Diego Maradona (1976 to 1998)
Unquestionably one of the finest playmakers to have played the game, Diego Armando Maradona’s 21-year playing career was filled with as much controversy as remarkable quality.
Usually described as a classic “number 10”, Maradona thrived when given a free role in the space between midfield and the centre forwards. His ability to find space, low centre of gravity and dribbling made him an elusive player for opposing teams to try and mark. This, combined with his vision, passing ability and creativity, set him apart from his peers.
Although only 5’5” tall, Maradona’s bullish stature made him almost impossible to outmuscle, particularly when he was in full flow with the ball seemingly tied to the laces of his left boot. His low centre of gravity meant he could change direction at speed, tying opponents in knots.
Maradona’s best years came between 1985 and 1990 when he played for Napoli in Italy and excelled for Argentina on the international stage.
His goals at the World Cup of 1986, firstly against England, where he slalomed his way effortlessly beyond several challenges before dummying Peter Shilton, the England goalkeeper, and slotting into an empty net, and then his two goals against Belgium, illustrate Maradona’s combination of skill, strength and all-round genius.
Maradona’s game went so much deeper than simple individual genius. He is one of the greatest all-around attacking players the game has ever seen. Indeed, his greatest strength was arguably the footballing intelligence that allowed him to find pockets of space to operate and create space for teammates to work in.
Technically, Maradona was unmatched. He had a silky soft first touch that allowed him to gather the ball and use his strength or low centre of gravity to operate in tight spaces. He could hold the ball up as well as a 6’5” target man and wait for support or use his impish skills to wriggle away from his marker and find space.
Diego Maradona was at the fulcrum of success for club and country, notably between 1986 and 1990.
He was plying his trade with Napoli in Serie A at this stage. After 75,000 supporters had greeted his signing in Naples, he transformed the club’s fortunes on the pitch. After leading them to their first ever Scudetto in 1986-87, he repeated the trick in 1989-90 while also helping Napoli to the Coppa Italia and UEFA Cup.
Meanwhile, on the international stage, Maradona played a crucial role in Argentina’s success at the 1986 FIFA World Cup, contributing five goals, countless assists and comprehensively sweeping the vote for the “Best Player” award.
Four years later, at Italia ’90, he scored the penalty that knocked the hosts out in the semi-final, played in Naples, and was central to their run to the final, despite not scoring a goal outside of shoot-outs.
In addition to his success with Napoli and Argentina, he won the Argentine Premier Division with Boca Juniors and the Copa del Rey with Barcelona.
Maradona won the Ballon d’Or twice, in 1986 and 1990, and was named FIFA Player of the Century in 2000. On top of those awards, he was named Argentine Player of the Year four times, South American Footballer of the Year six times, and the Serie A Player of the Year in 1985.