an idealised version of the life of the gaucho, whose unflinching self-reliance, alone on the pampas, was seen as embodying the soul of Argentina. In the pages of El Gráfico, the hugely influential sports magazine, it was argued that in a rapidly urbanising world that spirit was best represented in the pibe, the kid from the streets. Everything was in opposition to the British, whose wire fencing had undermined the political power of the gaúchos, leading for a time to a quasi-colonial relationship.

Football had come to Argentina through the British, through sailors and merchants, propagated through the British schools that catered to the elite. Their game, played on wide grassy pitches, was based on running and power; the Argentinian game grew from mass games on the uneven ground of the potreras, the vacant lots of the burgeoning city, where close control and streetwiseness were essential

In 1928, Borocotó, the great editor of El Gráfico, described a putative statue to the soul of Argentinian football. It would depict, he wrote, a mischievous urchin, tough and skilful, with a mass of untamed hair, who had learned the game on the streets. Half a century before the fact, he describes Maradona.

El Diego arrived with the force of prophecy behind him. He was celebrated and indulged. Exam results were fixed, his excesses and occasional tantrums ignored. Laws and conventions did not apply to him, either metaphorically on the pitch, or actually, off it. Nobody inspired such faith. In Mexico in 1986, he was recovering from hepatitis and injury, he was doubted on all sides, he had been sent off in the previous tournament, and yet he won them the World Cup. His talent was otherworldly; he was not a man to whom the usual rules applied. In crisis, turn to the Messiah.

But Maradona by then was in a crisis far worse than that of eight years earlier. His time at Napoli, the team he inspired to the only two Serie A titles in their history, had come to an end when in March 1991 he tested positive for cocaine. The player had became a regular user after his move to Barcelona in 1982, but during his time in Naples he became increasingly dependent.

His body shape changed; between the World Cups of 1986 and 1990 he went from a stocky but lithe athlete to something approaching a more bloated figure. His relationship with the Camorra deteriorated. That he failed the drugs test was itself revealing: the protection he had once enjoyed, using a plastic penis to deliver somebody else’s urine for analysis, had been removed. Although he subsequently admitted he was an addict, he raged at the positive test. “There’s no doubt in my mind,” he said, “that it was Italy’s vendetta because Argentina knocked them out of the World Cup.”

Banned, he returned to Argentina. Within a month, he’d been arrested for possession of cocaine. That August, police raided his chauffeur’s apartment and found Maradona passed out after a day of heavy drinking and cocaine abuse. Finally, he accepted that he needed help. He began a radical detox programme, eating only fruit and vegetables and drinking only water. He started going to a gym regularly and jogging round the boating lake in the Plaza Holanda. A psychotherapist encouraged him to cut the bad influences from his life.

But what he actually needed, he decided, was football. When the judge Amelia Berraz de Vidal asked him what drugs he’d dealt in, he replied, “The only thing that I’ve dealt in my life is football.” He started playing again for a local side and in charity games. When his ban expired, he moved to Spain to play for Sevilla, but his 26 league games there were overshadowed by scandal. He was arrested for driving a Porsche at 200km/h, was involved in a brawl outside a nightclub where he’d been denied entry for wearing trainers, and was blamed for an incident that ended in a magazine exposé of the whole team going to a brothel. When he was substituted in the following game, he raged at the “betrayal” and never played for the club again.

He returned to Argentina and started using again. When his daughter Djalma caught him snorting a line in the bathroom, he returned to his father’s home village of Esquina, up the Paraná River from Buenos Aires, to dry out. That October, a month after Colombia’s 5-0 win, he signed for Newell’s Old Boys in Rosario (at half-time on his debut, a six-year-old boy performed tricks with a ball to entertain the crowd: Lionel Messi).

The following month, he was recalled to the national side for a World Cup qualifying play-off against Australia. He set up a goal in the first leg as Argentina scraped through 2-1 on aggregate. By February, after just seven games for them, frustrated at the training schedule, he quit Newell’s.

Nobody knew what that meant for the World Cup. Could he go to the US if he didn’t have a club? Later that month, a group of journalists seeking to find out gathered outside his country house in Moreno, where he was relaxing with his father, uncle and a number of friends. Maradona asked them to leave. They said they would if he gave them a brief statement, which he refused to do. One of his friends sprayed the journalists with a garden hose. Another pretended to masturbate. Maradona then took an air rifle, leant on the roof of a car and shot at the journalists, injuring four. They sued. Two accepted an out-of-court settlement but the other two pressed on.

The public mood was broadly supportive of Maradona. Heroes were heroes, each flaw seemingly heightening the appeal; of course the pibe got up to mischief — how could he not? If, as the sociologist Sergio Levinsky argued, the veneration of the pibe was at some level rooted in a desire for him not to grow up, to remain childlike, then how could he be expected to take responsibility?

As the case proceeded, Maradona announced he was willing to captain the national side at the World Cup. The public reaction was euphoric. He was unfit, had no club, was fighting legal action in two countries and was battling drug addiction, but the Messiah was available. The national coach Alfio Basile had no option but to select him for a game against Brazil in March 1994. He was overweight, out-of-sorts and substituted at half-time.

Three months later, as the World Cup began, Maradona looked sleek. His explosive pace may have gone, but he was still sharp enough to orchestrate a 4-0 win, scoring the third goal after a couple of smart one-twos and a precise shot from the edge of the box. His celebration would become notorious as he raced to a television camera and roared. At the time, it seemed like nothing more than the relief of a man delighted to be back, the release of something deep within him. It soon drew more sinister interpretations.

Argentina beat Nigeria 2-1 in their next game, in Foxborough, after which Maradona was chosen for a random drugs test, which he gave blithely enough. The footage of him being led off the pitch by a nurse, cheerily waving to the crowd is poignant in its banality; this was the last the international game would see of him. The test was positive for substances aimed at suppressing the appetite and increasing endurance. Maradona was withdrawn from the World Cup and subsequently given a fifteen-month ban from football. “I killed myself training and now they do this to me!” Maradona complained, as though his effort somehow outweighed the fact he had broken the rules. He then broke down in tears.

In Buenos Aires, there was an astonishing public outpouring of grief, comparable only to that at Perón’s funeral — the link between the events strengthened by the fact that the positive drug test arrived on the twentieth anniversary of the death of Perón.

Maradona insisted this was a conspiracy, claiming Fifa, with its Brazilian president João Havelange, had been out to get him since he had pretty much single-handedly eliminated Brazil from the previous World Cup. The truth was far less complex: he’d been taking drugs — recreational if not necessarily performance-enhancing — for years and had finally been caught. There were no plastic penises in Foxborough. He’d dropped 20kg in around six months, something he put down to hard work. He claimed the US version of a particular supplement had contained ephedrine, while the one available in Argentina didn’t, but even if that is true the regulations are clear: the responsibility was his and his guilt was undeniable.

But Maradona couldn’t take responsibility. That was his tragedy. Pibes can never grow up, and messiahs can never be blamed — until the time comes for their crucifixion.

Angels with Dirty Faces: The Footballing History of Argentina, is published by Orion

Jonathan Wilson is a columnist for the Guardian and Sports Illustrated, the editor of the Blizzard and author of Angels With Dirty Faces: A Footballing History of Argentina.