BUENOS AIRES, Argentina (AP) – Diego Maradona, the great Argentine soccer player who scored the 1986 Hand of God goal and led his country to this year’s world title before later struggling with cocaine use and obesity, has died. He was 60 years old.
Maradona’s spokesman, Sebastián Sanchi, said he died of a heart attack Wednesday, two weeks after being discharged from a hospital in Buenos Aires after brain surgery.
The Argentine President’s office said it would conclude three days of national mourning and the Argentine Football Association expressed its grief on Twitter.
One of the most famous moments in the history of the sport, the “Hand of God” goal, came when little Maradona hit the ball in the English net in the quarter-finals of the 1986 World Cup.
Before his 60th birthday in October, Maradona told the French football magazine that his dream was “to score another goal against the English, this time with his right hand”.
Maradona also wowed fans around the world during a two-decade career with an enchanting style of play that was entirely his own.
Although his reputation was tarnished by his addiction and an unfortunate saying for the national team, he remained revered in football-loving Argentina as the “Pibe de Oro” or “Golden Boy”.
“You have brought us to the top of the world,” said Argentine President Alfredo Fernández on social media. “You made us incredibly happy. You were the greatest of them all. “
The number 10 he wore on his shirt became synonymous with him, as did Pele, the great Brazilian who Maradona was regularly paired with as the best of all time.
The Brazilian said in a statement that he had lost “a dear friend”.
“There is much more to be said, but now may God give strength to his family,” said Pelé. “I hope one day we will play soccer together in the sky.”
Maradona was brave, quick, and utterly unpredictable. He was a master of attack and easily juggled the ball from foot to foot as it raced on the field. He dodged and weaved with his low center of gravity, shaking off countless rivals, and often struck with a devastating left foot, his most powerful weapon.
“Everything he thought in his head he made possible with his feet,” said Salvatore Bagni, who played with Maradona at the Italian club Napoli.
A balloon waist slowed Maradona’s explosive pace later in his career, and he became embroiled in his first doping scandal in 1991 when he admitted a cocaine habit that haunted him until he retired at 37 in 1997.
He was admitted to the death in 2000 and again in 2004 for heart problems related to cocaine, and later said he had overcome the drug problem. Cocaine, he once famously said, had proven to be his “toughest rival”.
However, other health problems followed, despite a gastric bypass in 2005 which significantly reduced his weight. Maradona was hospitalized in early 2007 for acute hepatitis, which his doctor attributed to excessive drinking and eating.
He was unlikely to return to the national team in 2008 when he was named Argentina coach. After a quarter-final at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, however, he was ousted and finally took another coaching job at Al Wasl in the United Arab Emirates.
Maradona was the fifth of eight children who grew up in a poor, gritty barrio on the outskirts of Buenos Aires, where he played a kind of dirt-patch football that brought many Argentines to international fame.
Neither of them came close to Maradona’s fame. In 2001 FIFA named Maradona one of the two greatest in the history of sport, alongside Pelé.
“Maradona inspires us,” said the then Argentinian striker Carlos Tevez, explaining his country’s fascination with Maradona at the 2006 World Cup in Germany. “He is our idol and an idol for people.”
Maradona has garnered titles at home and abroad, playing for Argentinos Juniors and Boca Juniors in the early 1980s before joining Spanish and Italian clubs. He achieved his coronation at the 1986 World Cup when he defeated Argentina in a 3-2 win over West Germany in the final and the decisive 2-1 win against England in a lively quarter-final game.
Over the protests of the English goalkeeper Peter Shilton, the referee left a goal by Maradona in which, as he admitted years later, he deliberately hit the ball with his hand in “a bit of mischief”.
But Maradona’s influence would not be limited to fraud. Four minutes later, he beat four opponents from midfield in a spectacular way, defeating Shilton for what FIFA later declared the biggest goal in the history of the World Cup.
Many Argentines saw the game as revenge for the loss of their country to Great Britain in the 1982 Falkland Islands War, which Argentines still refer to as “Las Malvinas”.
“It was our way of regaining ‘Las Malvinas’,” wrote Maradona in his 2000 autobiography: “I am Diego.”
“It was more than trying to win a game. We said the game had nothing to do with the war. But we knew that Argentines had died there, that they had killed them like birds. And that was our revenge. It was something bigger than us: we defended our flag. “
It was also a justification for Maradona, who, in what would later become the “greatest tragedy” of his career, was removed from the squad for the 1978 World Cup, which Argentina won at home, because he was only 17 years old.
Maradona said he was given a soccer ball shortly after he was able to run.
“I was 3 years old and slept all night when I hugged this ball,” he said.
At the age of 10, Maradona became famous when he appeared halfway through the professional games and wowed the crowd by holding the ball in the air for minutes with his feet, chest and head. He also made his game debut with the Argentinos Juniors youth team, leading a squad of mostly 14-year-olds through 136 unbeaten games.
“To see him play was pure bliss, real glory,” said team-mate Carlos Beltran.
Maradona played for first division club Argentinos Juniors from 1976 to 1981, then moved to Boca Juniors for a year before heading to Barcelona for a world record of $ 8 million.
In 1984 Barcelona sold it to Napoli in Italy. He redesigned his destiny almost single-handedly and made it to the Italian championship in 1987 for his first title in 60 years.
A year after losing the 1990 World Cup final against West Germany, Maradona moved to Spanish club Sevilla, but his career was in decline. He played five games with the Argentine club Newell’s Old Boys in 1994 before returning to Boca in 1995-97 – his last club close to his heart.
Drug problems overshadowed his final years of play.
Maradona failed a doping test in 1991 and was banned for 15 months to recognize his longstanding cocaine addiction. He failed another stimulant drug test and was expelled from the 1994 US World Cup.
In retirement, Maradona attended Boca games as a noisy one-man cheer section and participated in charity, sporting and exhibition events worldwide. But the already stocky striker gained weight quickly and was clearly out of breath as he puffed through friendly matches.
In 2000 he was hospitalized in the Uruguayan resort of Punta del Este. Doctors said he was pumping at less than half his capacity. Blood and urine samples showed traces of cocaine.
After another emergency hospital stay in 2004, Maradona received drug abuse counseling and traveled to Cuba in September of that year to seek treatment at the Havana Mental Health Center. There he was visited by his friend, Cuban President Fidel Castro.
In Cuba, Maradona played golf and smoked cigars. He frequently praised Castro and the Argentine-born revolutionary “Che” Guevara, who fought with Castro in the Cuban Revolution – even with a tattoo of Guevara on his right arm.
Maradona said he was cleared of drugs there and had started a new chapter.
In 2005, he underwent gastric bypass surgery in Colombia and lost nearly 50 kilograms before appearing as the host of a popular Argentine television talk show. On “10’s Night” Maradona spun around a ball with Pele, interviewed boxer Mike Tyson and Hollywood stars, and recorded a long conversation with Castro in Cuba.
In retirement, Maradona also became more open. He often sniffed past coaches, players – including Pelé – and the Pope. He joined a left-wing protest march outside the America Summit in 2005 and stood next to Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez to denounce the presence of then President George W. Bush.
His underdog status made it all the more surprising when he was elected Argentina coach after the resignation of Alfio Basile.
He won his first three games, but tactics, choice and attention to detail were challenged after a 6-1 loss to Bolivia in World Cup qualifying meant Argentina’s worst loss yet.
Victor Hugo Morales, Argentina’s favorite football network, said Maradona will ultimately be remembered for an exciting style of play that has never been copied.
“He was one of the great artists of my time. Like great masters of music and painting, he has defied our intellect and enriched the human spirit, ”said Morales. “Nobody thrilled me and impressed me as much as Diego.”
More AP soccer: https://apnews.com/Soccer and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports