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.