Who was Diego Maradona? Inside the soccer icon’s life and death

Diego Maradona died last week of a heart attack at the age of 60. The Argentinian soccer legend is one of the more intriguing sporting figures of our generation.

Early Life

Diego Maradona was born in Lanus, Buenos Aires Province and grew up in Villa Fiorito, an impoverished town on the southern outskirts of Buenos Aires. He was the first son after four daughters born to Diego Maradona and Dalma Salvadora Franco, who was of Italian decent.

After receiving his first soccer ball at age 3, Maradona quickly grew an unparalleled love for the game. Brazillian star Roberto Rivellino and Manchester United winger George Best were some of his favorite players growing up. Maradona was later spotted by a talent scout while playing in his neighborhood at 8 years old.

As a 12-year-old on Los Cebollitas, the Buenos Aires junior team, Maradona stunned spectators with his skills during halftime intermissions. He became the youngest player in the history of the Argentine Primera Division when he made his debut at 16 for Argentinos Juniors in October 1976. In five years at Argentinos Juniors, Maradona scored 115 goals in 167 appearances.

International Career

Maradona made his international debut with the Argentina national team at age 16. He went on to score 34 goals in 91 appearances. Maradona and fellow Argentinian Lionel Messi are the only players to win the Golden Ball at both the FIFA U-20 World Cup and World Cup, with Maradona doing so in 1979 and 1986 while Messi emulated that in 2005 and 2014.

Maradona appeared in his first World Cup tournament in 1982, in which Argentina failed to make it out of the second group stage with losses to Brazil and the eventual winner, Italy. The match against Italy is largely remembered for how aggressively Maradona was man-marked by Claudio Gentile. Maradona was repeatedly fouled in all five games, but the match against Italy was the worst as Maradona’s temper got him ejected for a retaliatory foul against Sergio Batista.

Following the 1982 World Cup, Maradona was transferred to Barcelona for a then-record fee of £5 million ($7.6 million). Under coach Cesar Luis Menotti, Barcelona and Maradona won the Copa del Ray, Spain’s annual national cup, and the Spanish Super Cup in 1983. That same year, Maradona became the first Barcelona player to be applauded by arch-rival Real Madrid fans after scoring in El Clasico.

However, Maradona’s tenure in Barcelona was riddled with illness, injury and controversial on-field incidents. He battled hepatitis, a broken ankle and was directly involved in a violent fight at the 1984 Copa del Rey final against Athletic Bilbao in which Maradona head-butted Migual Sola. The brawl broke out in front of the Spanish King Juan Carlos and a stadium filled with 100,000 fans, with more than half of Spain watching on television.

When Maradona came to play in Naples he was welcomed by 75,000 fans at his introductory presentation. Maradona arguably reached the peak of his professional career at Napoli, inheriting the captain’s armband soon after his arrival. Napoli won its second league title in 1989-90, finished runners up in the league twice, in 1987-88 and 1988-89, won the 1987 Coppa Italia, the 1989 UEFA Cup and the 1990 Italian Supercup during the Maradona era.

Maradona was the all-time leading goalscorer for Napoli, with 115 goals, until his record was broken by Marek Hamsik in 2017. Maradona’s No. 10 jersey number was later retired by Napoli.


Despite his success on the field, Maradona’s personal problems continued to fester in Italy. He was using cocaine and received $70,000 in fines from his club for missing game and practices. He was also involved in a scandal regarding an illegitimate son and was suspected to be friendly with the Camorra, an Italian mafia-type criminal organization.

Following a 15-month ban for failing a drug test for cocaine, Maradona left Napoli in 1992 and signed with Sevilla for one year.

It’s well-documented that from the mid-1980s until 2004, Maradona was addicted to cocaine. In March 2007, he was admitted to a hospital in Buenos Aires to be treated for hepatitis and effects of alcohol abuse. After he was released on April 11, he was readmitted two days later.

There were constant rumors during that time, with three false claims of his death surfacing in the span of a month. He was transferred to a psychiatric clinic specializing in alcohol-related problems before he was discharged in May 2007.

During the 2018 World Cup match between Argentina and Nigeria, Maradona was caught by TV cameras behaving erratically and with white residue on the glass in front of his seat. He later blamed his behavior on consuming an abundance of wine.

In March 2009, Italian officials announced that Maradona owed the Italian government €37 million ($44 million) in local taxes, much of which was accrued interest on his original debt.

‘Hand of God’ goal

Captaining the Argentine national team to victory in the 1986 World Cup in Mexico, Maradona proved to be the most dynamic player of the tournament. He never came off the field, scoring five goals and recording five assists.

Argentina eliminated Uruguay in the first knockout round and went on to defeat England 2-1 in the quarterfinals. Maradona scored two memorable goals in the win, leading to the French sports newspaper, L’Equipe, to describe him as “half-angel, half-devil.” Replays showed Maradona scored his first goal by striking the ball with his hand, which he later said was “a little with the head of Maradona and a little with the hand of God.”

The goal became known as the “Hand of God.” In August 2005, Maradona acknowledged in a television interview that he had hit the ball with his hand purposely and knew the goal was illegitimate.

Following the widely disputed hand goal, Maradona’s second goal of the game was later voted by FIFA as the greatest goal in the history of the World Cup. Maradona recorded two more goals in the semifinal match against Belgium and assisted on the game-winning goal in the championship against West Germany.

Political views

Diego Maradona with Fidel Castro
Diego Maradona with Fidel CastroAFP via Getty Images

Maradona supported the establishment of an independent Palestinian state and condemned Israel’s military strikes on Gaza in 2014. He became friends with Fidel Castro while receiving treatment and later tattooed a portrait of the Cuban dictator on his left leg and one of Fidel’s second in command Che Guevara on his right arm.

In 2004, Maradona participated in a protest against the United States-led war in Iraq. During the 2005 Summit of the Americas in Mar dl Plata, Argentina, he protested George W. Bush’s presence in the country by wearing a T-shirt that read “STOP BUSH.” The ‘s’ in Bush was replaced with a swastika.

After befriending former Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, Maradona appeared on his weekly television show “Alo Presidente” and said, “I hate everything that comes from the United States. I hate it with all my strength.”

However, by December 2008, Maradona changed his tune regarding the U.S. when Barack Obama became president.

Health and Death

Maradona put on weight toward the end of his playing career, at one point weighing 280 pounds. He underwent gastric bypass surgery in March 2005 and had to go on a liquid diet for three months to return to his normal weight.

In January 2019, Maradona had surgery after a hernia caused internal bleeding in his stomach.

Maradona underwent emergency brain surgery to treat a subdural hematoma and was released on Nov. 12. Thirteen days later Maradona died of a heart attack.

Thousands of supporters came out to mourn Maradona in the days following his death that have also been filled with controversy. A funeral worker was fired after posing for a selfie with Maradona’s body. The circumstances of Maradona’s death are being probed with authorities raiding the home of his doctor, Leopoldo Luque, as they probe a possible case of involuntary manslaughter.