‘Beyond everything else, no ball ever had a better experience than when it was at his left foot.’
– Jorge Valdano
As humans, we eulogise genius and mythologise rebels to create legends in history.
Whether in hundreds or thousands of years’ time, the human race will still revere men who play sport. We may never know, let alone look back at a period of time when a little squat Argentinian man once dominated the world of football. Genius. Rebel. Legend. Diego Maradona. Our history is now.
The man who grew up from a boy in the impoverished barrio of Villa Fiorito near Buenos Aires was larger than life with an outsized personality to match his abilities with a ball at feet. His flaws were as endearing as his strengths. Drug abuse, mafia connections, firearm offences, infidelity, oh, and a few momentary lapses in sportsmanship, have only provided more intrigue in a colourful life both on and off the football field. Fitting, then, that the anniversary of his death will be shared with another flawed genius with a ball at his feet who met a premature demise in Georgie Best.
Of course, there have already been debates as to whether Maradona was the best of all, as there had been during his lifetime. It’s a futile argument but there may never have been anyone so naturally gifted.
My first real experience of the man was watching him on the same stage that sealed his martyrdom. I had just turned ten years old when the 1986 World Cup in Mexico provided a technicoloured portal to the phastasmagoria unfolding through the television. In the exotic heat of the ancient land of the Aztecs and the Mayans, golden warriors such as Michael Laudrup, Igor Belanov, Emilio Butragueno, Josimar, Hugo Sanchez and Enzo Scifo stirred the senses, a spectrum shining through the prism in the corner of my living room. And above of all of those giants stood Maradona.
My dad said he was the best in the world, though at the time I doubted that anyone could be better than Bryan Robson. That World Cup proved I was way off the mark. He was simply untouchable. Yes, as a small boy who wanted England to win, I was hurt by the result of the infamous handball but my upset was more reserved for the referee and linesman for allowing it to stand, for Peter Shilton and Steve Hodge for their incompetence, even for Gary Lineker for missing a chance to equalise in the dying moments. He took a chance and got away with it and I applaud him for his audaciousness.
Maradona is the player that England has never produced and likely never will. His on-pitch abilities would have long been kicked or coached out of him (though no one can kick harder than an Argentinian defender), while his off-pitch character would have presaged shame and expulsion. But there has never been another Diego Maradona anywhere in the world and, while on the pitch, Lionel Messi has paid a worthwhile tribute while cultivating his own legacy, he was a one-of-a-kind maverick, a vulnerable demi-god that allowed his inner demons to misguide him. It made him all the more human. A beautifully fallible deity for the beautiful game, both Adam and the serpent.
Andrew Lloyd Webber may have written the song ‘Don’t Cry for Me Argentina’ with Eva Perón in mind but the chorus could well be applied to the life of El Diego.
But, despite the wild days and the mad existence, the people in his homeland will never keep their distance from their favourite son. Nor will they in Naples. In the shadow of death, Maradona is eternal in all their hearts and ours.