Having spent an entire career defying all expectations and skirting around various controversies, there was only ever one way in which Diego Maradona was going to bring his time as a professional footballer to an end.
By the time October 25, 1997 arrived, Maradona was no longer his former self. Just five days short of his 37th birthday, the legendary Argentine was battling both personal and physical demons, but to his credit, Maradona was putting in extra work behind the scenes to try and overcome them.
Off the field, Maradona worked with numerous drug charities to try and raise awareness and prevent others from following him down his dangerous path, while from an athletic standpoint, he hired former Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson to try and help him find top fitness and even left the Boca Juniors chiefs stunned when he ordered the doors of the dressing room be removed so he could install a monstrous treadmill.
In reality, none of it worked. A failed drugs test in August 1997 brought an entire government conspiracy to cover up – irregularities in the testing process meant it was never validated – while a string of niggling injuries made it clear to Maradona that it was time to ride off into the sunset.
He chose that date in October, a Superclasico against famous rivals River Plate, to drop the curtain on his career.
From a purely footballing perspective, Maradona’s performance wasn’t great. He started the game and looked every bit like the struggling 36-year-old that he was, and he was withdrawn at the half-way mark. Reports have suggested it was the heir to his throne, Juan Roman Riquelme, who replaced him, although the official team sheet from that day spoils the romanticism and instead has Riquelme entering at the same time for somebody else.
He watched on from the bench, antagonising the River fans with a boyish smile on his face, as Boca netted twice to seal a 2-1 victory, after which everybody went home without knowing they had just watched the end of one of the most famous eras in history.
Five days later, with reports of that failed drug test beginning to hit the media, Maradona used his 37th birthday to call it a day.
“I can’t do it anymore,” he said. “It makes no sense to keep playing. I’d prefer to retire now and not spend my old age listening to the rumours of some insensitive people with microphones.
“With a heavy heart, the moment has come to announce my retirement. My career is over, and nobody is sadder than me.”
Maradona will have wanted to make a bigger impact on the pitch in his farewell game, but since he wasn’t able to do that, he settled for his second-favourite hobby – winding up River fans and watching Boca win.