Passionate and outrageous, Maradona had cult status beyond the pitch

FILE PHOTO: People gather to mourn the death of Argentine soccer legend Diego Maradona outside San Paolo stadium in Naples, Italy, November 25, 2020. REUTERS/Ciro De Luca

BUENOS AIRES (Reuters) - Diego Maradona had more talent than almost any other footballer in history but his cult status in Argentina and around the world went far beyond the pitch. His flaws made him human and his battling nature won him adoration.

The 60-year-old star, who died of a heart attack on Wednesday, won the World Cup in 1986, lifted Italian club Napoli to unparalleled heights and, in one crucial game against England, scored two of the most memorable goals of all time: one with his hand and the other with his feet.

"As a player he gave everything to us," Buenos Aires resident Elsa Flores told Reuters. "I don't think there is an Argentine who says he didn't give us everything. He gave us a world championship and gave us many things as a player. He always played for the jersey."

Off the pitch, Maradona was passionate and outrageous, a small man with big appetites. He knew how to push people's buttons and he did not care what anyone thought.

That behaviour brought him love and hate in equal measure.

He was revered in Naples, where 30 years after his stint there his likeness still adorns walls, billboards and shrines.

In Argentine he was lionized in songs and a virtual "church" –- with its own 10 commandments -- sprang up to worship the silky playmaker whose number 10 shirt number gave rise to his nickname D10S –- a play on the Spanish word for "god".

"Maradona is not just any person, he is a man glued to a leather ball," Argentine singer Calamaro declared in his song "Maradona". "I don't care what mess Maradona gets into, he's my friend and he's a great person."

Maradona loudly championed Argentine causes -– including Argentina’s controversial claim to the Malvinas, the British islands known as the Falklands that sit just east of the Argentine coast.

He was a friend to left-wing Latin American leaders, including Cuba's Fidel Castro and Venezuela's Hugo Chavez.

In Italy, he spoke out on behalf of the poor south against the rich north.

In a sport where blandness prevails, Maradona was willing to speak his mind and Argentines loved him for it because they saw a bit of themselves in him, perhaps more than some of them would care to admit.

His all-consuming and often destructive passion was the epitome of what it means to be Argentine, where huge outpourings of joy are often followed by deep troughs of melancholy.

It was what prompted thousands of Argentines to take to the streets in mourning on Wednesday and what made them forgive Maradona so many times, despite his cozying up to autocrats and dictators and his repeated and public traumas with drink, drugs and partners.

The "Church of Maradona", where Diego was God and which had thousands of followers around the world, included commandments such as "Declare your unconditional love for Diego and good football" and "Spread Diego's miracles throughout the universe".

On the field, too, Maradona was Argentina personified and not just because of his undisputed brilliance. His cunning, his love of putting one over on his rivals and his deep suspicion of authority marked his football.

As one church follower wrote on the group's Facebook page: “Football has died. Nothing else to say. AD10s.”

(Writing by Andrew Downie and Adam Jourdan; reporting by Lucila Sigal, additional reporting by Reuters TV; Editing by Daniel Flynn and Clare Fallon)

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