Diego Maradona made the ball an early friend and it was his constant companion in the games of street football that taught him how to compete with older and bigger opponents. Despite this toughening process, however, Maradona's physique, or lack of it, almost cost him his career.

The Argentinos Juniors youth coach, Francis Cornejo, had no doubts about his ability - yet could not believe that the little left-footer was old enough to play for his team. His date of birth duly established, Maradona became the star of the Cebollitas helping them go 136 matches unbeaten. The senior squad beckoned, and on 20 October 1976 the 15-year-old debuted for Argentinos Juniors in the first division against Talleres de Córdoba. 

Another 21 seasons, another bow: the final curtain fell on Diego's career after Boca Juniors' 2-1 defeat of River Plate on 29 October 1997. In the intervening years, Barcelona, Napoli, Seville and Newell's Old Boys had all witnessed the Maradona phenomenon at first hand - a pocket battleship of a player blessed with supreme technique and a magical left foot.

Controversial from the start
It was the national team that saw the best of him, however. Thirty-four goals in 91 appearances make him the Albiceleste's second top scorer after Gabriel Batistuta. This love affair began on 3 April 1977 when Maradona first played for his country in a friendly against a local selection. Soon there were calls for coach Cesar Luis Menotti to include him in the squad for the forthcoming FIFA World Cup™ finals. Argentina would win the tournament on home soil - but without Diego whom Menotti thought too young to participate.

Amends were made the following summer when Maradona inspired his peers (not that he had many equals) to victory at the FIFA World Youth Championship in Japan. "That was the most fun I had on a football pitch," he said later. "Apart from my daughters, nothing has given me as much pleasure."

No stranger to success then, he also courted controversy. Apologists spoke of the star's "honesty" and "refusal to sell out". Critics did not want for ammunition either - after all, this was a man who once shot at journalists with an air rifle and insulted the Pope on national TV. He always roused the extremes of emotions, yet on the pitch he did as he pleased - and as no other could. "The things I could do with a football, he could do with an orange," eulogised French star Michel Platini.

Balance was the key - which was ironic given his struggle to find equilibrium elsewhere in life. It was impossible to stop El Grande as he slalomed towards goal; and just as unerring was his accuracy from set pieces.

Toughness and grandeur
The 1982 FIFA World Cup™ finals did not see enough of those qualities. Argentina lost their opening game to Belgium then beat Hungary and El Salvador. Maradona scored twice against the Hungarians, but was unable to repeat the dose against Italy and Brazil in the second round. In fact, he grew so frustrated with his markers that he was sent off against the latter as the holders crashed out.

Mexico '86 was another matter entirely. Maradona's five goals - one against Italy and two apiece against England and Belgium in the quarter and semi-finals - took Carlos Bilardo's side to the final, and sealed his reputation. It was as the greatest player on the planet that he lifted the World Cup after a 3-2 win over West Germany.

Four years on, he assumed a quite different role for the title defence. The tournament took place in Italy, where Maradona was nearing the end of a seven-year spell with Napoli which would yield two Serie A championships and a UEFA Cup. Though his physical powers diminished by a serious ankle injury, the skipper's will remained as strong as ever and this carried the team through against Brazil, Yugoslavia and Italy in the knockout stages. However, there was nothing he could do about Andreas Brehme's Cup-winning penalty for West Germany.

Did You Know?

  • After retiring, Diego Maradona had a successful run as a TV chat show host in Argentina with his programme ‘The Night of Number 10’.

  • Maradona’s second against England in the 1986 FIFA World Cup™ was voted ‘Goal of the Century’ in a poll of FIFAworldcup.com users.

  • Maradona was awarded a series of colourful nicknames, including El Pibe de Oro (The Golden Boy) and Barrilete Cosmico (Cosmic Kite).

  • Every year on 30 October thousands of adoring fans gather to celebrate El Diego’s birthday in the “Maradonian Church”.

  • When Maradona confessed to his handball goal against England, he recalled begging his team-mates to hug him to help convince the referee.

I Was There…

"When Diego came to Argentinos Juniors for trials, I was really struck by his talent and couldn't believe he was only eight years old. In fact, we asked him for his ID card so we could check it, but he told us he didn't have it on him. We were sure he was having us on because, although he had the physique of a child, he played like an adult. When we discovered he'd been telling us the truth, we decided to devote ourselves purely to him."
Francisco Cornejo, the youth coach who discovered Diego Maradona

"Diego was capable of things no one else could match. The things I could do with a football, he could do with an orange."
Michel Platini, captain of France at Mexico 1986

"When Diego scored that second goal against us, I felt like applauding. I'd never felt like that before, but it's true... and not just because it was such an important game. It was impossible to score such a beautiful goal. He's the greatest player of all time, by a long way. A genuine phenomenon."
Gary Lineker, England striker at Mexico 1986

"And to think that before the World Cup people criticised me, saying Maradona wasn't qualified to be captain and that he still had to prove himself. One month later he completely dominated the tournament. It was a huge step for him in terms of fame, and a great reward for his work."
Carlos Bilardo, Argentina coach Mexico 1986

"Diego is someone many people want to imitate - a controversial figure, both loved and loathed, and someone who provokes huge debate, especially in Argentina. In Mexico (in 1986), we had to stop him from training, otherwise he would have been at it day and night. Bilardo wouldn't let him, as he said the altitude would take too much out of him. So the only conflict we had with Diego at that World Cup was with him wanting to do extra training."
Jorge Valdano, Maradona's team-mate at Mexico 1986

"Diego was an example to everyone, not just in terms of his quality, but also for his commitment. He was the first to tackle and dive in when we lost possession, so how could we not do the same? He was contagious. When it came to his play, however, trying to imitate him was impossible."
Hector Enrique, Maradona's team-mate at Mexico 1986