We are in August 1980, in the pleasant and bourgeois neighborhood of La Paternal in Buenos Aires. No. 2257 rue Lascano is a simple style house of predictable shape, flat wall on one side of the sidewalk.
In the neighborhood is the home ground of Argentinos Juniors, Diego Maradona’s first club. “The club grounds are very small; there’s only a brick wall at one end,” recalls Rex Gowar, who closely followed the legend’s career as a journalist. “He lights up the place every time he plays. It’s a small club with no real claim to fame other than to have discovered it. Later, on the transfer of money from Maradona, they built themselves a much better club.
Outside the club, a fan has an old car painted in team colors, mostly red with some white. “The car even has a phone, I don’t know if it works. I take a picture of Maradona holding the receiver to his mouth, with the wire sticking out of the car,” Gowar recalls.
La Paternal is an unassuming neighborhood named after an insurance company that built workers’ houses around the turn of the century. The house is two-tone, speckled magenta rising to the waist, a washed-out yellow almost white, also speckled, on top; two windows on the sides, a narrow door in the center, burglar bars with a simple geometric design protecting the windows and the door, all on a row of houses joined by their side walls.
“It’s a fairly standard type of colonial-style arrangement, built to specific measurements, about eight and a half meters wide in a kind of street where many houses look alike,” Gowar says. “Inside, it is rectangular and sinks quite deep into the block. Past the front door is an open hall with a table where visitors sit, then a kitchen and a long hallway with rooms next to it.
It was Maradona’s first home, the one that helped the family get out of the shanty town called Villa Fiorito, the poor and difficult neighborhood of dirt streets and puddles of mud, street vendors, day laborers and blue-collar workers, where he was born in November. 1960.
In the living room of the house, Gowar inspects the trophy cabinet. “He already had quite an impressive collection, thanks to the youth tournaments won with Argentinos Juniors, with the Argentinos Juniors children’s team called Las Cebollitas, the Little Onions,” he says.
Maradona is only 19 years old and Gowar stands on the border between two periods of the legend’s life.
In his lifetime, Maradona was called ‘El Diez’, ‘El Pibe de Oro’, or simply ‘El Pibe’ ― ‘The Kid’ ― but when he was 13 he was the ace of Las Cebollitas and his nickname was ‘El Peluza’―’The Teddy’, for his fuzzy hair. He is said to have cried when he missed a chance in the team’s only loss in 136 games. According to the legend, the opposing coach, as a consolation, told him: “Don’t cry, little brother, you will be the best in the world.”
Gowar was working at the time for SHOOT!, an English publication that no longer exists. Due to a printers’ strike, the interview he did with the 19-year-old was never published.
Besides SHOOT!, Gowar worked for the Buenos Aires Herald and then for Reuters in Buenos Aires, London and Rome at times that coincided with Maradona’s career in Europe. “I was always nearby,” Gowar says.
Gowar’s impressions of the young Maradona were that he was “a fairly normal Argentine teenager of working-class background”. A few years later, when he was at Boca Juniors, before going to Barcelona, ”he was very popular, although some criticized him for his arrogance”.
Maradona was exceptional as a young player. “Boca goalkeeper Hugo Gatti once taunted him for being overweight before a game,” Gowar recalled. “So Maradona said ‘I’m going to put 3 goals past him’ and ended up getting four. One of them was a free kick almost from the corner flag which went cold in the top far corner. He was just as good as his word.It was 1979 and Maradona was only 18 years old.
By the time Gowar interviewed Maradona, he had already won the 1979 Youth World Cup in Japan, and the reporter asked him what that victory meant to him. “It’s the most important thing in my life because I had never won such a championship as a professional,” reacted Maradona. “And to show what Argentine football looks like with all the other teams in the world and beat them well, not with ease but with clarity, showing what Argentine football has with its passing game, rotation and goal.”
Maradona won the Argentine Premier League with Boca in 1981. La Paternal and Villa Fiorito are today places of pilgrimage for millions of Maradona fans around the world.
Maradona started being compared to Pelé around the time of the interview, Gowar says. During the 1970 World Cup, Pelé modeled the Uruguayan goalkeeper. “The ball was coming from the left and Pelé was running towards it. The goalkeeper came out and Pele just ran over the ball and passed the goalkeeper, who was totally bewildered. He then pivoted and kicked the ball, which went just outside. Maradona did the same to Fiori in a league game in 1979,” Gowar recalled. “The footwork was the main thing. Maradona was very agile, although he was bigger than Messi. He could somehow maintain his balance when thrown off balance by defenders trying to knock him down. It was just amazing.
Mexico 1986 built Maradona the legend. The game against England was the first time Argentina faced the British after the Falklands War. Tensions were so high that Mexican army tanks patrolled the streets around the Estadio Azteca. The police were deployed in the stands.
The game is remembered for Maradona’s two goals that sank England. The first, the controversial “Hand of God” goal, and the second, a standout solo effort that has been described as one of the greatest in football history. Gowar says he didn’t see the first goal. “It all happened so fast,” he says. The second was pure magic. “What I remember is he suddenly started a run, and every step of the way he thought where it looked like an English player might be able to stop him, and he ran past him… and then he took that side step when he dragged the ball in front of the goalkeeper and dug it in.
After the match, in the locker room, Argentine journalists asked Maradona if that first goal was with the help of his hand. “He reacted like a typical Argentinian or South American,” recalled Gowar, who was in another section of the dressing room but was told Maradona’s words by an Argentinian colleague. “In a way of saying thank you to God, he said, ‘Well, it was a bit with Maradona’s head and a bit with God’s hand.’ That’s what an Argentinian kid with that kind of experience would say, thank God, thank you for his help, like in something that didn’t involve cheating. Maradona, like the majority of Argentines, was Catholic.
The beauty of the quote was acquired later, with so much discussion and writing about it, says Gowar, whose report for Reuters on the quip went viral. “Some people would think the statement was just as brazen as the way he scored that goal,” Gowar says. “The quote had a big reaction in Argentina, a terrible reaction in England. I’m amazed at how much the English have come to live with it.
Maradona, says Gowar, was very good at free-kicks, and that’s something Messi learned from him when the former coached the national team. Maradona came to a tragic end to his World Cup career, when he was suspended after two matches in the United States in 1994. “He scored a good goal against Greece,” Gowar says. “But it was his deal with Caniggia that really showed him as a leader. They were losing 2-1 to Nigeria when Caniggia scored two goals, one of which started with a free kick from Maradona.”
Gowar attributes Maradona’s greatness to “his speed of thought”. He was very quick to read the situation and make a run or a pass. “The difference between Messi and Maradona is that Messi managed to do it day after day, every weekend,” Gowar notes. “Maradona had spells whether he played for Argentina or not. Maradona had it all and yet, some would say, he didn’t have the right foot, or he didn’t use his head so much, that Pele was more complete.The genius of Maradona was that he was one step ahead of everyone else on the football field, in his head and his execution.