Once in a generation, if that, there appears in the world of sport an athlete whose greatness is more than what can be measured on a football pitch, inside a boxing ring, or on a running track.
In the world of that most international of sports, football, Diego Maradona was greatness tout court. He played the game like a man whose genius existed to serve his team, not as someone for whom the team existed to serve his genius. It’s the difference between the ideals of the collective and those of the individual. When it came to Maradona, such was his commitment to the former and rejection of the latter he would, you sensed, have happily pushed the team bus with his teammates on it if he’d ever had to.
Diego Maradona arrived on the global stage in the period just after Argentina won the World Cup in 1978 as the host country. Ruled in this period by a brutal fascist junta, football for the Argentinian masses was more than a sport, it was a necessary if all too brief affirmation of life lived with joy instead of fear.
Though he made his debut for the national side the year before the 78 World Cup at the outrageously young age of 16, Argentina’s legendary World Cup winning manager, Carlos Menotti, did not pick him for his World Cup squad. Still too young to handle the pressure of expectation surrounding the squad going into the tournament, Menotti decided.
Regardless, what was not in doubt even then was that with a ball at his feet, Maradona in his prime was unplayable.
Standing just 5'4" tall, most managers and coaches would have written him off at first glance. They would have fallen into the trap of thinking him too small to compete in a sport in which too often the physical is more prized than the magical.
But as the Uruguayan sage Eduardo Galeano pointed out: “In soccer, ability is much more important than shape, and in many cases skill is the art of turning limitations into virtues.”
Maradona embodied more than any other player who’s ever graced the sport the uncommon wisdom enshrined in those words. Deploying his low centre of gravity to devastating effect, he turned opponents inside out and outside in, defying the laws of physics and physiology time and again to leave packed stadiums breathless. Married to preternatural balance, and compensating for his lack of height with the torso of your average bull and the legs of an Olympic weightlifter, this revolutionary maestro of the beautiful game could do everything with a ball as well as well as Pele could.
Unlike Pele, however, Maradona could also tackle.
Taking the comparison further, Pele’s greatness was never more in evidence than in the 1970 World Cup tournament in Mexico, in which his Brazilian side swept all before them with an attacking style that was poetry by any other name. But Pele was surrounded by greats in that side — the likes of Jairzinho, Rivelino, Gerson, and Tostao.
Fast forward 16 years to 1986 and if ever a single player did more to drag his team to victory in a World Cup it was Maradona in that year’s tournament, which as with the 1970 tournament was held again in Mexico.
Never has one player been so inspired as the Argentinian was over those four weeks. He carried the hopes and dreams of a people still recovering from the trauma and deep wounds cleaved on their collective psyche three years after the iron heel of fascism had finally been removed, allowing the country to breathe again.
Rather than weigh him down, the resulting pressure propelled him on.
The now iconic quarter final against England was a rerun of the 1982 Falklands War (Guerra de las Malvinas) in all but name. The military junta had cynically attempted to use the mythic status of Las Malvinas in the hearts of the minds of the country’s masses to win popular support in the midst of its repressive and brutal reign. Its ill-fated invasion of the islands was the result.
But though the junta had been toppled, the status of Las Malvinas remained sacrosanct, as it does to this day, viewed as a metric of the country’s national humiliation at the hands of a colonial power. Maradona and his teammates thus came out onto the pitch against England on 22nd June 1986 driven not by the desire to win a football match, but by the desire for revenge.
It’s known to football legend as the ‘hand of god’, the first of two goal Maradona scored with his fist in a game Argentina won 2–1. For purists, and certainly England fans, it stands as a mark of shame, evidence that cheats can and do prosper. For everyone else, Argentinians especially, it was further evidence of Maradona’s genius and will to win.
As to the second he scored in the game, his ‘goal of the century’, the sheer brilliance of the run he made from his own half, leaving half the England team chasing his shadow on his way to rounding Peter Shilton and passing the ball into the net, will surely never be equalled. If God really does exist, in those few seconds of magic he must have passed the keys to his kingdom to this uncouth son of poverty.
Still today wherever he played, whether in Naples or Barcelona, Diego Maradona remains a folk hero. Off the pitch he was a committed anti-imperialist and vocal supporter of the Cuban and Bolivarian revolutions, embracing both as the harbinger of the future for millions for whom the future had hitherto been an alien concept. His support for the Palestinians and the oppressed everywhere was vocalised without fear or qualification, marking him out as a man who refused to go along to get along.
As for his much publicised problems with alcohol and cocaine addiction, the flawed hero has always been far more relatable, more attractive to those who adhere to the sentiments of the Roman poet Terence: “Nothing human is alien to me.”
Diego Maradona was nothing if not human. He was a 5'4" force of nature who was never destined to linger long in this world. A national hero at home, as with Muhammad Ali he transcended his sport to the point of being revered the world over.
How many bloated potentates can say that?
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