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𝐃𝐢𝐞𝐠𝐨 𝐌𝐚𝐫𝐚𝐝𝐨𝐧𝐚
𝟏𝟗𝟔𝟎-𝟐𝟎𝟐𝟎

𝙇𝙚𝙚 𝙂𝙖𝙙𝙨𝙗𝙮 𝘽𝙖𝙨𝙖𝙣𝙣𝙖𝙫𝙖𝙧
𝙂𝙖𝙙𝙨𝙗𝙮’𝙨 𝙀𝙣𝙜𝙡𝙖𝙣𝙙 𝘾𝙝𝙞𝙚𝙛 𝙁𝙤𝙤𝙩𝙗𝙖𝙡𝙡 𝘾𝙤𝙧𝙧𝙚𝙨𝙥𝙤𝙣𝙙𝙚𝙣𝙩
𝙖𝙣𝙙 𝙝𝙤𝙨𝙩 𝙤𝙛 𝙂𝙖𝙙𝙨𝙗𝙮’𝙨 𝙀𝙣𝙜𝙡𝙖𝙣𝙙

He is three years old, the fifth of eight children. He lives in Villa Fiorito, a poverty-stricken shantytown south of Buenos Aires. The stunted little boy beams as he receives a gift, a football. He keeps it under his shirt to prevent it from being stolen.

He is eight years old. A talent scout spots the boy playing in his neighbourhood junior club. He is aghast, turns to his companion, and exclaims, “this boy will be the greatest we have ever seen.” His companion laughs.

He is 12 years old. At halftime at first division matches, the boy comes out to entertain the crowd. He does tricks unlike any they have seen before. Foot-to-head-to-back, rolling the ball around his body like a marble on silk cloth. 25-foot keepie-uppies—he barely moves from the spot he is standing on. As the teams come out for the second half, the boy brings the ball to a halt on the bridge between foot and heel. There is glue there, surely? No one can stop a ball with such beautiful command of gravity.

He is 25 years old. On a baking Sunday afternoon in Mexico City, the boy lifts the World Cup.

We have not experienced this before. No matter how unsurprising his death may be, the world of football is in uncharted territory, for this is the most momentous passing in the history of the game. Indeed, in the entire history of world sport, only the death of Muhammad Ali is comparable in its enormity.

𝙔𝙤 𝙨𝙤𝙮 𝙗𝙡𝙖𝙣𝙘𝙤 𝙤 𝙣𝙚𝙜𝙧𝙤, 𝙜𝙧𝙞𝙨 𝙣𝙤 𝙫𝙤𝙮 𝙖 𝙨𝙚𝙧 𝙚𝙣 𝙢𝙞 𝙫𝙞𝙙𝙖.

𝙄 𝙖𝙢 𝙗𝙡𝙖𝙘𝙠 𝙤𝙧 𝙬𝙝𝙞𝙩𝙚, 𝙄’𝙡𝙡 𝙣𝙚𝙫𝙚𝙧 𝙗𝙚 𝙜𝙧𝙚𝙮.

Diego Armando Maradona also described himself as a bandit. All the shock exhibited by the English after he behaved just like one on Sunday, the 22nd day of June, 1986, in the Azteca Stadium in Mexico City, is, in hindsight, rather comical. Yet, even today, the trauma of that World Cup quarterfinal 51st minute is still with us.

The next day: ’Monday mourning.’ Uproar permeates through English homes, schools, workplaces, streets, villages, towns. The country feels crushed, violated, humiliated, and most of all, cheated. If that isn’t bad enough, the ‘goal’ has just been christened, and by Maradona himself, with its own epic name: “the hand of God.” Outrage joins uproar. Even some bookies will not countenance the injustice and refund punters who had bet on a draw.

51 minutes, the bandit. Four minutes later, the sorcerer. From an imp to a 5’5 giant, a scrapper to a virtuoso, what we were about to witness was so stupendous, so audaciously beautiful, it seemed to defy the limits of human skill.

Now it is iconic, etched into our memories, but it was just the spiral shadow of a PA system hanging precariously above. But when, beside it, his move began with a pirouette so exquisite it was worthy of the Bolshoi, it became suddenly the silhouette of a starburst beckoning the little man to run to immortality. And so he did.

“𝘏𝘦 𝘩𝘢𝘴 𝘉𝘶𝘳𝘳𝘶𝘤𝘩𝘢𝘨𝘢 𝘵𝘰 𝘩𝘪𝘴 𝘭𝘦𝘧𝘵 𝘢𝘯𝘥 𝘝𝘢𝘭𝘥𝘢𝘯𝘰 𝘵𝘰 𝘩𝘪𝘴 𝘭𝘦𝘧𝘵.

“𝘏𝘦 𝘸𝘰𝘯’𝘵 𝘯𝘦𝘦𝘥 𝘢𝘯𝘺 𝘰𝘧 𝘵𝘩𝘦𝘮.

“𝘖𝘩𝘩! 𝘠𝘰𝘶 𝘩𝘢𝘷𝘦 𝘵𝘰 𝘴𝘢𝘺 𝘵𝘩𝘢𝘵’𝘴 𝘮𝘢𝘨𝘯𝘪𝘧𝘪𝘤𝘦𝘯𝘵.”

– 𝘛𝘩𝘦 𝘉𝘉𝘊’𝘴 𝘉𝘢𝘳𝘳𝘺 𝘋𝘢𝘷𝘪𝘦𝘴’ 𝘭𝘦𝘨𝘦𝘯𝘥𝘢𝘳𝘺 𝘤𝘰𝘮𝘮𝘦𝘯𝘵𝘢𝘳𝘺 𝘵𝘩𝘢𝘵 𝘥𝘢𝘺.

People point to goals from backward scissor kicks, or curled spectacularly from 35 yards out, or where a player’s run starts from his own penalty area, but Maradona’s second goal against England is regarded as the greatest in the history of the game not just because of its technical beauty, but also because of its context: it was scored against England, world-class opposition who had conceded just one goal at the entire World Cup, captained by the most obstinate goalkeeper in the game, Peter Shilton, who would not be beaten one-on-one by anybody; and it was on the ultimate stage, the pinnacle of the game for every player.

But let’s argue the merits of the goal anyway because technically, it is probably the greatest, too. There is an overarching reason: no luck was involved in any way; each twist, turn, step, timing of acceleration, touch of the ball, he owned. A painter, whose every stroke is the right colour, texture and shape; a conductor, whose timing of the baton brings note and pitch perfection from all sections of his orchestra; an actor, whose every word and gesture playing the Dane is exactly how the Bard himself imagined it.

The goal has even allayed some of the English trauma caused by the first; grudging appreciation beguiled into adoration over the years. Painful beauty, but the beauty has outlived the pain.

Those five short minutes define Diego Maradona. The bandit, the unscrupulous urchin, willing to cheat without a second thought, and the artist, the genius, able to transcend the game he was born to play. If only Maradona had been just the latter, we said, he would be loved like Pelé. But therein lies our mistake: there was no genius without the knave and there was no winner without the swindler.

In life, it was no different. Shady financial dealings, tax evasion, the constant demons of drugs and alcohol—he became addicted to cocaine in his early 20s. He said outrageous things, insulted just about everybody in the game, shot journalists with an air rifle (though some will consider this one of his greatest off-pitch achievements), and told the world Colombia deserved to beat England in Russia.

Yet, one-to-one, on a human level, you will find few people who did not describe him as warm, kind, funny, generous, bursting with charisma and charm. And of all the talk about his animosity towards England, he actually loved his time in the country he tormented, greatly moved and surprised to find he was adored by many there.

As we often see with great athletes when their raison d’être is no longer a way to live, he began to self destruct. His body deteriorated and ill health started to pervade. The same body that supplied him with the strength and skill to be unplayable in his youth gave way to the fragility of a life out of the game beset with vices.

As to the Pelé/Maradona vs Messi/Ronaldo debate, look no further than his home country where there is none: Messi may own the football, a local saying goes, but Maradona was born with it at his feet. And who can argue? As quick, but with more balance, guile and close control, and playing at a time when he was mauled, kicked and hacked by opponents with impunity, never allowed the space or freedom players are used to today. There are photographs of Maradona’s legs after a game, so battered and bruised, you wondered how he could stay standing for five minutes, let alone 90.

But perhaps above all, it was the ability to impose himself on games in a way his modern-day countryman has just been unable to at the very highest level of international football. Maradona was capable of finding answers to any questions asked by his opponents, seeming just to have the knack of going one better.

This period of tribute for a player who has left us will in Maradona’s case be unprecedented; he is now the greatest player in the history of the game to have died. But this is as nothing compared to the mourning his beloved Argentina will now go through, for this is arguably the passing of their greatest son. He was bigger than any political or military leader, exerting more influence on his country than anyone in its modern history. At a time of division and turmoil, he brought respite to millions of his compatriots suffering under an oppressive regime, instilling the next generation with hope and belief that they could change things. To them, there is no distinction between his or God’s hand; to them, the hand did not just brush a ball past Peter Shilton’s head, it lifted their country from the depths of despair.

Four minutes later, the rest of us could no longer distinguish between his or God’s feet.

𝐴𝑚𝑜 𝑡𝑢𝑠 𝑝𝑖𝑒𝑠 𝑝𝑜𝑟𝑞𝑢𝑒 𝑎𝑛𝑑𝑢𝑣𝑖𝑒𝑟𝑜𝑛 𝑠𝑜𝑏𝑟𝑒 𝑙𝑎 𝑡𝑖𝑒𝑟𝑟𝑎 𝑦 𝑠𝑜𝑏𝑟𝑒 𝑒𝑙 𝑣𝑖𝑒𝑛𝑡𝑜 𝑦 𝑠𝑜𝑏𝑟𝑒 𝑒𝑙 𝑎𝑔𝑢𝑎, ℎ𝑎𝑠𝑡𝑎 𝑞𝑢𝑒 𝑚𝑒 𝑒𝑛𝑐𝑜𝑛𝑡𝑟𝑎𝑟𝑜𝑛.

𝐵𝑢𝑡 𝐼 𝑙𝑜𝑣𝑒 𝑦𝑜𝑢𝑟 𝑓𝑒𝑒𝑡 𝑏𝑒𝑐𝑎𝑢𝑠𝑒 𝑡ℎ𝑒𝑦 𝑤𝑎𝑙𝑘𝑒𝑑 𝑢𝑝𝑜𝑛 𝑡ℎ𝑒 𝑒𝑎𝑟𝑡ℎ 𝑎𝑛𝑑 𝑢𝑝𝑜𝑛 𝑡ℎ𝑒 𝑤𝑖𝑛𝑑 𝑎𝑛𝑑 𝑢𝑝𝑜𝑛 𝑡ℎ𝑒 𝑤𝑎𝑡𝑒𝑟𝑠, 𝑢𝑛𝑡𝑖𝑙 𝑡ℎ𝑒𝑦 𝑓𝑜𝑢𝑛𝑑 𝑚𝑒.

-𝑃𝑎𝑏𝑙𝑜 𝑁𝑒𝑟𝑢𝑑𝑎