Diego Maradona at 50
© Getty Images

Barely a week after Brazil toasted Pele’s 70th birthday, the spotlight turns to neighbouring Argentina, where many a glass will be raised to a man who has enjoyed a verbal joust or two with the great Brazilian: the one and only Diego Armando Maradona, who turns 50 today.

Maradona’s unique story began in the outskirts of Buenos Aires half a century ago, although proud parents Dalma and Diego would have had no inkling that their newborn son would go on to become one of the greatest personalities the game has ever seen.

Diego Junior spent his childhood in the impoverished suburb of Villa Fiorito, situated in the south of Buenos Aires province. It was no easy upbringing, as Maradona, who was rarely seen without a football by his side, later recalled: “My old lady always lied, but I could see where she was coming from. At mealtimes she’d say she had a sore stomach, but she was fibbing. She only said that because there wasn’t enough food to go round and she wanted to make sure we all got something to eat.”

Such hardships forged Maradona’s character, one that would later manifest itself on the football pitch. “My parents sweated blood to make sure there was bread on the table, but there were a lot of us and there was never anything left over,” his brother Raul once commented.

“When Diego got his first pay packet he took us to all the toy shops in the neighbourhood and bought us presents, sports shoes and bicycles. He wanted to give us what we’d never had as children. I remember when he went on his first tour and bought me my first pair of football boots. They were three sizes too big but I put extra pairs of socks on and wore them anyway.”

The fame game
Maradona’s achievements on the pitch have been well documented. A favourite with Argentinos Juniors fans for his half-time ball-juggling routines, he made his first division debut for the club at the age of only 15, quickly staking a claim for a place in the Argentina team.

Tearful at his omission from the squad that would become world champions on home soil in 1978, he responded by helping La Albiceleste win the FIFA U-20 World Cup in Japan a year later. “I’ve never been happier than I was in that team,” he would later comment in his autobiography.

That was the first of many triumphs. Between 1981 and 1997 he ran out for Barcelona, Napoli, Sevilla, Newell’s Old Boys and Boca Juniors, although it is with his beloved Argentina that he has enjoyed some of the most memorable moments of his life, having appeared in four FIFA World Cup™ Finals as a player and one as a coach.

“I tell the players that 30 days of sacrifice just to kiss that cup is nothing in a man’s life,” he told FIFA.com a little over a year ago, his appetite for the most important prize in the game undiminished.

Maradona has experienced the whole gamut of emotions on football’s biggest stage. Sent off in a losing cause against Brazil at Spain 1982, he would scale the heights in Mexico four years later, plumb the depths of despair in losing to Germany in the Final at Italy 1990 and endure further pain following his suspension for doping at USA 1994.

Through his highs and lows, El Diez has always exerted a huge influence, as FIFA President Joseph S. Blatter explained: “Everyone has an opinion on Diego Armando Maradona, and that’s been the case since his playing days. His magnificent performances and extraordinary goals at Mexico 86 will live forever in the memories of all football lovers, myself included.

“My most vivid recollection is of this incredibly gifted kid at the second FIFA U-20 World Cup in Japan in 1979. He left everyone open-mouthed every time he got on the ball. And at the age of 50 he still has many years in which to keep showing us his talent. Happy birthday.”

The story goes on
Maradona was back in the spotlight at South Africa 2010, eclipsing the likes of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo with his mere presence, his appearances at press conferences, training sessions and on the touchline generating huge expectation.

“When you walked out on the pitch with him and saw even rival fans singing his name and doing whatever they could to get a photo of him, well, you felt like you were 1-0 up already. It was truly amazing,” commented Nicolas Burdisso during the competition, attempting to explain the effect Maradona has wherever he goes.

Despite his bewitching presence, El Pelusa failed to prevent his side from going out to Germany in the quarter-finals, and having since left the Argentina job behind, he is now considering his options, weighing up a return to the game he loves so much.

“We have a few different proposals and projects on the table,” he said earlier this month. “We’ll be back soon, though. Very soon, in fact. I’ve got a point or two to prove.”  

Despite the ups and downs, Diego Maradona’s hunger for the game remains as strong as it was when he made his first division debut 36 years ago. And as he celebrates an eventful half century, perhaps the only thing we can be sure of is that the football world has not seen the last of the kid from Villa Fiorito.