SINGAPORE — To comprehend what Diego Maradona is as a football legend, you have to consider that millions of fans are willing to forgive all his transgressions and failings throughout his lifetime, and still revere him as the greatest.
It is easy to like other football geniuses like Pele, Johan Cruyff or Lionel Messi. Besides bringing utter joy in their sublime skills, these footballers are exemplary role models whom everyone young and old can look up to.
Not Maradona. This was someone who used his hand to score a crucial World Cup goal, and then had the cheek to call it the “Hand of God”. This was someone who responded to constant kicking of rival defenders by kicking and punching back.
This was someone who took performance-enhancing and recreational drugs. This was someone who was mired in family disputes, financial difficulties, health problems and – in general – bad decisions throughout his 60 years’ lifetime.
And yet, he is one of the greatest.
Maybe it is because of his darker impulses contrasting so much with his joyous footballing skills that gave Maradona his inimitable allure – the proverbial “troubled genius”.
Or maybe it is because he was so much better than everyone else on the list of greatest footballers, that fans are too busy being awed by his exploits than to dig deeper into his problematic life.
Whatever it is, Maradona – who died too young at age 60 on Wednesday (25 November) – will be remembered as a once-in-a-lifetime talent who could single-handedly win the toughest titles for his club and country.
Rough upbringing, spectacular skills, outstanding willpower
To comprehend the complexities of Maradona is to understand that he was the ultimate “street urchin who became rich by being better than everyone in one talent” story.
Born in 1960 amid the abject shantytowns in the outskirts of Buenos Aires, he fell in love with football early, and became very, very good at it. From there on, he was consumed by a burning desire to escape poverty and, as he put it, “reach for the moon” with his burgeoning footballing skills.
And he did spectacularly, as he dazzled opponents and earned riches while starring for top clubs like Boca Juniors in Argentina, Barcelona in Spain and Napoli in Italy.
Yet, he never truly left the streets of his shantytown. For one, his skills and his demeanour were honed through years of controlling makeshift footballs; of challenging older, bigger and rougher opponents; and of getting the better of them by any means necessary. Those unforgiving conditions made him what he was.
Still, his incomparable gifts were inspiring awe wherever he went. Despite being only 1.65m tall, he bamboozled everyone with his exquisite control, silky dribbling and unerring eye for goals. He scored from everywhere with both feet – and, in one memorable instance, with his hand too.
More amazingly, his will to succeed gave him an extraordinary ability to drag his sub-par teams to glorious victories. The Argentina side that won the 1986 World Cup was a very ordinary team that fans would find it hard to name another star other than Maradona.
Yet, as the captain, he single-handedly put them on the apex of the sport, scoring otherworldly goals and assisting his teammates to clinch the cup in Mexico. Of the 14 goals Argentina had in that tournament, he either scored or assisted 10 of them.
Amid all the suffocating pressure, he was able to provide three all-time moments in football history: the infamous “Hand of God” first goal against England, the awe-inspiring second goal against the same opponents by dribbling past five defenders and the goalkeeper, and the underrated second goal against Belgium in which he repeated his dribbling feat around the entire defence.
That World Cup triumph brought him worldwide prominence. No one, not even Pele or Cruyff, had managed to lead such an unimpressive team to the sport’s biggest prize. No one has since.
He was, for a moment in time, the king of the world.
Spotlight for the wrong reasons after football career
There were other magnificent feats. In club football, Maradona found his “home” in Napoli, a modest club which nonetheless had rabid support in Naples, southern Italy.
Again, he had a sub-par team facing giants such as Juventus, AC Milan and Inter Milan in what was then the toughest European league. Yet he still managed to lead Napoli to their only two Italian Serie A titles in 1987 and 1990 and a Uefa Cup triumph in 1989, earning god-like status in Naples.
In 1990, he again led a poor Argentina team to the World Cup final, but lost to West Germany in a rematch of the 1986 edition. Yet, that team were unloved due to their rough-house tactics and play-acting – things which Maradona refused to apologise for.
And then, things went rapidly downhill. Perennially being hacked by rival defenders, he resorted to cocaine to numb his pain, and was banned 15 months after being tested positive in 1991. His career began to spiral off in unsuccessful spells at Sevilla and Newell’s Old Boys, but an even bigger scandal erupted after he was tested positive for doping at the 1994 World Cup and expelled in disgrace.
After bringing his playing career to an end in 1997, Maradona continued to be in the spotlight – but for all the wrong reasons. There were divorces, children out of wedlock, tax evasion problems, controversial political views and persistent drug-addiction problems. He would declare that he would turn over a new leaf, before yet another transgression emerged.
Football fans under his spell forgive his wrongdoings
Eventually, everyone who fell under his footballing spell would just shrug off his various misdemeanours like he was a naughty relative, and choose to remember his blinding brilliance on the pitch.
And, to be truthful, it is easy to do so. As a football fan who watched his first World Cup in 1986, I was among the many who were awed by Maradona’s ability to conjure joyful moments of football genius.
His close control, his feints and dummies, his unerring eye for goals, his single-mindedness and his unyielding will to win – all these have become standards by which I judge other claims of footballing greats that come after Maradona. (The closest is, of course, that other Argentinian – Messi.)
I would wince at every news report of Maradona these past 20 years, wishing that it would not be another story of Maradona checking into rehabilitation clinics, or partying too hard with cigars, booze and drugs.
I had hoped he would be telling the truth when he insisted he would change for the better, but deep inside I knew it would be wishful thinking. Maradona has never shied away from what he is: a man whose rough upbringing could not have prepared him well enough for the global spotlight he was constantly in throughout his life.
There were glimpses of happiness in his later years, when he was feted as one of the greatest footballers. Whenever he appeared in stadiums to watch a game, he was often laughing and enjoying the spectacle.
Football, after all, gave him his purpose, and he never seemed capable of truly breaking away from it.
Yet, the indelible memories he has left for his legions of fans – in Argentina, in Naples, around the world – far outstrip his sad and slow demise. The light he brought with his joyous talents was more than enough to engulf the darkness of his life.
And for that, this football fan thanks Maradona, the greatest player he has had the privilege to see.
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