Diego Maradona, Argentinian soccer legend, dies at 60

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Nicole Acevedo and Yuliya Talmazan and David K. Li and Maria Piñero and Matthew Mulligan and Matteo Moschella and The Associated Press
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Argentinian soccer legend Diego Maradona, one of the sport's greatest players who scored the iconic and controversial "Hand of God" goal in the 1986 World Cup, died Wednesday, officials said.

He was 60.

Maradona suffered a fatal heart attack at his home in Buenos Aires, his longtime lawyer and agent Matias Morla told NBC News.

"The Argentine Football Association, through its President Claudio Tapia, expresses its deepest sorrow for the death of our legend, Diego Armando Maradona," the Argentine Football Association announced. "You will always be in our hearts."

The association also posted a picture of Maradona kissing the World Cup trophy, adding: “Goodbye, Diego. You will be #Eternal in every heart of the soccer planet.”

Any debate over who is the greatest soccer player of all time usually starts and ends with just two names in the conversation — Maradona and the Brazilian legend Pelé.

The international soccer governing body FIFA bestowed its Player of the 20th Century Award to both Pelé and Maradona.

Pelé, 80, said Wednesday he looked forward to kicking the ball around with Maradona in the afterlife.

"What sad news. I lost a great friend and the world lost a legend," he tweeted in Portuguese. "There is still much to be said, but for now, may God give strength to family members. One day, I hope we can play ball together in the sky."

Soccer megastars Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo also paid tribute.

Messi, a fellow Argentine, said he cherished "all the beautiful moments" he shared with his former coach from the Argentina national team.

"A very sad day for all Argentines and for football," Messi wrote on social media. "He is gone but he has not left us, because Diego is eternal."

Ronaldo called him an "unparalleled magician" in a tweet on Wednesday. "He leaves too soon, but leaves a legacy without limits and a void that will never be filled," Ronaldo wrote. "Rest in peace, ace."

Maradona underwent surgery earlier this month to remove a blood clot on his brain.

Argentinian press reports about his failing health Tuesday prompted fans to send him messages of encouragement on social media under #FuerzaDiego, "sending Strength to Diego," which immediately became a trending topic on Twitter.

But the encouraging messages quickly turned into grief shortly after the news of his passing was confirmed.

The nation declared three days of mourning for Maradona.

"You took us to the top of the world. You made us immensely happy,” Argentine President Alberto Fernández tweeted in Spanish on Wednesday. "You were the greatest of all. Thanks for having existed, Diego. We will miss you for a lifetime."

Image: FILE PHOTO: Superliga - Boca Juniors v Gimnasia y Esgrima (Agustin Marcarian / Reuters file)
Image: FILE PHOTO: Superliga - Boca Juniors v Gimnasia y Esgrima (Agustin Marcarian / Reuters file)

The colorful and outspoken star was captain of the 1986 team that captured his nation's second World Cup title. He scored twice in a 2-1 victory over England in the quarterfinals in Mexico City.

Maradona went up for a header in the 51st minute of that match, as the ball went off his arm, past England goalkeeper Peter Shilton and into the net.

But in an era long before instant replay, known as video assistant referee (VAR) in soccer, officials on the field missed the clear violation and the goal stood.

“A little with the head of Maradona and a little with the hand of God," Maradona famously said of that goal.

Even if the "Hand of God" play was controversial, his brilliance was on full display four minutes later, scoring a goal many consider one of the greatest in the game's history.

He went on a mad, skilled 60-yard dash, carving up the English defense, before faking Shilton to the Estadio Azteca turf and slotting home what would be the winning goal.

That World Cup came just four years after the Falklands War and Maradona said he and his teammates understood the team's meaning to fans back home.

“It was more than trying to win a game," Maradona wrote in his 2000 autobiography, "I am Diego." "We said the game had nothing to do with the war. But we knew that Argentines had died there, that they had killed them like birds. And this was our revenge. It was something bigger than us: We were defending our flag.”

Gary Lineker, the England star who scored the most goals in that 1986 World Cup, on Wednesday heaped praise on Maradona despite the Argentinian player’s questionable role in denying the Three Lions what’s been an elusive, generationslong hunt for glory.

“By some distance, the best player of my generation and arguably the greatest of all time,” Lineker said of his old rival. “After a blessed but troubled life, hopefully he’ll finally find some comfort in the hands of God.”

Diego Armando Maradona Franco was born Oct. 30, 1960, in Lanús, Argentina, as the fifth of eight children.

His natural talent for the game was clear at an early age. As a 10-year-old, Maradona would perform at halftime of pro matches, showing an uncanny ability to keep the ball airborne for minutes with his feet, chest and head.

His storied career included stints with some of the world's most famous teams, such as Argentinos Juniors, Boca Juniors, FC Barcelona, Napoli FC, Sevilla FC and Newell's Old Boys.

While collecting goals and trophies on the field, Maradona spent most of his life battling drug addictions, alcohol abuse, weight issues and other health problems throughout the 1990s.

FIFA briefly banned him in 1991 after he tested positive for cocaine. He tested positive again in 1994 ahead of the World Cup in the United States.

In his later years, Maradona said he had kicked drugs, appeared to be healthier and never lost his passion for the sport.

Maradona was one of the loudest supporters of Argentina’s team in the 2018 World Cup in Russia.

In a match against Nigeria, he saw Argentina score an 86th-minute winner by Marcos Rojo, and celebrated by aggressively giving a middle-finger salute with both hands toward spectators below him.

“Goodbye DIEGO, you made all of us happy. I love this sport mainly because of you, we all grew up dreaming of being a little MARADONA, you will always be in the hearts of all Argentines,” Rojo said in an Instagram post.

At the time of his death, Maradona was manager of Gimnasia La Plata, a Primera División club in Argentina.

"With tears in our eyes, and with denial as a defense mechanism in the face of this type of situations, we bid farewell to the God of soccer," the club said.

Maradona is survived by his ex-wife, Claudia Villafañe, three daughters, Dalma, Gianinna and Jana, and two sons Diego Fernando and Diego Sinagra.