Ossie Ardiles fought back tears as he paid tribute to the “incredibly special” Diego Maradona, who has died aged 60.
Ex-Tottenham and Argentina midfielder Ardiles, 68, was a close friend and former international team-mate of Maradona, regarded by many as the greatest footballer of all time.
Maradona, the midfield linchpin of the Argentina side that won the 1986 World Cup and former national team manager, had successful surgery to remove a blood clot on the brain in a Buenos Aires hospital earlier this month.
Dieguito. Inside the football pitch, he was always so so happy. Playing, he was out of this world. Outside the pitch, he was magical as well. So so funny. Being with him you know that special things would happen. I will miss you my friend… pic.twitter.com/2uA4dZLK7s
— osvaldo ardiles (@osvaldooardiles) November 25, 2020
His personal physician Dr Leopoldo Luque said the early signs were “favourable”, but it has been reported that Maradona suffered a fatal heart attack at his home on Wednesday.
An emotional Ardiles told TalkSPORT: “It’s going to be very difficult. He’s a big part of our lives, yes. He was incredibly special.
“He was absolutely fantastic. When you watched him play you saw you were in the presence of somebody completely different, beyond what you were expecting.
“When I saw him for the very first time in the national team, we were all pretty good players, but he was miles ahead of us.”
Ardiles acknowledged Maradona’s demons, but said he never stopped trying to help “the poorest people in society”.
“I knew Diego from a very early age and of course I knew exactly what all his struggles were – in fact all the problems he had were outside the pitch.
“He had this problem with power, with presidents, with kings – he couldn’t stand them very well.
“When he was on the pitch he was the happiest person in the world because nobody could touch him there. He knew he was the very best.”
Maradona’s coffin has been taken to the presidential palace in Buenos Aires to mark the start of a three-day period of national mourning.
Hundreds of fans also congregated at other landmarks associated with Maradona, outside the home where he was born in the Villa Fiorito neighbourhood, Argentinos Juniors’ stadium, where he began his career, La Bombonera stadium, the home of one of his former clubs Boca Juniors and also at the headquarters of Gimnasia, the Argentinian club in La Plata where he was head coach before he died.
Maradona’s successes made him a global star and a national hero in Argentina but his career was also blighted by controversies on and off the field.
His ‘Hand of God’ goal against England in the 1986 quarter-finals, when he pushed the ball into the net with his hand, earned him infamy, although he followed up by scoring the ‘goal of the century’, a remarkable solo effort, in the same game.
— FIFA World Cup (@FIFAWorldCup) June 22, 2019
Former QPR and Tottenham defender Terry Fenwick, who was marking Maradona that day, described him as “phenomenal”.
“I belted him two or three times in the game and I thought that’s him done,” Fenwick told TalkSPORT.
“He was off the pitch for four-an-a-half minutes after I whacked him once and when I turned round he’s warming up on the side of the field waiting to come back on.
“I’m thinking, ‘What the hell have I got to do to stop this man?’ He was just phenomenal.
Farewell, Diego. A legend of our game. pic.twitter.com/iIXGLEf7B1
— England (@England) November 25, 2020
“He was built like you wouldn’t believe. He was a pit-bull and he’d come back for more all the time.
“What a talent with the ball, it was like it was stuck to his left foot, you couldn’t get it off him.
“His low centre of gravity made him change direction like you couldn’t live with. What a player.”
The Argentinian Football Association tweeted “its deepest sorrow for the death of our legend, Diego Armando Maradona”, adding: “You will always be in our hearts.”
Indisputably one of the finest players to grace the game, he is thought of by many as the best following a storied career, the highlight of which came when he captained Argentina to a second World Cup crown 34 years ago.
He also led the country to the final of the 1990 tournament in Italy and managed them in South Africa in 2010.
Argentina president Alberto Fernandez tweeted: “You took us to the top of the world. You made us immensely happy. You were the greatest of them all.
“Thank you for having existed, Diego. We’re going to miss you all our lives.”
Maradona’s international playing career ended in shame when he failed a drugs test at the 1994 World Cup in the United States and he was notorious for a wayward lifestyle. He was also banned from football in 1991 after testing positive for cocaine while playing for Napoli.
However, he remained a revered figure at the Italian club, where he won two Serie A titles. He also played for Barcelona, Sevilla, Boca Juniors and Newell’s Old Boys.
— Official SSC Napoli (@en_sscnapoli) November 26, 2020
News of his death prompted an outpouring of eulogies. Pele, who alongside Maradona often tops polls for the accolade of greatest footballer of all time, wrote on his official Twitter account: “What sad news.
“I lost a great friend and the world lost a legend. There is still much to be said, but for now, may God give strength to family members. One day, I hope we can play football together in the sky.”
Napoli tweeted: “There are no words to describe the pain we’re going through”. Barcelona added “thank you for everything, Diego”, while Boca gave “eternal thanks” to their former player.
Former England striker Gary Lineker, who played in the 1986 World Cup quarter-final defeat to Argentina, said: “By some distance the best player of my generation and arguably the greatest of all time.”
Juventus forward Cristiano Ronaldo said on Instagram: “Today I bid farewell to a friend and the world farewells to an eternal genius. One of the best ever, an unmatched magician. Leaves too soon but leaves a boundless legacy and a void that will never be filled. RIP. You will never be forgotten.”