To be widely regarded as a sporting superstar is an accolade gifted to precious few, even more so within any specific sport. Football is certainly no different. Reaching even beyond that exalted status though, there is a higher, more exclusive plane. Access to it is granted only to the legends, those whose passing can require a tear from the eye, a lament for the soul and thaw even the coldest of hearts. It can be difficult to identify what extra quality, what characteristic, what trait, separates those legends from the mere outstanding superstars. And yet, we instantly know it when we see it. Strangely, it’s not a strength. In fact, it’s quite the reverse. In art, in music so many had it, Jimi Hendrix and Kurt Cobain for example; it’s an almost perfect imperfection. In football, among others, George Best had it, Celtic’s Jimmy Johnstone had it and, without doubt, Diego Armando Maradona had it.
That difference is an extra quotient of a human characteristic that is often labelled as ‘vulnerability’ but should perhaps be better understood as the quality of humanity. It allows those so gifted to dream and reach out for the unimagined spectacular, but also to be prey to the same weaknesses and temptations that the ordinary fan feels. It’s to be favoured by the Gods, to have an angel sit on the right shoulder and whisper into your ear, whilst at the same time being compelled to unconsciously take heed of the devil sitting on the left shoulder, seductively offering an enticing reward for succumbing to a destructive but irresistible temptation.
The difference between the sporting superstar, admired and revered by so many, and the true legend who claims both of those rewards, but also receives that most precious of gifts, love, in abundance, is that they are both above the ordinary, and yet they are part of it, at the same time. They’re one of us. Their successes do not show us how meagre we are. They show what we can achieve, not despite any disadvantaged life chances, but despite our vulnerabilities, despite our human weaknesses, despite our humanity. Reflecting on Maradona’s passing, Jonathan Wilson wrote, ‘Diego Maradona was revered in Argentina, a tortured genius who suffered for his greatness and whose meaning in the history of the sport is derived from considerably more than just his on-field achievements.’ As so often, Wilson delivers his words with impressive precision, as astutely accurate as a Maradona strike on goal,
It’s easy to perceive someone such as Maradona, as a boy from the barrio, a street kid who learnt who to play football on the discarded, dusty and uneven patches of ground in the Lanús district of Buenos Aires; as someone who came up through football the hard way, and shone so bright to become the greatest player of his generation – some would argue of all time – leading his various clubs to silverware and his country to the summit of world football. That seems more than worthy enough of course, to be someone who offers a legacy not only of glorious moments on the football pitch, skills to entrance and beguile, but also offering hope to similar aspiring kids the world over who, despite their disadvantages, dream of sporting success. Such a legacy surpasses the achievements all but a very select few. That however, for all its merits, would be selling the legacy of Diego Maradona so very short.
In 1928, the Argentine newspaper El Grafico published an editorial suggesting what a statue capturing the essence of the game in Argentina would need to feature. It should, the editorial asserted be, ‘An urchin with a dirty face, a mane of hair rebelling against the comb; with intelligent, roving, trickster and persuasive eyes and a sparkling gaze that seem to hint at a picaresque laugh that does not quite manage to form on his mouth, full of small teeth that might be worn down through eating yesterday’s bread. His trousers are a few roughly sewn patches; his vest with Argentinian stripes, with a very low neck and with many holes eaten out by the invisible mice of use … His knees covered with the scabs of wounds disinfected by fate; barefoot or with shoes whose holes in the toes suggest they have been made through too much shooting. His stance must be characteristic; it must seem as if he is dribbling with a rag ball.’ I refuse to believe that I am the only one reading these words who does not recognise a description of Diego Maradona, albeit that they were written a dozen years before he was born.
Simply put, Maradona’s legacy is of the “tortured genius” identified by Wilson, and also the “intelligent, roving, trickster” portrayed in that elegant El Grafico editorial. Despite being less successful on the international stage than Maradona, Leo Messi will hoover up more medals and silverware, and doubtless be regarded as a true great of the sport. It’s unlikely however that he will ever be loved, truly loved, as much as Maradona was, especially in Argentina where he is “revered” as Wilson asserts. A few examples from the turbulent life of Maradona, and how they have come to be understood, can perhaps offer a little insight as to why that would be the case.
In 1984, Maradona left Barcelona to join Napoli in Serie A following a dispute with Barça president Josep Lluís Núñez. Often seen as one of the lesser lights of Calcio, and cast into the shadow of the financial powerhouse clubs of the north, I Partenopei had never previously been crowned as champions of Italy. That would change when Maradona arrived though. Two Serie A titles and a UEFA Cup triumph brought unheralded success to the Stadio San Paolo. For those true legends however, triumph demands payment in full. Inevitably, accompanying the victories, was the dread cloud of drug abuse, other scandals and alleged links with the Camorra – the notorious Neapolitan mafia. Bans and fines followed as his time with the club deteriorated. Eventually after serving a 15-month for cocaine abuse he left Napoli in disgrace, moving to Spain and Sevilla.
For all the trials and tribulations that the latter end of his time in Naples caused however, the image of Maradona, adorning frescoes on the side of buildings in the city are still treated with great reverence and his number ten shirt was later retired by the club as a sign of respect and gratitude. Following his passing, a move is now afoot to rename the Estadio San Paolo stadium after him, reborn as the Estadio Diego Armando Maradona. Thousands flooded the streets of Naples minutes after the news of his death broke. No one was dismissing the scandals or drug abuse, but this was news of one of their own passing. At such times, forgiveness, sadness, love and adoration wash away thoughts of such ills. Interviewed in The Guardian, as he plastered a poster reading “Maradona, Naples is crying” to a shop front, Manuel Pellegrini spoke for the city. “He was just a Scugnizzo Napoletano [Neapolitan for naughty rascal] like us.” He had vulnerabilities and weaknesses like Neapolitans, like Naples itself, like us all, but that was why they took him to their hearts. It’s what made him more adored, loved.
The World Cup, the greatest football show on earth, has been the scene for so much of what has come to define Maradona. He selected the tournament in 1986 for perhaps the most famous four minutes of his entire career. For many football fans around the world, those brief 240 or so seconds captured the man, the legend that was Maradona, and yet the actions, their consequences and their legacies have been interpreted in so many different ways.
Eschewing chronology, beginning with the second goal against England in the quarter-final of the tournament in Mexico, the slaloming run from halfway, swaying past defenders unhindered by their futile attempts to disrupt his progress, before slotting the ball past Peter Shilton is regarded by many as the greatest goal in World Cup history. Commentating for the BBC at the game, Barry Davies offered support to such assertions. “You have to say that is magnificent,” he remarked. And so, it was. The dribble past so many lunging challenges was like a will o’ the wisp dancing elusively, this way then that, the ball convinced that it was part of his foot, and no one else could dare to take it away. Selecting the biggest stage for your grandest moments is truly the hallmark of legends. Yet if that was football from the Gods, four minutes earlier, the first Argentine goal has been painted as an entirely different picture, when Maradona claimed assistance from a celestial hand in giving Argentina the lead.
The details of the goal are well enough known without going through them again, but it’s the consequences, and interpretation of them, that are of more important in understanding Maradona’s legacy. To so many in England, the goal was regarded as ‘cheating’ which of course, it was. Context is everything though, and the incident was no less contrary to the laws of the game than for the England players – as many others of different nationalities had done, and would continue to do in the tournament – to repeatedly foul their nemesis as the best way to prevent him from harming their cause.
Of course, two wrongs don’t make a right as the hackneyed old cliché goes but, as time has passed, many have come to regard the referee as the villain of the peace for not spotting the subterfuge, rather than Maradona for perpetrating it. After all, who amongst the England players or the many millions of fans watching, if guaranteed they would not be penalised for the offence, would not have done exactly the same thing? Again, Maradona’s deception, the temptation to be a “trickster” was surely one we would all fall prey to. Do we not envy his opportunism in the first goal as much as his majesty in scoring the second one?
In Argentina, there was never much doubt as to which goal brought the most pleasure, albeit perhaps also aided by a sizable measure of schadenfreude for the angst of a former imperial country brought low by the conjurer’s deceptive art and sleight of hand. The “intelligent, roving, trickster” deftly picking the pocket of the dim-witted, aristocratic and wealthy invader, before scampering away to celebrate with his kin. So many Argentines would have wanted to inflict the same embarrassment on the English, especially with the Falklands War so redolent in South American minds, but Maradona spoke for, acted for, them all.
Even for the English, whilst some may still harbour dark thoughts and carry a grudge many years later, many others have accepted, forgiven and even acknowledged the quicksilver thinking that scored the goal. A span of almost three dozen years offers plenty of time for reflection.
Four years later, in Italia 90, Argentina played the hosts Italy at the semi-final stage at the Estadio San Paolo. The Azzurri, one step from the final on home soil would surely have been offered the most vociferous of support. In Naples however, the adoration of Maradona as a Scugnizzo Napoletano, a favoured son who erred but brought so much joy, weighed heavier than that for the national team. Is there any greater love?
In the tournament hosted by the USA in 1994, the ever-present vulnerability rose to the surface again. A positive drugs test for exposed Maradona’s defining vulnerability. He was expelled from the World Cup in disgrace but, despite this transgression and the harm it did to Argentine chances in the tournament, there was enough forgiveness and understanding in the country to welcome him back into the fold as coach of the national team later.
Relating Maradona’s legacy to Naples or Argentina, albeit easy to illustrate and illuminating artificially restricts his legacy, where in reality it spreads across the global football community and beyond. In New Zealand, ahead of a rugby match against Argentina, the All Blacks delayed the Haka to offer their opponents a New Zealand shirt bearing the number ten and Maradona’s name. It may seem like a peripheral event, a sideshow, something happening on the fringes of the tributes to a lost genius, but maybe it shouldn’t be seen that way.
Maradona was born in Argentina and starred for La Albiceleste as well as coaching the national team. In club football, as well as starring for Barcelona, Napoli and Sevilla, he played for Argentinos Juniors, Boca Juniors and Newell’s Old Boys, and coached clubs in Argentina, the United Arab Emirates and Mexico. All would claim a part of Maradona’s legacy as their own. That legacy however is far bigger and spreads far wider than that.
That legacy belongs to all football, across the world, and may even spread to other sports too. It’s a legacy that speaks not only of a God-given talent, not only of a career blessed by towering heights and benighted by despairing lows, but of both at the same time. It’s a legacy that speaks of all of our strengths, all of our vulnerabilities and what makes us who we are. We applaud, we acclaim and we loved Maradona for who he was, not some wholly virtuous person devoid of inner demons, but because he was like us, because he inspired us. He was a “tortured genius”. He was that “urchin with a dirty face, a mane of hair rebelling against the comb; with intelligent, roving, trickster and persuasive eyes” and he was that “Scugnizzo Napoletano”. He was all of those things and so much more. What he wasn’t however was perfect. Like us all, he had vulnerability and that’s what linked him to everyone else. It’s why we loved Maradona and why his legacy should be exalted as belonging to a very human legend.
(This article was originally produced for the ‘These Football Times ‘Maradona’ magazine).