Maradona: Messi but backwards and in high heels

John Coughlan reviews Maradona’s autobiography, El Diego.

Fred Astaire was the best dancer in the world, someone once said, but Ginger Rogers could do everything he did but backwards and in high heels.  

As they near the end of their careers, it’s clear now, Messi was better than Cristiano Ronaldo. Winning the World Cup helped. But even before that, in most people’s eyes Messi seemed to have already won their 15-year arm wrestle.  

So that makes him the best ever, right? Maybe. Even better than Maradona? Does it even make sense to compare players from different eras? Probably not. But we do it anyway.  

So how do they square up against each other, Messi and Maradona? Messi was better but Maradona was greater. That’s one way of looking at it. Or Messi was the best ever, but Maradona could do everything that Messi did, he just did it backwards and wearing high heels, in a manner of speaking.  

I just finished Maradona’s autobiography, El Diego. It’s the tenth book my co-host Al and I have reviewed for The Ademola Bookmen Podcast and In my opinion, it was the best one yet.  

It’s strange in a way because the book is not perfect. It’s translated from Spanish for one thing and some of the translation is clunky, some just plain weird. Whoever did the translation appears to have tried to make Diego sound like Jim Royle. A fairly strange literary choice.  

But you cannot get away from the fact that Diego is just an amazing character. Are there mediocre works of fiction that are saved by a single wonderful character? If yes, then this is the autobiographical equivalent of that novel. It would be like finding Atticus Finch in the Twilight series.   

This is the most astonishing thing about Maradona. He is not only arguably football’s greatest ever player, he may also be its greatest ever character too. Cantona, Brian Clough, Socrates, Faustino Asprilla. These were all larger-than-life characters. They didn’t come close to Diego on the pitch. But neither did they off it really.  

During his career everyone agreed, he was the best. No doubt about it. And yet, other than two bad seasons at Barcelona, he spent his career at teams that were very much not the best. Or rather, not the biggest.  

Those two years at Barcelona ended in a brawl against Athletic Bilbao in which the pint-sized Maradona roamed around the pitch after a 1-0 defeat scissors-kicking his opponents in the head. It’s worth a watch if you haven’t seen it. King Juan Carlos of Spain saw it, he was in the crowd.  

It was that debacle that meant no clubs came looking for him when Barcelona tried to move him on. No clubs other than lowly Napoli, a team of perennial also-rans in Serie A.  

Club execs around the world obviously didn’t fancy him. But fans did. When negotiations between Napoli and Barcelona hit the skids, some Napoli fans chained themselves to the gates of San Paolo Stadium in Naples and went on hunger strike. Happily, for them and for the city, the transfer eventually went through.  

It is hard to say whether Maradona and Napoli was a match made in heaven or in hell. Maradona seemed to embody the city. He was gifted, undoubtedly. But he always saw himself as an outsider and an underdog. He played with ‘bronca’ (anger) so playing for a team that was spat on by the rest of Italy suited him. Together, they rose to incredible heights, winning the Italian league for the first time ever in 1987 and then again in 1990.  

But that is only part of the Maradona-Napoli story. From the outset, there were rumours that the 10 million dollars that the penniless club paid for him came from the Camorra, the Neapolitan mafia. What is without question is that the Camorra used Maradona, plying him with drugs, taking him out on the town for days on end, and using him to promote their various business ventures.  

Ultimately, the affair ended badly. After he put them out of the World Cup in 1990 in the same San Paolo Stadium, Diego became the most hated man in Italy. Beating them was one thing but by coaxing some Neapolitans to shout for Argentina by reminding them how badly they were treated by their compatriots in the north, he was pouring white powder in a painful wound. The protection that allowed him to party for weeks and beat every drug test was now gone. A phone tapping scandal in which Diego can be heard sharing drugs with prostitutes was the end. He was banned for 15-months, and his Napoli days were over.  

Along with the 1986 World Cup win, Maradona’s finest football moments were with the city of Naples. But maybe the city destroyed him too. In the years that followed he jumped from club-to-club – Seville, Newell’s Old Boys, Boca Juniors – falling out with managers and chairmen wherever he went. Truly in the grips of addiction, his career petered out.  

A positive drugs test during his 1994 World Cup comeback in the US and another shortly after in Argentina were the end for Diego’s playing days. A tragic end to a storybook career, just one that was more psychological thriller than fairytale.  

He lived life with an intensity that few of us could muster for anything more than a couple of minutes. In El Diego, this really just jumps off the page. Reading the book, I was left wondering how much of his skills on the football pitch were down to his unusual character as much to his physical gifts.  

The ending is sad, but his story is amazing. There has never been a good football movie. A film about Maradona is surely inevitable. If they can’t make a good one out of the life of Diego, out of the character of Diego, then they should stop trying altogether.   

His lifestyle, his charisma, and the way in which his career played out, all set him apart from Messi. The latter has pulled away from Cristiano now. Once his career has ended, it will be Maradona’s name that he is forever associated rather than Ronaldo’s. He is probably the best player ever to play football. But he is still not Maradona.  

You’ll find reviewers John Coughlan and his friend Al Bond of the Ademola Bookmen Podcast on Twitter and Instagram, and they welcome feedback and book recommendations at The Ademola Bookmen Podcast is available on Spotify, Apple, Google Podcasts and so on. Episode 10, El Diego, was released on April 3.  

WCP Staff

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