“Do you know the player I could have been if I hadn’t taken drugs?”: The darker side of Diego

Diego Maradona drugs

“Those who say cocaine stimulates you don’t know a thing. If you take cocaine to play football, you can’t play. It’s not good for being on the pitch. It’s useless for life. Useless.”

Diego Maradona in 1996 speaking to Gente Magazine

Recreational drugs such as cocaine, cannabis and ecstasy/MDMA, to name a few, are all prohibited substances in sports. The reason given by WADA is that these drugs are perceived to be performance-enhancing.

But, like Maradona pointed out in his 1996 interview, cocaine doesn’t help you when you play football. Like all the recreational drugs that are on the banned list, for them to be deemed to be performance-enhancing is ridiculous. Everybody in life has probably come across someone taking recreational drugs or even experimented themselves. The common cocaine user in the pub, chatting the ear off anyone who will listen, being over friendly hugging anyone they encounter. WADA must think this will aid defenders too much, marshalling the back four and tight man marking.

Your regular stoner, you smell them before you see them, on the hunt for food as the munchies kick in. This is obviously a no-go; we can’t make strikers hungrier for goals than they already are. Your 18–21-year-old taking ecstasy tablets in a club, sweating profusely but excellent non-stop two-stepping. This added energy must be a must for any midfielder if their jaw swinging doesn’t distract them too much and they stay hydrated.

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Maradona is one of the greatest players of all time and was never shy in declaring how good he was in comparison to other greats. But even his self-belief waned due to his cocaine use. In 2014 he told Argentina’s Tyc Sports, “I gave my opponents a big advantage due to my illness. Do you know the player I could have been if I hadn’t taken drugs?”. For a person who is thought of as ‘God’ in his own country, the regret he has towards his cocaine use is telling. In no way shape or form did it give him an advantage when playing football.

“I gave my opponents a big advantage due to my illness. Do you know the player I could have been if I hadn’t taken drugs?”

In Maradona’s biography, he talked about his early experiences of using cocaine. “I tried it in Europe for the first time in 1982,” he said. “I was 22 years old; it was enough for me to feel alive. I tried drugs because there are drugs like that everywhere in football.” This was denied by many of his friends at the time who said he first tried the drug the night he celebrated leaving Barca to join Napoli. It was given to him by his father-in-law Roque Nicolas Villafane. He initially loved it because it didn’t stop him from winning, but soon that left for loneliness, fear and doubt.

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To try to overcome this he continued to use the drug for the whole time he was at Napoli trying to find the original high. Naples was looked down on by the industrial north. Known as ‘terrone’, meaning from the land. His first match against Verona saw them show a banner saying, ‘Welcome to Italy’, showing how they didn’t perceive the south to be part of Italy.

Maradona adhered himself to the Neapolitans straight away, using La domencia Sportiva. “There is a racism problem in Italian football but not against black people. There is racism is against Neapolitans and that is a disgrace”. The first home game the fans unveiled a banner in his honour. “Uno Di noi”- one of us. He was with them: and he was with them in their fight against the rest of the country. Issues began in Naples when he fell out with his long-term advisor Jorge Cyterszpiler over money. He became untrustworthy even though all he had done was try to protect him. In his place came a new agent, Guillermo Coppola. A yes man who would also take drugs with him. He was loved by the people of Naples, the club and was also a friend of the Camorra, meaning he was protected for a long period of time at Napoli.

His use of Cocaine spiralled out of control though when a paternity scandal was made public knowledge. He had fathered a child to a woman he had a brief affair with, but denied that the child was his, forcing the woman to release this to the press. This rocked Maradona and his wife and family but continued to deny the child was his. The people of Naples threatened the family and even the mayor of Naples condemned them all concerned about Maradona wanting to leave. This caused his mood to change however, cocaine was no longer just a distraction. He lost the shine in his eyes and his mood changed. It got so bad that he would take it in the toilet as his daughter would try to come in. People were dropping deliveries off in the middle of the night to the house and he would continue to deny what was going on to his wife.  Some days his wife would leave him all day in bed.

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He had fallen into a deep depression and his use of cocaine was accelerating this. The pressure of living in Naples where he was mobbed everywhere he went and being the talisman of the team made his time in Naples turn into a nightmare. Even throughout this period, he managed to help Napoli secure the Serie A title and lift the UEFA Cup, their first-ever major European trophy. Throughout this period though he missed training staying in his house using cocaine and making excuses for why he wasn’t there. The whole time he was spied on by club president Corrado Ferlaino and director Luciano Moggi. They listened to the reports but did nothing to help his addiction, Ferlaino said this, “From Sunday night to Wednesday, Diego was free to do what he wanted. But on Thursday he had to be clean”.

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At the time his weekly routine was described as this by journalist Miguel Delaney:

Sunday: Serie A match.

Sunday night to Wednesday: continuous cocaine binge, usually with Camorra.

Wednesday morning to Saturday: “cleanse” and sweat it all out.

Sunday: Serie A match.

If he ever overdid this, then the club were also known to use other players’ urine to pass the tests if needed. But this was done on a weekly basis unless a big game was coming up or an important part of the season. Then he would manage to stay clean for a period to get himself fit as possible. For many years Maradona tried to leave Napoli and came close on a few occasions to joining Marseille and Bernard Tapie. Napoli however backed out numerous times on promises made to Maradona that they would allow him to leave, most prominently after winning a second Serie A title and the UEFA Cup.

Maradona was eventually banned in 1991 when he was banned for 15 months by Napoli for testing positive for cocaine – this lasted from April 1991 – June 1992. Before this though his relationship with the club and Naples (including the Mafia) had broken down anyway. It was difficult times for the mafia and because of his links to prostitutes controlled by the mafia, he was dragged into an operation against the Camorra. He was implicated as they had wiretaps on hookers and through these wiretaps he was caught asking for coke or mentioning it. Five prostitutes declared he had given them cocaine and he was charged with use and distribution of cocaine by the Neapolitan courts. He was given fourteen months, but it was suspended and also fined 4 million lira.

December 1990 saw him fined $70000 by the Federcalcio and Napoli due to damaging the club’s image due to the court case. He had 2 and a half years left on his contract, but he was saying he was going to Boca and the club wanted him gone too. Maradona had fallen out of love with the people of Naples at the time too, for how they treated him after defeating Italy in the semi-finals of the Italia 90 World Cup.

The positive test then gave them the reason, they needed to get rid of him without a massive payoff. “I tested positive almost on purpose. Yes, on purpose I wanted it”. He admitted to journalist Daniel Arcucci some years later. Later in the same year he was arrested in Buenos Aires for possessing a half-kilo of cocaine and was given a 14-month suspended sentence. In this time, he was in Buenos Aires supposedly to enter rehab and try to solve his cocaine issue.

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Although Maradona in my opinion was wrongly banned for taking recreational drugs deemed as performance enhancers, which in fact had taken a cruel control over his life and negatively affected his brilliance on the pitch. He would later be banned for taking PED’s (Performance Enhancing Drugs). The iconic picture seen by everybody around the world – Diego Maradona, staring manically into the camera, as he screamed releasing the frustration he had felt since the 1990 World Cup.

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The picture has been seen by millions and if you were to ask most people about the picture they would say, “Look how off his head on coke he is, he was obviously going to fail the test.” People now still wrongly believe the failed test was due to cocaine, but for this period, he had managed to avoid the use of the drug that had such a debilitating control over him. The manic eyes and scream into the camera, although scarily reminiscent of a cocaine user high on the substance, was him releasing the pain and anguish he had felt in the 4 years prior to the 1990 World Cup. The 1994 US World Cup was memorable not just for the quality of football. The death of Andres Escobar also left a dark cloud over the tournament. But the failure of a drug test for 5 banned substances on FIFA’s banned substances list, by arguably the greatest player of his generation, shocked the world. Was everyone surprised he had failed a drug test? Not really, considering the lengthy ban in 1991 for a positive test for Cocaine. However, it was the fact it wasn’t cocaine and a PED that shocked so many.

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After the Italian media had turned against Maradona and his safe haven in Naples was ruined. He then had an unsuccessful spell at Seville in La Liga, where his issues with cocaine didn’t stop. The drugs were now severely affecting his ability on the pitch. His mercurial ability seemed to be dwindling, which wasn’t supported by his poor fitness levels. He returned to Argentina, signing for Rosario-based Newell’s Old Boys. But still there he seemed to be nearing the end of his career. He was 33 and seriously unfit, struggling to keep up with the pace of the game in the Argentinian domestic league. The 1994 World Cup must’ve been nothing but a pipe dream. But then came the earth-shattering defeat to Columbia in Argentina’s last World Cup qualifier. They were embarrassed, the team were labelled a disgrace. So out went the Bat-Signal. The fans called for ‘El Diego’s’ return to the national team. No matter his domestic form, their famous number 10 was the only person they felt could resurrect their World Cup dreams. Their prayers were answered, he returned to the squad for the two-legged playoff versus Australia. The winner would qualify for the World Cup.

He made an instant impact in the first leg. Assisting Argentina’s only goal in a 1-1 draw in Australia. The return leg was a cagey affair, however Argentina scraped through with an own goal sealing a 1-0 victory. They were on their way to the 1994 World Cup, but Maradona had now left Newell’s. He had no club, and his fitness couldn’t match that of his teammates. He made the decision to have a make-or-break fitness camp, that would last one week. He would push his body to its limits with high-intensity training, surrounded by a team of fitness specialists. He was reported to lose 12kg and decided he had made enough progress to be near some level of fitness near to his teammates. Argentina would have their talisman for one last World Cup.

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Argentina had been written off by most of the world media in the build-up to the tournament, the 5-0 defeat to Colombia was still fresh in everyone’s minds. Maradona wasn’t the only player returning from a drug ban. Another star player for the team, Claudio Caniggia was returning from his own 13-month drug ban too. The team would therefore you’d think would be under increased scrutiny from FIFA’s drug testers. The celebration seen and replayed by so many after the failed drug test, somewhat trying to show his guilt due to the bulging eyes, came in their first game. Maradona playing a deeper role pulling the strings and feeding the dangerous strike force at Argentina’s disposal silenced their critics. A hat-trick from Gabriel Batistuta was followed by a goal a prime Maradona would’ve been proud of. A curling effort with his famous left foot gave the Greece keeper no chance as it nestled in the top corner. The 4-0 win made the world media sit up and take notice. In the following game Maradona was pivotal again, dictating the game for Argentina. He assisted Caniggia for one of his two goals, also silencing his doubters following his previous failed test. They defeated the talented Nigerians 2-1 putting them top of their group with 6 points and wins in both games.

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Then came the moment that would take the wind out of Argentina’s brimming sails. But also shock the whole world. After the Nigeria game, Maradona was taken for a post-match drug test. The day before their final group game against Bulgaria, Maradona was informed of the results of his positive test. He denied all the allegations.

The AFA president Julio Grodona met with the world’s press not long after. He told the press that the Ephedrine had been found due to a nasal spray Maradona had used, one that is bought over the counter in Argentina. Dr Michael d’Hooghe a FIFA committee member denied the possibility of this outright. Pointing out that the other substances found in the positive test weren’t in the nasal spray, further remarking no product contained all of them together. The second test came back positive as well. The man who had lit up the World Cup, would bow out on the biggest stage marred in disgrace. He was sent home by the AFA.

Argentina now Maradona-less would have to find a way to keep the momentum he had created. The ban was like a pin popping a balloon full of all Argentina’s charisma and confidence. They lost the final group game 2-0 against Bulgaria. Meaning even after their two wins they finished third in the group. This set up a tie with Romania. A game some describe as the best and most exciting game of the whole tournament. None of which will bring Argentina any comfort, losing 3-2, to the Gheroge Hagi-led Romania. A tournament before Maradona’s return that didn’t have much hope, had been ignited by his return. Only to be extinguished as soon as the results were proven by the second test. For their worst performance since 1982, exiting in the last-16.

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Still Maradona strenuously denied the results of the drug test. Saying he had never taken PED’s. He blamed it on a witch-hunt by AFA President Julio Grodona and FIFA, trying to tarnish his name. Somewhat changing from his previous stance of a nasal spray. He then turned to blaming one of his fitness trainers who had given him an American supplement that contained Ephedrine, unbeknown to his knowledge. He was banned for 15 months. His triumphant return had ended in tears. “They’ve (Fifa) cut my legs off. This is a real dirty business. I’d like to believe in Joao Havelange and Sepp Blatter but after this…. Well, I don’t want to say anything” was Maradona’s response to the media in the immediate aftermath, reiterating his claims of a conspiracy. FIFA however did support his views that he hadn’t taken them consciously to improve performance.

“They’ve (Fifa) cut my legs off. This is a real dirty business. I’d like to believe in Joao Havelange and Sepp Blatter but after this…. Well, I don’t want to say anything”

That was the responsibility of Daniel Cerrini, a bodybuilder who had supported his return to fitness. He was also banned for 15 months. It was however a tragedy for one of the world’s most revered footballers of all time for the talent shown. Unfortunately, his demons and issues with drugs mean many didn’t give him any benefit of the doubt. He moved to his old team Boca Juniors in 1995. However, in 1997 he failed a drug test for the third time in six years putting an end to his playing career. This failure was only ever described officially as due to ‘prohibited substances’ although Boca president Mauricio Macri said he was told cocaine had been present in a urine sample.

Even before this final ban, Maradona told a drugs charity in 1996: ‘Drugs are everywhere, and I do not want kids to take them. ‘I have two girls and I thought it best to say this, a father’s obligation… I was, am and always will be a drug addict.’