A genius who won the World Cup on his own

From the streets of Buenos Aires, Diego Maradona made a meteoric rise to become the world's best footballer
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No doubt the fact that Diego Maradona is now critically ill in a hospital in Buenos Aires is something that will be swiftly assigned to the wages of sin department.

It is unquestionably true that Maradona's life has been nothing so much as a bad end waiting to happen. However, sometimes genius fashions its own terrain and if Maradona was variously intemperate and unscrupulous - he delivered the "Hand of God" goal against England as if he were merely lifting a wallet on the unpaved slum streets where he grew up - he also reached an unprecedented peak as a footballer in 1986. Then, he came as near as any man would to winning a World Cup single-handedly.

In the long run of the history of the game he had many rivals. Pele may be adjudged to have created a greater body of work. The Black Pearl reached astonishing levels of control proficiency in Brazil's World Cup triumph in 1970, also in Mexico. Players such as Alfredo di Stefano, Franz Beckenbauer, George Best and Bobby Charlton will have their supporters in a list of all-time greats.

But, none of them quite did what Maradona achieved in the second World Cup in the Azteca Stadium. In England, perhaps inevitably, we dwell on that moment when Maradona fisted the ball beyond Peter Shilton. But when he ran through the England team to score a goal of bewildering heart and brilliance, there was no doubt he was reaching the football heavens. In the next round against Belgium, he produced a goal almost as remarkable and then, in the final, when the Germans applied one of their great players, Lothar Matthäus, to the job of shadowing him, Maradona broke free to deliver the killing pass in a 3-2 victory.

Heaven knows there were many lows to accompany that soaring triumph. As he delivered Napoli's first Italian league title in the late 80s, he also fell in with the local underworld. His drug habit started there, they say, and the rest of his football life was a way of the cross, sustained by painkillers and desperate lurches into the high life.

In 1990, four years after his Mexican triumph, he was already the shell of a great man. But still he guided a poor Argentina side into the World Cup final against Germany in Rome. This time, the result was reversed, and Maradona was slipping into a life that seemed to his admirers and critics as a kind of hell.

He was banned from the 1994 World Cup in America after a positive drugs test. The rest was a terrible anarchy of the spirit. He was invited to Cuba by President Fidel Castro, talked about mending his ways and returning to football. But they were sad dreams that he could never sustain. He became a despised and reviled figure in many quarters.

But there are those who will always remember when Maradona took hold of the world and shook it down in pursuit of superb achievement. For a while, Maradona was the bravest of the brave on a football field - and the best.

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