This is a weird one. In a lot of ways, fans from my generation are not qualified to talk about Diego Maradona. He was a comet that lit up the sky and left well before people my age knew what a sky is. Our only interaction with his genius has been through the borrowed telescope of heavily edited YouTube reels and stories from hyperventilating oldies.
The problem with essays and YouTube videos is that you partly know what lies ahead. It is there in the title and subtext: Diego Maradona Genius, Crazy Dribbles. Watching with the secure knowledge of an extraordinary finale does not evoke quite the same awe. My generation never got to see the volatile unpredictability of Maradona at its peak.
But we have seen good footballers and we have seen words like great and legend get thrown around like cards in a lost poker game. Indulging in GOAT debates is our favourite post-lunch pass time. So maybe we are qualified to talk about perceived greatness.
If you were to move away from Twitter for ten minutes and define the outer layers of greatness, the realm where someone’s radiance illuminates the sport itself, you would arrive at a checklist that Diego Maradona ticked many times over.
He had a relationship with the ball that drove his peers to dark corners of jealousy; he won titles with teams that had no right to be anywhere near the podium; he could gorge on beef steaks one night and dribble through the entire field the next morning. Diego Maradona was the kind of footballer who could be marked out of a game but still produce the pass that wins the World Cup. Hell, he even made football’s first viral video.
A couple of hours after the news from Buenos Aires first hit the newsreels, an old, pixelated video started doing the rounds on social media. Maradona had come to visit Chelsea’s training ground in Cobham. The players were beaming, lining up to get their chance at a picture with him. It is safe to attach all superlative labels to someone who continues to be the gold standard thirty years after he last achieved success as a player.
But talking about Maradona only from the chairs of a stadium press box is a disservice to what he truly meant. The Argentine writer Roberto Fontanarrosa was reported to have once said, “What do I care what Diego did with his life? I care what he did with mine.” Maradona was a footballer par excellence, but he was an extraordinary showman, the kind of which football hadn’t known before or seen since.
Even at the very peak of his fame, he did not forget where he rose from, or the kind of dirt many in the stands come to momentarily forget. Putting on a show became a responsibility. There was no doubt in his head that he was the lead artist on the show, and that it was his prerogative to give you value for your time. In and out of the pitch, with the ball or the mic, Maradona drew you closer. He spoke of things that footballers stay away from and played in a manner contrasting the iron walls of tactical structure starting to colour his sport in shades of grey.
The audience were his fuel as much as he was theirs. Unlike many greats of today, Maradona rarely celebrated a goal by pointing his fingers to himself or looking at his teammates with the expectation of reverence. He played for his audience. When he wasn’t on the line with Jesus, his outstretched arms and expanded torso always pointed to the stands. And they responded. They lined up for him by the thousands, ready to invest time, money, and hopes. Day after day, week after week, they sang his songs. He was Freddie Mercury and The Pope mixed into one body.
This also explains why his excesses hurt people so much. It would not have mattered as much if someone else, someone less effervescent, was hauled up for consuming banned narcotics. Sport had known the idea of crossed lines long before Maradona. But he had spent so much time and energy draping his audience in a blanket of glittery magic that people felt cheated when it began to tear at the seams. Can you imagine if some internet cowboy discovered tomorrow that the lyrics and melody of “Imagine” were, in fact, stolen?
Every time I spoke to the older, wiser, and luckier about Diego Maradona, I could feel their eyes and voices light up before trailing away in pain and resignation. The pain was not borne out of denial or forgiveness, but a hope that he found himself a few seconds of peace wherever he was. They did not seem to care about anyone else half as much as they did about Maradona.
And isn’t that the epitome of greatness? That, many years after you stop, your audiences still care about you. They squirm every time they read your name on the front pages, but they never roll their eyes. The joy and euphoria you gave them in one decade has outlasted three others of problematic, boundary-pushing behaviour. For someone looking through a borrowed telescope, there cannot be a more enduring legacy than sincere and universal love.
Diego Maradona may or may not have been the greatest player to ever touch a football, but he was loved more than anyone else ever has or will be. At his farewell match for Boca Juniors, a teary-eyed Maradona said “La pelota no se mancha.” The ball does not show the dirt.
It never did, Diego. With the ball, you were football’s deliverance. Hope you’ve found your peace.