The life and legend of Maradona are so big that any article would fail to make them justice.
You probably know the basics: born in a slum, working-class football hero, a talent on par with his fighting spirit, became a larger-than-life myth, struggled like in ten Greek stories, sinned and asked for forgiveness like in ten more from the Bible, behaved like a renegade pleb while rising above the nobles, lived a life worth six thousand years in just sixty.
On the day of his wake, it is a futile exercise to try those cold-headed, analytical separations between player and man, or man and myth, which are often not real anyway. Most people know this, and still love him in full, no buts or ifs, and will be in mourning and homage for long to come.
This, for some reason, sometimes makes a few people mad. In the world of abstract moral superiority, some guy in his office can confidently say he would never get into drug trouble, fail to recognize a kid as his own, enjoy the company of your least favorite dictator, or even —for God’s sake, how can one be such a prude— cunningly punch the ball in before your classic rival’s goalkeeper gets to it, and run in natural celebration to convince the ref it was a perfectly ordinary header.
It is generally safe to assume that the people making such objections never even came close to a life that put them in Maradona’s positions, despite a significant head start.
His Mother, Doña Tota, would go to bed on an empty stomach to make sure there was enough food for Diego and the siblings. His childhood buddy, Jorge Cyterszpiler, did not have full use of his legs after surviving polio, and wanted nowhere near a football pitch after his brother, also a football player, died suddenly from cancer – yet he spent his days chasing Argie TV producers to go film his friend, who already seemed a prodigy playing in the vacant lots of Villa Fiorito.
From those early teenage years, the expectation and drama around Maradona only kept climbing.
At 17 years of age, he cried his eyes out when Coach César Luis Menotti left him out of the 1978 World Cup, his childhood dream. Argentina was hosting it for the first time in history, and ended up ultimately winning it — a landmark for a country as football-crazed as ours, even if it was also such for a murderous dictatorship at the peak of its power.
Despite missing out, Maradona didn’t hold that as a grudge against Menotti, calling him the best coach he ever had many years after. It might’ve had something to do, perhaps, with the reasons behind Menotti’s decision: he knew Maradona’s future was huge, and wanted to protect his young self from the enormity of the occasion.
By the time the next cup came, in 1982, Maradona was already a legend. Argentines had stayed up late or risen early to see him win the FIFA youth world championship in Japan ’79, and he never stopped shining locally, leading the country’s most popular club Boca Juniors to the title in ’81.
But Argentina was torn to pieces. At war with Great Britain, amid a giant economic crisis, and with a crumbling dictatorship whose crimes were now more openly discussed, a Maradona-led World Cup was one of the few sources of solace left. It just wasn’t Argentina’s year, though. Maradona was kicked to the ground, beating a record for most fouls received in the history of world cups (a mark only surpassed since then, incredibly, by Maradona in 1986 and Maradona in 1990), retaliated, saw a red card, and ended in tears yet again.
By 1986, no flying-kick to the knee was going to stop him. Maradona was playing like a man possessed, single-mindedly focused on coming home with the trophy. As Argentine journalist Juan Pablo Varsky put it yesterday, it was perhaps the best individual performance in the history of collective sport. Its non-stop brilliance was best symbolized by a five-minute span in the quarter-final win against England, scoring one with his hand first and following it with an impossible solo effort immediately. Even the less nationalistic-minded Argentines could not help but link the game to the much sadder war four years earlier, with Maradona as a General one should actually get behind and love.
Todo esto en un Mundial. El mejor de la historia. pic.twitter.com/JiqgIiYpF4
— Diario Olé (@DiarioOle) November 25, 2020
If Mexico ’86 was his peak performance and achievement, Italy ’90 topped it in terms of sheer epicness.
The win in Mexico, as televised football went global, had made him into an international superstar wherever he went, but nowhere more than in Southern Italy, where he spent the four years in between both tournaments beating all the rich teams in the North with massive underdog Napoli, a humble club with an insanely passionate fanbase, who gave him the same demi-God status he had in Argentina. It is still to this day that you can probably get free beer in Naples by just mentioning that you come from his homeland, and spend the night reveling in the against-all-odds conquests of Diego.
But by the time the new World Cup came, Argentina’s great footballing cast from ’86 now seemed a bit past it. The team was plagued with injuries, and Maradona could barely put his shoes on, with his left ankle now the size of a baseball thanks to some of the thousands of kicks he’d been taking for a decade. Barely making it past the group stages, the team got thoroughly outplayed by Brazil in the round-of-16, and got lucky all day with shots hitting the posts, until one moment of one-legged Maradona brilliance put Caniggia one-on-one with the keeper for an implausible win against the country’s classic continental rival.
Argentina kept improbably limping its way to the final, notably beating home favorites Italy in the semis, in Naples no less, with Maradona loudly cursing the local fans as they jeered his national anthem. The last-ditch loss to West Germany, to a penalty goal that Argentines still swear that wasn’t, and with Maradona crying like a child as he collected his silver medal, was another of the multiple heart-on-his-sleeve moments that, even when losing, made him a hero.
That deep emotional connection never went away, even when his career started going downhill.
Italy stopped being the welcoming place it used to, with the press and the courts looking for the drugs, sex, and mafia-related scandals they had once ignored, until testing positive for cocaine in 1991. Argentina still fully revered him, but didn’t take great care of him when he came back either.
With the national team struggling to make it through the qualifying rounds to the World Cup, Maradona came back from the turmoil of semi-retirement in 1993, as popular acclaim became impossible to resist. He was doing what he did all his life, as his former team-mate Jorge Valdano put it: “ceding to the inevitable temptation of trying to climb every day to the heights of his legend. In an addictive personality such as his, this was inevitably mortal.”
In just a matter of months, Maradona went from almost has-been, struggling with his shape and motivation in mid-table teams, to fit and ready to go like it was 1986 all over again. For most, it was just another of the miracles that Maradona had brought them to expect. For Fernando Signorini, Argentina’s national team Physician, the motivation was real, but the shape looked too good to be true.
In a recent documentary, Signorini recalls how Maradona made great efforts to overcome nasty, late-night cocaine-withdrawal symptoms with him, but also how a seedy personal trainer, Daniel Cerrini, became part of his inner circle, putting him on a fitness regime so strict that Signorini saw as dangerous, and playing to the very limit of the law in terms of “supplement” intake. One of those supplements, the story goes, was sold with a slightly different chemical combination in the US, where the World Cup was held, than in Argentina. The pills in US pharmacies came with added pseudo-ephedrine, a substance banned by the football association. With one precedent for doping already in his books, Maradona was kicked out of the World Cup after playing just two games, and the tears in his press conference this time felt more like a funeral.
From then on, Maradona’s story had this never-ending theme of death and resurrection. Back to Boca after his sanction, he fought a third doping case, won it eventually, showed glimpses of his magic, but retired after feeling that he couldn’t contribute at the level that was expected.
Over the last two decades, his flirtations with death became less of a metaphor. He spent two days in a comma in the summer of 2000, moved to Cuba to escape a cocaine relapse, had a gastric bypass surgery in 2005, and a few incidents more.
But in between the falls, he still had time to run his own TV show, make innumerable documentaries, coach Lionel Messi in the 2010 World Cup –as well as complete unknowns in the United Arab Emirates, Belarus and Mexico’s second division–, fight for every cause he saw as fair, be it against The Vatican, FIFA bosses or George Bush Jr, and generally continue being his magnetic self, perennially striving for the love and approval that he could never get enough of.
Dying during a pandemic perhaps robbed him of the largest burial in the country’s history, but you should still expect masses in streets across the world chanting in celebration of his legacy.
In his farewell speech yesterday, legendary football sportscaster (and close friend) Víctor Hugo Morales recalled one time he booked a whole restaurant in Brazil so that Maradona could for once enjoy a peaceful meal, and said that what Maradona liked in him was that he felt protected. Like he wasn’t fishing for a controversial headline when they talked, like he cared about him being happy, unlike his experience with most journalists. “You give me peace, Víctor Hugo,” Maradona told him.
His loss is still too big to face for millions, but this time at least, the size of his legend won’t rob him of that.