Balls to that

El Diego is a runaway train of an autobiography in which the South American soccer genius Diego Maradona tells us his version of his life story


El Diego: The Autobiography of the World’s Greatest Footballer
Diego Maradona
2004, Yellow Jersey Press
302 pages

Reviewed by Jo Griffin

“BOLLOCKS was it just another match!” is how Diego Maradona sums up the bitter emotions behind Argentina’s historic clash with England in the 1986 World Cup in El Diego, his autobiography. You might also say: “Bollocks!” is this just another book about the soccer star since it proves as addictive as the white stuff that would eventually be his undoing.

El Diego is as paradoxical as its subject: frank yet, frankly, self-delusional, packed with unnecessary detail about minor league matches and politics yet vague on significant episodes in Maradona’s career, including the time he shot at a group of journalists who were pestering him, “Yeah, it was the episode with the air rifle.” This is an account that keeps veering off the tracks with impressive force and speed – a runaway train of a book.

The story of this South American soccer genius begins, as it must, in the slums. El Dieguito, as he was known, was so prodigiously talented that, at first, local trainers thought he was a midget. After a spell at the Buenos Aires club Boca Junior, he plays for Barcelona and then Naples, where he is reunited with “his people” – poor and passionate enough to enable him to play his best football. Unfortunately, he also finds the Mob.

Monstrous talent

Maradona’s description of his involvement with the Mafia – “They offered me things but I never wanted to accept them” – is typical of how he circumvents the truth, but the tactic is so transparent that it ends up providing an insight into the chaotic world of a man who is first humbled by his own monstrous talent and then burdened by his monstrous ego. So does the language of El Diego, a blend of Buenos Aires street slang and Maradona’s own lexicon in which vaccinate, for example, means both to screw a woman and to score a goal. But this is sex within a romance: if the first great love is Boca Junior, the second is Naples, where “I could not go out on the streets because they loved me too much.” One of the most endearing aspects of this story is Dieguito’s sincere quest to be at one with his public.

Another is his almost immature attachment to some friends and, of course, his wife Claudia and daughters. “I’d rather be an addict than take advantage of others or be a bad friend.” He is regularly reduced to tears, or “dead” and his soul “breaks into pieces”. This, we sense, is an emotional man caught in a vicious circle – fame kept the feelings at fever pitch and these then fed the football, particularly bronca, rage or fury that fired him on.

Somewhere in the second half of the book, we sense that the end is nigh. Diet and detox sessions cannot save Maradona from an apparent death wish, or something like it. At age 37, a positive drugs test ends a comeback at Boca Junior. Appropriately enough, the anarchic, freewheeling style gives way to a simply stated truth as Diego bids farewell to professional soccer. “I had started with this, with this football thing, because of a dream I had.”

Jo Griffin is a journalist