As a teenager, I watched in amazement as a short, stocky somewhat not good-looking fellow defied the odds to become the best football player ever (at least to me!).
I was mesmerised by Diego Armando Maradona and how he single-handedly ripped teams apart with his skill, ability with the ball and amazing movement (especially with his somewhat non-typical body). Maradona made me believe that anything is possible. That anyone, regardless of shape or looks, could make it.
Maradona was born on Oct 30, 1960 to a poor family, in Lanús, Buenos Aires but was raised in Villa Fiorito, a shanty town of Buenos Aires.
During his professional club career Maradona played for Argentinos Juniors, Boca Juniors, Barcelona, Napoli, Sevilla and Newell’s Old Boys. At club level, he is most famous for his career in Napoli where he won numerous accolades. In his international career playing for Argentina, he earned 91 caps and scored 34 goals.
Maradona is the only footballer in history to set the world record transfer fee twice; first when he transferred to Barcelona for a then world record £5mil, and when he moved to Napoli for another record fee of £6.9mil.
He played in four FIFA World Cups, including the 1986 World Cup where he led Argentina to victory over West Germany in the final, and won the Golden Ball award for best player.
In that same tournament’s quarter-final, he scored both goals in a 2–1 victory over England, which entered football history, although for two different reasons, i.e. an illegal “Hand of God” goal and FIFA’s “goal of the century”.
To me, Maradona is the best football player ever. Part of my reasoning is that unlike players like Messi and Pelé, he played in rather average teams.
Prior to coming to Napoli, no team from Southern Italy had won the championship. Yet, Maradona’s arrival heralded two league titles for Napoli. He also took an average Argentina side in 1986 and won the World Cup.
In 1990, he took an extremely poor Argentina side to the World Cup final (playing with one leg and tons of painkillers!) losing to Germany with a contentious penalty. Bear in mind there were hardly any Argentinian “superstars” in the 1986 and 1990 lineups.
So, what lessons can we learn from Maradona? I suggest the following key leadership lessons:
1. He played for playing the game
Maradona never played for money. Legend has it that he was offered more than US$100mil to promote soccer in the United States in 1988, in a bid to promote the beautiful game before the 1994 US World Cup. Yet, he turned it down as it was not about football.
Maradona was tackled roughly but he got up because he loved every bit of the game. It was frustrating and painful at times, but his love for football helped him continue.
Do you love what you do? Do you do the work because you love it or because it is your job? Maradona loved his work. And it showed in his artistry of his work. How about you?
2. He took matters into his own “hands”
In the 1980s, Argentina and Britain were at war over the Falkland Islands. The Falkland War was the backdrop to the 1986 World Cup match between Argentina and England.
To many Argentines, including Maradona, Britain was the oppressor and poor Argentina, the victim. Yet, nothing could be done – until Maradona stepped up and took the law into his own “hands” (literally).
Replays showed that the first goal was scored by striking the ball with his hand. Maradona was coyly evasive, describing it as “a little with the head of Maradona and a little with the hand of God.”
Check out Maradona’s “Hand of God” goal at the 1986 World Cup.
In 2005 Maradona acknowledged that he had hit the ball with his hand purposely, no contact with his head was made, and that he immediately knew the goal was illegitimate.
Yet, he did not stop there. He wanted to make a point that he could take the “law” into his own “hands”, as he immediately countered that with a goal four minutes later. That goal would later be voted by FIFA as the greatest goal in World Cup history.
Radio commentator Bryon Butler said, “Maradona, turns like a little eel, he comes away from trouble, little squat man… comes inside Butcher and leaves him for dead, outside Fenwick and leaves him for dead, and puts the ball away… and that is why Maradona is the greatest player in the world.”
The Brits were truly beaten by Maradona and despite his illegitimate goal, most English supporters just stood in awe of this great man. He tamed the roaring Lions of England and he did it the Maradona way.
Do you have a cause you believe in? Would you be willing to put your “hand” up and be counted?
Check out Maradona’s second goal in the 1986 World Cup against England.
3. If at first you don’t succeed, try again…and again!
Maradona was not selected for the Argentinean squad in 1978 when Argentina won the World Cup. He was the star in Argentina’s junior world cup triumph yet was not in the senior squad. He was bitterly disappointed, but Maradona kept working harder.
In the 1982 World Cup, Maradona was officially the best player in the world. Barcelona had paid a world record fee for him and he was destined to be “king of the world”.
Yet, tragedy unfolded. He was constantly and aggressively marked out and tackled upon such that he lost his cool against Brazil and was sent off.
His red card marked the end for Argentina, the defending champions, and Maradona’s fall from grace could not be faster. He failed miserably in Barcelona because of an ankle break and numerous bouts of illnesses.
However, that did not deter Maradona. He was determined to succeed. That, he did. He pushed minnows Napoli to greatness. And in 1986, single-handedly won the World Cup for Argentina, cementing his place among the legends of football.
As I look at Maradona’s early struggles, it was easy to give up. Instead, he deployed the mantra “if at first you don’t succeed, try again!” He did keep trying, till he finally succeeded.
What about us? Do we give up when misfortune hits or do we keep relentlessly focused on the dream?
4. He worked tirelessly to bring new innovations to life
Juvenal wrote in the El Gráfico magazine:
The difference between the genius and the rich of talent is that the latter makes perfectly the things that are already invented, and the genius invents what does not exist.
Maradona was a permanent generator of surprises, an admirable manufacturer of the unexpected thing.
Maradona was always seeking new ways of making new things come alive. Watching Maradona was always incredible for me as I watched him do impossible things on the football field.
Maradona was an innovator. Even though he was not a natural goalscorer, he reinvented himself to score more goals than natural goalscorers. The short, stocky man knew that nothing was impossible.
5. Be a heretic and a disruptor. Be cunning too!
French newspaper L’Equipe later described Maradona as “half-angel, half-devil”. Part of the reason Maradona is constantly described as a rebel and heretic is due to his early upbringing and rebellious nature.
Although this may not be a great part of Maradona, his greatness shone when he did non-traditional things. He chose to go to Napoli, partly to defy the Italian dogma that only clubs like Juventus, AC Milan and Inter Milan could win titles. He went to a club that had never won a title before just to prove that nothing was impossible.
The heretics and disruptors of the world do not care what other people think about them. Some people got upset with Maradona for his cunning and controversial “Hand of God” goal. He did not care one bit.
Others view it as a very clever move, with one of the opposition players in that game, Glenn Hoddle, admitting that Maradona had disguised it cunningly in flicking his head at the same time as palming the ball.
The goal itself has been viewed as being an embodiment of the Buenos Aires shanty town Maradona was brought up in and it is the concept of “viveza criolla” — native cunning.
Being cunning and creative is part of the disruption process. Steve Jobs was cunning. So was Thomas Edison. It adds to their ability to “make a difference”.
Maradona was a genius of the flawed variety but his mistakes were not calculated acts of sporting evil.
Are you a heretic? Do you conform to the same process, structure and work levels as everyone? Or do you stand out and are different? It may take a bit of guile but if you don’t, you will never be the best in the world.
This weekend as you watch the great players during the World Cup, remember that they all started as amateurs. Yet, they defied the odds. Like Maradona, they set the world on fire through the love of their craft, persistence, and changing the rules of the game. Are you up for greatness?