Maradona, the god of football, dies

Published : November 26, 2020 18:51 IST

Diego Maradona watching a football match in Buenos Aires on August 19, 2013. Photo: REUTERS

July 3, 1990: Maradona celebrating after teammate Claudio Caniggia (not in picture) tied the score at 1 during the World Cup semifinal soccer match between Italy and Argentina in Naples. Photo: AFP

Maradona with the Worlc Cup Trophy in 1986. Photo: AFP

Diego Maradona flies past England goalkeeper Peter Shilton after the 'Hand of God' goal, in the quarterfinal against England in the 1986 Word Cup.

At the Mohun Bagan ground in Kolkata on December 7, 2008. Photo: Sushanta Patronobish

“In the frigid soccer of today’s world, which detests defeat and forbids all fun, that man was one of the few who proved that fantasy too can be effective,” wrote Eduardo Galeano of Maradona in his seminal book on football, Soccer in Sun and Shadow. The fact is, football is not just a sport, and Diego Maradona was not just a football player. He was a sorcerer who defied the logic of science and probabilities; a philosopher who understood the true meaning of the game and knew it was not something restricted only to a football field; a revolutionary who was adored by the nameless, faceless masses; a trickster who made everyone believe in magic; and a tragic, frail, beautiful human being who withered like a rose, but left behind the memory of its magnificent bloom and fragrance. He was the mad monarch of the game, who not only transcended the game himself, but lifted it to represent something beyond sport. Every time Diego Maradona walked on to the pitch, he sparked off the flame of hope for the little people all over the world, the poor and the deprived, the bullied and the downtrodden. With Maradona’s death on November 25 from a heart attack, the world lost not just one of the greatest phenomena in sports, but also a cultural icon, whose non-conformist rebellious character forever strained against the shackles of prejudice, bias and domination. He was 60, and, like his hero Che Guevara, was never destined to grow old.

If the football pitch is the single most universal stage of the world in which soaring drama and tragedies and follies are played out in front of an insane mob that forever thirsts for more, then Diego Maradona was arguably its greatest thespian, and its most tragic hero. No sportsman, with the exception of Muhammad Ali, had the kind of impact on society or generated the kind of frenzy across the world as Maradona did. Short, squat, powerfully built, with legs that looked like tree trunks, Maradona moved like a ballet dancer on the field. He seemed to glide in the green, skim off the top of the grass, make the world stand still as he danced between players that have suddenly turned into statues, his magical left foot telling a story of its own with the football as the protagonist. All the opposite side could do was stop itself from applauding the goal against it.

He could make the most formidable of defenders and goalkeepers look like fumbling amateurs. Such was his genius in creating space and manoeuvring positions when he moved with the ball that it seemed as though the sea of opponent players would part before him to let him through to reach his destiny—the goal. Eduardo Galeano summed up Maradona’s presence in the field: “Maradona is uncontrollable when he speaks but much more so when he plays. No one can predict the devilish tricks this inventor of surprises will dream up for the simple joy of throwing the computers off track, tricks he never repeats… he carries the ball sewn to his foot and he has eyes all over his body. His acrobatics light up the field. He can win a match with a thundering blast when his back is to the goal, or with an impossible pass from afar when he is corralled by thousands of enemy legs. And no one can stop when he decides to dribble up field.”

They could never touch him, and so they would scythe him down, hurt him, try and send him off the field—better still, try and ensure that he does not play at all. But all he ever wanted to do was play football; and nobody played football like him. The most talked-about World Cup in the last four decades is still the one held in Mexico in 1986 when Maradona brought the whole world under the sole of his feet and wiped away all the disgraces and missed opportunities of the past (and the future). For football fans growing up in the 1980s, all other memories of subsequent World Cups may one day fade with age, but they will never forget what Maradona did in 1986.

World Cup Mexico 1986

In 1978, Maradona, though already a superstar in Argentina, was left out of the World Cup squad by the coach Cesar Luis Menotti, who felt the 17-year-old was not yet ready for the ultimate sporting stage. But he was ready for the next one in Spain in 1982. Already recognised as the world’s best player (and soon to be the most expensive, with his record $5 million transfer from Boca Juniors to Barcelona), the world awaited his coronation. However, the tournament ended in disgrace for him, with the defending champions Argentina being shown the door by Brazil in the second round, and Maradona himself was sent off after a violent foul on Joao Batista. Maradona’s nerves were on the edge. Throughout the tournament he was subjected to the most excruciating punishment by opponent players who believed that by neutralising him, they could neutralise Argentina.

By the time of the 1986 World Cup in Mexico, Maradona was the undisputed king of football. He had single-handedly taken Napoli to the top of Italian football league, his skills had become almost mythical, and it was no longer a coronation that awaited him, but a deification. Captaining a side that almost completely depended on his abilities alone, Maradona weaved his magic right up to the lifting of the cup. The turning point came during the quarterfinal against England. For Maradona, national pride was at stake here, as Argentina still smarted from the humiliating military defeat at the hands of the United Kingdom in the Falklands War in 1982. England manager Bobby Robson, while acknowledging that Maradona was a player of “exceptional” talent, argued that the match was not between Maradona and England, but between Argentina and England, and “it would be an awful mistake to let ourselves be obsessed with a single player no matter how dangerous he can be”. In the opening minutes of the second half, with the score 0-0, Maradona out-jumped Peter Shilton and cleverly fisted the ball into the back of the net, making it look as though he had headed it, in what became the infamous “Hand of God” goal. The referee was duped and gave the goal to Argentina. But just three minutes later, the Argentine wizard dribbled past five English players and scored one of the most breathtaking goals in World Cup history. Many consider that to be the “goal of the century”. It was Maradona’s way of making amends for the earlier deception. He repeated the magic in the semifinal against Belgium, scoring twice. The philosophical Jorge Valdano had once said of Maradona, “…no ball ever had a better experience than when it was his at left foot.”

While in the final against West Germany, he did not score—being marked by the great Lothar Matthaus—he did set it up for Jorge Burruchaga to score the winning goal and win the cup 3-2. In 1990, he once again led Argentina to the World Cup final, but this time Mathhaus, now the captain of the German side, had his revenge, and West Germany lifted the cup for the third time, winning it 1-0. Maradona wept as the Italian crowd jeered at him for defeating their team in the semi-finals.

Around this period of his life, his cocaine addiction was damaging his career and repeatedly causing run-ins with the law. But he was ready for the 1994 World Cup, and the match against Greece in the opening stages showed that the wizard had not lost his magical touch. But it was not to be a glorious swansong, as he failed a dope test, and they found traces of ephedrine in his urinalysis. Ephedrine, though not considered a performance-enhancing drug, was nevertheless banned in international sports. Until the end Maradona maintained that it was from a power drink his trainer had inadvertently given him. In 1997, he played his last official match with his beloved Boca Juniors, a club he supported from his childhood, just like his father before him.

After retirement Maradona’s health started deteriorating. His hedonistic lifestyle, drug abuse, and lack of discipline led to a heart attack in 2001. At the invitation of Fidel Castro he underwent treatment and a detoxification programme in Cuba, which saved his life. Following his retirement from playing, Maradona tried his hand in coaching. In 2008, he managed the Argentine national side for the first time. But he never found the kind of success certain stars such as Cryuff, Zidane, Simeone enjoyed as coaches and managers. But then Maradona was never a great tactician; he was more a force of nature, who knew just what to do when he had the ball. He was a one-man army who could single-handedly take any nondescript team to championship. He did it with Boca Juniors, with Napoli and with the Argentine national squad. Eric Gerets, the Belgian right back’s wry observation after his team’s 2-0 defeat at the hands of Argentina in the 1986 World Cup, perhaps sums it up: “We don’t have a Maradona in our team and that’s the difference. If Maradona had played for Belgium, we would have won two-nil.”

In the slum where Maradona and his seven other siblings were raised, the children were so poor that they could not even afford a proper ball; they made it from anything that could be made into a spherical shape and held together by strings. From the rough streets and scraped and bloodied elbows and knees to the uneven pitches of suburban tournaments, the ‘God of Football’ came into his own while still a child. Maradona used to joke that his skills were so advanced that people thought he was actually a full-grown man who was a midget, and not a child. After establishing his reputation as the best Argentine player during his stint at Boca Juniors, he was sold at a then record deal of $5 million to Barcelona in 1982. Maradona was unhappy there. Andoni Goikoetxea, the ‘Butcher of Bilbao’ broke his ankle in a reckless tackle, and after two years, he shifted to Napoli.

With Napoli

It was here with Napoli, that the true legend of Maradona was born. For the impoverished, victory-starved Neapolitans, Maradona was the messiah to deliver them from humiliation and restore their pride. At that time the Italian Serie A was arguably the toughest league in the world, and Napoli was the weakest team. But with Maradona, it won the Serie A for the first time (1986-87), the Copa Italia, and the UEFA. But what was most important was that he healed the bruised ego of the supporters. Their richer neighbours would taunt them with chants like “Even the dogs run too, the Neapolitans are coming”, and “Napoli shit, Napoli Cholera”. Maradona made them shut up, and became the resident deity of Naples. By the time Maradona retired, he was not a god in just Naples and Argentina, but the whole world where any two group of people played football.

In most cases, the fan frenzy surrounding a football player—however big a star he may be—begins to dwindle once he retires, but not so in Maradona’s case. Years after his retirement, the craze for him continued unabated wherever he went—Kolkata, Cuba, Venezuela, there was no corner of the earth where Diego Maradona was not adored. With his strong Left-wing leanings and his outspoken anti-imperialist views, he was the darling of the liberal middle class and the proletariat. He was also close friends with Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez. He had a tattoo of Che Guevara on his right arm, and in many ways was the voice of the marginalised and oppressed. From his words and deeds they drew inspiration and the will to continue with the struggle of their daily lives.

In 2008 when he came to Kolkata at the invitation of the then Communist Party of India (Marxist) government, more than 100,000 people had gathered to see their god at the Salt Lake stadium. Debraj Bhattacharya, from Tollygunge in South Kolkata, remembers what the atmosphere was like: “He was playing with the ball for just a few minutes in the middle of the ground, and the people just went ecstatic. They were weeping in joy. They were seeing Maradona in real life. What can be greater than that!” What perhaps made this god so endearing was his all-too-human shortcomings and weaknesses; his helplessness in the hands of greater power, and his willingness to fight those powers despite that. In 2005, when United States President George W. Bush was in Argentina, Maradona was photographed wearing a T-shirt that said, “STOP BUSH.” The ‘S’ in the ‘BUSH’ was a swastika. Fourteen years later, in 2018, while coaching Dorados, a second division team in Sinaloa, Mexico, he was asked by a journalist, whether it was his job to keep Dorados on the front page of the local newspapers, to which Maradona replied, “If they don’t talk about Maradona, what are they going to talk about? They’ll talk about Trump, that rubber doll.” Defiant till the end. Maradona till the end.