The following is adapted from Angels With Dirty Faces: The Footballing History of Argentina by Jonathan Wilson. Reprinted with permission from Nation Books.
On October 30, 1960, thirty-two years after Borocoto had described the perfect pibe, the urchin with the mop of unkempt hair, the eyes that glittered with mischief, and the impudent smile that revealed teeth worn down by yesterday's bread, the ideal was made flesh in the Evita Peron hospital in Lanus, an industrial district to the south of Buenos Aires.
Diego "Chitoro" Maradona and his wife, Dalma "Tota" Salvadora, were both from Esquina in Corrientes in the Northeast of Argentina, near the border with Paraguay. He was a boatman who lived in a riverside hut coated with clay and reeds and made his living by fishing and by taking cows to the islands of the Parana Delta to graze, bringing them back when the tide came in. Tota moved to Buenos Aires, seeking a better life, and found employment as a servant. Two years later she persuaded Chitoro to join her, initially staying with some relatives in Villa Fiorito, a suburb to the south of Buenos Aires. Chitoro found work in a bonemeal factory on the Riachuelo, the inlet where Pedro de Mendoza had initially founded Buenos Aires and across which the Decamisados had swarmed in support of Peron in 1945. By then it had become a filthy and polluted canal that effectively marked the boundary between rich and poor in the city. Shortly after the Maradonas arrived in Villa Fiorito, their relatives moved, and Chitoro had to build his own house from loose bricks and sheets of metal.
The Maradonas had had three daughters when Tota fell pregnant again. There are dozens of stories about the birth of her fourth child, as though it had to be presaged by some acknowledgment on the part of the universe, but the most familiar has it that Tota was dancing when she felt a sudden pain. A few hours later, she gave birth to a son, who is reported to have been kicking even as he came into the world. "Congratulations," the doctor is supposed to have said. "You have a healthy boy, and he is pure ass." The Maradonas named their child after his father: el Diego.
Diego grew up in a shack with neither running water nor electricity. It was Villa Fiorito, Maradona always said, that taught him viveza, the sense of cunning or canniness that was prized as the virtue that allowed the impoverished to thrive. Those from the provinces, he insisted, were more honest, but villeros were tribal: they would gather their friends tightly around them, prioritizing loyalty above all else. He is, he proudly says, a cabecita negra (a little black head), descended from poor Italian and Guarani stock, a laborer from the lowest reaches of society.
On his third birthday, Maradona was given a ball by his cousin Beto; that night he took it to bed with him. It became his constant companion. "There are many people who are scared to admit they come from a villa," he said, "but not me, because if I hadn't been born in a villa, I wouldn't have been Maradona. I had the freedom to play." But there can be no idealizing his childhood. There was no police station in Villa Fiorito for fear it would become a target for dissent; instead, police were bused in each day from outside. There were other, more mundane, dangers. While a toddler, Maradona fell one night into an open cesspit. "Diegito," shouted his uncle Cirilo as he helped him out, "keep your head above the shit." It's a story Maradona would tell often, his uncle's words becoming almost a mantra during the more difficult moments of his life.
As a child Maradona made money however he could, opening taxi doors, selling scrap, collecting the foil wrapping from cigarette packets. To survive was to live on your wits; it was a long way from the Peronist dream, but Chitoro and Tota kept pictures of Peron and Evita in the house. They seem to have realized early that Diego's future lay in football, supporting him at every stage of his development. An early photograph shows him, perhaps four or five years old, standing in front of a wire fence that is battered and twisted from how often he'd thumped a ball against it. On the way to school he would do keepie-ups with an orange, a crumpled newspaper, or a bundle of rags, not letting the ball touch the ground even as he went over a railway bridge.
In December 1968 Maradona was taken for a trial with the Cebollitas (the Little Onions), the youth side of Argentinos Juniors. The club had been founded in the central barrio of Villa Crespo in 1904 by a group of friends who held socialist or anarchist principles and initially took the name Martyrs of Chicago, after the eight anarchists hanged or imprisoned following the Haymarket Riots in Chicago in 1886. The following year, as they began to grow, they changed their name to the more inclusive Argentinos Juniors. They were accepted into the association in 1909 and, after a series of moves, settled in the central barrio of La Paternal, just to the west of their original home, in 1921. By 1930 the club was at the forefront of the move to professionalism. Money was always tight, and they were relegated in 1936, returning to the top flight only two decades later. By then the quality of their youth development had begun to be recognized, and the club was appreciated for its entertaining, if not necessarily successful, football. It was then that they attracted the nickname los Bichos Colorados (the Red Bugs). Argentinos finished third in the championship in 1960 – and had held out hopes of the title until a 5–1 defeat at River on the third-to-the-last weekend of the season – but they spent most seasons fighting relegation, knowing that if they did produce a good player or two, they would soon be sold to bigger clubs.
It didn't take long for Argentinos to realize that in Maradona they were dealing with a player very different from their usual intake. He was short and squat with an unusually large head – evoking memories of Sivori – and, said Francisco Cornejo, the coach, "he seemed to come from another planet." So gifted was Maradona that club officials initially assumed he must be older than he claimed to be but physically underdeveloped and insisted on seeing his identification card. Satisfied he was dealing with a prodigious eight-year-old, Cornejo took him to see Cacho Paladino, a doctor who worked with both Huracan and boxers, and he gave Maradona a course of pills and injections to build him up. From an early age, Maradona was familiarized with the idea that pharmaceutical assistance was normal and natural.
Almost immediately, he became a phenomenon. At half-time at Argentinos games, Maradona would perform tricks to entertain the crowd; at one game against Boca Juniors in July 1970, he was so impressive that the crowd chanted for him to stay on during the second half. He appeared on a Saturday entertainment show on television doing tricks, first with a ball, then with an orange, and finally with a bottle. There is video of an early interview with him in which he was asked what his ambitions were. "To win the league and the World Cup," he replied.
On September 28, 1971, Maradona was mentioned by the national press for the first time, as Clarín's reporter was captivated by the show he put on at half-time of a game between Argentinos and Independiente – although the tribute was rather spoiled by the fact that he referred to him as "Caradona." The ten-year-old, the report said, demonstrated a "rare ability to control and dribble with the ball," but what seems more significant is the way Maradona was immediately placed in the pibe tradition: "His shirt is too big for him and his fringe barely allows him to see properly. He looks as though he's escaped from a potrero. He can kill the ball and then just as easily flick it up with both his feet. He holds himself like a born player. He doesn't seem to belong to today but he does; he has a very Argentinian love for the ball, and thanks to him our football will continue to nourish itself with great players."
That was a huge burden to place on one so young, yet nobody seemed in any doubt Maradona would succeed. What subsequently happened shapes perceptions, of course, and lends significance to episodes that in another life would be forgotten, but from an extraordinarily early age, there was a sense that Maradona was somehow marked for greatness, special. He was smuggled into overage teams and thrived, any issues with schooling smoothed over as his headmaster, enraptured having seen him play, gave him pass grades for exams he missed – an early lesson, perhaps, that the rules didn't necessarily apply to him. Talent, Maradona soon discovered, opened doors.