In our heart of hearts, we always knew it would end early.
Despite this, when the news broke, we all thought it was a hoax. A sick rumour perpetuated by some anonymous Twitter click farm shopping for retweets. Anytime now, the story would be dispelled, likely by the subject himself, through some truly absurd act of self-indulgence. Perhaps, as he had once memorably done, by firing an air-rifle from his balcony to the throngs of reporters who had gathered below his gates for quotes?
But alas, for once the rumours were true. As French football daily L'Equipe so poignantly put it, channeling their inner Nietzsche—Dieu est Mort. God is dead.
Diego Armando Maradona had been a showstopper his entire life. And even in death, he was no different. He managed what even the once-in-a-generation coronavirus had not—cancellation of a Copa Libertadores clash between Internacional of Brazil and Argentina's Boca Juniors. Brazil vs Argentina—an eternal rivalry, only possible to be postponed due to the passing of an eternal soul.
Maradona was only 60, under no circumstances an age to die. But a life of utter excess meant that earthly numbers were always entirely moot for someone as ephemeral as Diego. He was a prodigy at six, a national sensation at 11, a professional football player at 15, a national debutant at 16, the world's most expensive footballer at 21 (and again at 23) and a world champion by the time he was 25.
Staggering as those statistics are—defining the legend of Maradona with pure numbers would be doing him (and the world) a massive disservice. Because with Maradona, like with possibly every great artist in history, it is less about what he achieved and far, far more about how he achieved it. Who wants to look and gawk at numbers when you can talk about how the story of Maradona touched your soul?
And what a story it was. The kind that almost becomes a fairytale. A story as old as time itself. Rags to riches, tears and glory, light and darkness—it had it all.
It began in Lanus where Diego was born to a fisherman father and a domestic help mother. They soon moved to Buenos Aires in search of work and made Villa Fiorito their home—a slum with no electricity or running water and so violent that even the police stayed away at night. As a toddler, Maradona once fell into an open cesspit.
"Keep your head above the s***, Diego," was what his uncle repeated to him as he pulled him out. It was to become Maradona's mantra in life.
In the rags of his youth, the preternatural talent that was soon clear to anyone who watched him juggle a football (or an orange) offered the most obvious way out. In many ways, it was the fulfilment of the Argentine dream—a supremely talented footballer escapes a life of poverty and becomes an international star. But Maradona's talent was so pure, so unadulterated and so special, and his personality so magnetic, that he did not just become a star. He transcended to an icon.
So what made Maradona so special?
As a footballer, he was comfortably the best in the world in his era. And perhaps too, tiresome as that debate is, of all time. But then so was Pele, the Brazilian who came a generation before him and shared a similar background. And now, so are players like Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo who too can lay claim to that sobriquet.
Was it then the way he played football?
A Lilliput in the world of Gullivers, all swivel of hips, drops of shoulders, unshakeable balance with the ball always magnetically stuck to the outside of his left foot. Full-on poetic grace in a brutal football pitch where defenders wanted the Faustian bargain—the ball or his foot. An artist in a world of builders, who just happened to be better than them all.
Or was it his off-pitch drama, in a pre-reality TV world, that kept people engaged?
For many, Maradona was just a young boy drawn astray by the powers that be and aided by a bevvy of yes-men, all hoping to profit from him. But others depict him as the author of his own fate. After all, he had an almost lifelong cocaine addiction. He also possessed an anti-establishment streak that put, in him, a compulsive disregard for rules. He once used a fake penis and someone else's pee to pass a drug test. He often used his hand in football games, most famously in 1986 against England at the World Cup and called it the "Hand of God." Cheeky as that was, there were darker things too, including, but not limited to, his relationship with the Italian mafia during his spell playing for Napoli.
But there were so many other sides to Maradona too.
There was Maradona, the raging socialist in an increasingly capitalist world—a tattoo of Fidel Castro on his left foot and, lately, an Instagram account full of Hugo Chavez quotes. There was Maradona, the hapless coach, fat Maradona the meme, stomach-stapled Maradona enjoying a steak with the Salt Bae, the Palestine supporting Maradona, the US-hating Maradona. It goes on and on and on.
And perhaps that was the true off-pitch genius of Maradona. He was everything your teenage idealist self wanted you to be. The patron saint of the underdog who was also the best football player in the world. A seminal talent blessed by God who was also an addict. The man who rubs shoulders with Castro and Chavez but tours the world to pay the bills.
Maradona was never afraid to stand for something, never afraid to put himself out there or bear the brunt of a world on his shoulders. In today's hyper-curated social media world, such a character is unthinkable. This is why his legend practically writes itself.
Duality has always defined Maradona. And nowhere is it better captured than in the six minutes in Azteca in 1986 that probably defined the narrative of his life. England vs Argentina in the backdrop of the Falklands War.
First, there was that salmon leap over Peter Shilton and the hand that guided the ball into the net. The Hand of God, as Diego later called it. And so it came—Maradona, the breaker of rules, the cheat, the man for the shady arts. Darkness.
And then there was that moment.
Maradona, twisting, turning, swivelling and then running—past 1,2,3...6! And goal. Breathtaking, impossible, the single greatest goal ever scored. Small matter that it vanquished the colonial overlords. From Brazil to Bangladesh, everyone cheered. The world exploded. An icon was born. Light.
Darkness and light. Maradona—a story as old as time itself.
There will probably never be another like him ever again.
Quazi Zulquarnain Islam is a football fan.