There are legends, immortals and G.O.A.Ts, the Greatest of All Time. Then there is Diego Maradona. The legendary footballer died, aged 60, after suffering a cardiac arrest on Wednesday.
To some, he was the most gifted footballer ever, whose feet rendered the beautiful game all the more beautiful. To some, he was the most flawed of geniuses, flirting with drugs and keeping friends from the underworld. To some others, he was an outright cheat, who flicked a goal with his hand, the creator of the most vilified yet the most romanticised goal in World Cup history.
Whatever the opinions and perspectives, Maradona was magical, yet real. Magical with his feet and real in his life. The most magically realistic and realistically magical of footballers. One who lived both life and football on his own terms. He was no pretender, never tried to erase his shanty-town upbringing past, never feigned righteousness, never denied the darkness of his soul. A human footballing god, to take a liberty. You could make a thrilling best-seller out of his life as well as his football. Both could exist without overlap, and both could thrill. You needn’t be a football tragic for that.
But in this moment of departure, it’s his footballing legacy that needs appreciation. Short and sturdy, the build concealing his agility and dexterity, he was a darting virtuoso tethered to a soccer ball.
Dig no further into archival memory than the non-hand of God goal in the quarterfinal against England in the 1986 World Cup. The dream fusion of raw pace, power, precision and trickery had made everyone involved in the frame look foolish.
With England yet to recover from the first ‘Hand of God’ goal, physically and psychologically, Glenn Hoddle gave the ball away cheaply in the middle of the Argentina half. It was bunted upfield to Maradona, who was closer to his own goal than his centre-line. Spinning around, he took off and tore past the frozen Peter Beardsley and Peter Reid, then slithered to the right. The ball stuck hypnotically to his feet, as though entranced by the grandeur of the man.
He then teased past Terence Butcher, and then cut inside as the strapping defender lunged cynically. Maradona picked up more pace and slipped past Fenwick, before drawing goalkeeper Peter Shilton off his line. Maradona rounded Shilton on the right, holding off Butcher, who had resiliently come back, and placed the ball into the right-hand side of the exposed net.
A “golazo”, screamed the Spanish commentator. A scream so loud that the commentator emptied two litres of water at one go, the story goes.
Thus, Maradona adorned, defined and won the 1986 World Cup with his trickery, his sleight of hand, his breathtaking slalom runs and goals and his determination to make his own destiny.
He was never the stuff of virtual dreams, because he was so human. There were piles of other golazos — screamers from 30 yards out, back-heels from close range, daisy-cutters and pile-drivers — but nothing reached the romantic high notes of the World Cup golazo. Nothing quite gave him the kick of rounding off a goalkeeper and then side-footing to an empty net.
The years between Italy 1990 and USA 1994 were perhaps the most difficult phase in his life. After a 15-month suspension from international football in March 1991 for testing positive for cocaine, Maradona’s soccer career took a deep dive. He fell further into a deeper abyss when he was dismissed by three clubs, fired a pistol at reporters, was thrown out of one country and denied entry into another. The epitaph was hastily written: The greatest who could not be the greatest.
But Maradona was far from finished. For Italy 1990, he undertook an intense workout regime and knocked off 26 pounds in less than six months, returned fresh and strong. The twists and turns were not as lightning-quick as they were in 1986, but he was still an unstoppable force. “Had we won that World Cup, I would have prized it more than the 1986 Cup,” he said in his autobiography.
Then, midway through the 1994 World Cup, Maradona was sent home after he twice failed a dope test. A career that had more peaks to scale thus ended on a self-destructive note.
For all his flaws and faults, Maradona was still Maradona. Awed, loved, and worshipped. The dark hero who shone the brightest. An everyman hero with supernatural gifts. So he never shirked away from public life — he continued to coach, continued to be spotted with a cigar and diamond earrings, and continued to be get hospitalised with alarming frequency for heart-attacks, seizures, lung issues, and multiple-organ failure.
In ages to come, there could be legends, greats and G.O.A.Ts. But there will only be one Diego Maradona.
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