It was one of those ‘where were you?’ moments. The kind that, for much of recent history, has been reserved for the passing of royalty, either literal or from the worlds of arts or music. The death of Diego Maradona at the age of 60 was confirmed on Wednesday evening and certainly reverberated around the planet in a similar way to Michael Jackson’s or Freddie Mercury’s because, in truth, he was a rockstar in a pair of football boots.
Everybody has a Maradona story; whether they met him or not and whether they liked football or not. People the world over knew him and judged him. Not always for the right reasons. In Argentina, he was worshipped, an icon who couldn’t walk freely on the streets without seeing a mural on the side of a building, having someone bow at his feet, or both. Three days of mourning are underway; a response befitting of a king, because that is what he was to them.
There is a small corner of Italy, Naples, which is weeping just as much for a fallen son. If Buenos Aires was Maradona’s biological home, Napoli, the club he carried to two Serie A titles in 1987 and 1990, was his in spirit. Schools in the city were closed on Thursday, and the club’s president, Aurelio De Laurentiis, has openly stated plans to rename the Stadio San Paolo, their home ground, after him.
It is difficult to articulate the relationship between club and city and former player without stringing together a number of cliches. Such a connection is incredibly rare, especially for a foreign player; but it was his aura which, on and off the pitch, transformed Naples. That city had never had it so good, and hasn’t since. Maradona’s ability to lead was almost biblical; he had his demons and issues ran deeper in his life as his football career began to dwindle. But at his peak, his nature spurred him on. With the ball at his feet, he was unrivalled; the love of a party and a joke, juggled with his unique kindness, set him apart even further.
England is where his reputation sparkles less than anywhere else. The passage of time, 34 years, since that infamous World Cup quarter final in Mexico’s Azteca Stadium between Bobby Robson’s team and Maradona’s Argentina, isn’t enough to thaw some people’s view of him, because of what happened that day. It is a story almost as famous as Maradona himself, and shows both sides of his character; the brilliance and the competitive nature which drove him to bend the rules in search an advantage
Significantly shorter than England goalkeeper Peter Shilton, he managed to jump at a height which afforded him the opportunity to con the officials with an outstretched arm that forced the ball over the line. Undoubtedly, it was a moment which gave Maradona questions to answer, but, unashamedly, he dubbed it the ‘Hand of God’, and refused to apologise for it until his death.
Robson said it was the ‘hand of a rascal’, but never allowed the incident to cloud his opinion of Maradona’s genius, especially given that he scored arguably the greatest World Cup goal moments later. For Shilton, and many of an English persuasion, it has proven difficult to shake shake off his earlier indiscretion. It is incredibly sad, albeit hardly surprising, that his characterisation as a cheat has dominated much of the discourse over the past couple of days.
Maradona himself thrived on the opinion of him, regularly relishing his role as pantomime villain in front of English eyes; the irony is an inability to forget his actions gave him exactly what he wanted in that respect. But behind the act, he was a caring and nurturing character who took pride in the teammates he helped propel to superstardom. It is highly unlikely that he ever played with anybody who could be considered comparable to him, but he never let that get in the way of his love for his peers which stemmed from his modest upbringing in Buenos Aires. Maradona was a lifelong socialist.
If anything could, and should, trigger a rethink of how Maradona is seen, it is his death. Maradona lived a life of 60 years, but achieved more than most will in 20 or 30 more. His troubles with drugs, obesity and the general circus which became part of his later life can be used as justification for viewing Maradona in a negative light, but it is said that all geniuses are flawed and tragedy is part of their mystique; that is absolutely true in his case.
His legacy on the pitch is arguably the greatest anyone has ever left; he went on to win the World Cup almost singlehandedly in 1986, before helping Argentina to a second final in Italy four years later and losing to West Germany. Tellingly, home support in that tournament dwindled slightly when the Azzurri faced Maradona’s side in Naples, after his plea for local backing.
Football is as beautiful as it is nowadays because of of his influence; he is the hero to many heroes of today. The death of Diego Armando Maradona leaves a gaping void in the sporting world, one which is unable to be filled. To some, he is the greatest ever player to grace a pitch, but it does him a disservice to categorise and label such a marvel. Just fire up YouTube, grab the popcorn, watch, admire and remember.
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