To celebrate the incoming HEROES issue of Life After Football magazine, we’re taking a look at the heroes of past and present and, with so many to choose from, not all of them can be the stereotypical good guy role models that you might envision. For this man more than most, the term ‘anti-hero’ fits perfectly…
Not only is this Buenos Aires born legend one of the most naturally gifted players to ever have a ball at his feet, but he is also a symbol and an icon for the country he so proudly represented, and perhaps even more so for his adopted second home of Naples. 30 years ago, he rose from being the undisputed best player in the world to becoming a God of the city – helping Napoli to win their first Serie A title in their entire history. The city, repressed not just in football terms by northern Italy, but socially and economically, too, had a saviour. A leader. A hero.
He was immortal in Naples and still is to this very day. In Argentina, too, performances such as those he displayed to win them the 1986 World Cup, with extravagance and controversy along the way, he is an icon. Their greatest footballer ever, even Messi has said so. But the story of Diego’s career is as much about the trophies he won and the goals he scored, as it is about the goal he scored with his hand and the cocaine-fueled lifestyle. That’s why he is the perfect anti-hero.
A Tony Montana figure around the time the world first said ‘hello’ to Scarface’s little friend. A breaker of rules but a maker of history. What Maradona achieved on the pitch was one thing and the consequences of those achievements was another. His assists, his goals and his performances didn’t just win points or win matches, they won victories for his people. Back in Naples his figure, admittedly slimmer than it is now, has been painted all over the city. All of his most famous poses that helped to build the cult of personality with which Maradona reigns over football, are sketched on backstreets and alleyways in the scenic city.
When Maradona famously cheated the referee and the entire English nation by scoring with his hand in 1986, a few people scoffed when he referred to the act as ‘The Hand of God.’ This divine right complex, like Kanye West in a soccer jersey, split his populairty between those who believe being humble should go hand in hand with talent – and those who love the entertainment value of El Pueblo. It was the same case two World Cups later in the USA, with an array of glittering moments and controversies occurring in this eight-year spell; titles with Napoli and bans from football altogether for drug use being just a couple of them.
By 1994, an ageing Maradona captained Argentina to the finals amidst criticism of his fitness, his weight – and his professionalism. But, as he played a neat one-two on the edge of the box against Greece and lashed a left-footed strike into the net, his ability was never questioned. Wheeling away in scenes of joy, scenes of redemption, Maradona runs over to the corner flag where TV cameras watch him approach. His delight evident, but in hindsight, borderline hysterical. His eyes bulging and mouth wide open as he passes the camera at speed – yet it feels like slow motion. Slow motion as once again, the earth watches the most gifted footballer who has ever walked, dribbled and danced upon it, fade into the darkness of anti-heroics once more. His bulging eyes didn’t lie – he was on drugs, again.
It was the last the world saw of Diego on the international stage as he left the game disgraced yet, somehow still loved. Like Zidane years later, departing the game after planting a headbutt on an opponent, this last dramatic chapter (of his playing career, at least) was not a tragedy – it was fitting. Maradona is no role model, but he is a reminder of how human we all are, no matter how perfect his footballing ability was. For all his wrongdoings, his cheating, his drug abuse, his on-pitch brawling, he is still the hero that many people need. He is the hero that Naples will always love, celebrate and even worship. He is the footballing hero that Argentina will always hail.
To football and to football culture, he is the perfect anti-hero.
Photography La Peet
Styling Dieudonnee Bouwman
Makeup & hair Michela de Simone for Philip B & Mac Cosmetics