Three decades after his peak, Maradona’s footballing wizardry and larger than life personality remain unmatched.
Diego Maradona has made it to 60. It’s a miracle of medicine. It’s a miracle of the round-the-clock-care that Maradona has been needing for years. It’s a miracle of his own will to live.
Yes, it is the strength of will when, amidst the constant storm of a drug and controversy-filled life, Maradona could play 20 years, four World Cups, win one, almost win a second and claim two Serie A titles with a bottom-rung team like Napoli.
I wanted Maradona to at least make it to 60. It’s a decent lifespan. And the greatest footballer in history along with Pele deserves one.
Messi and Ronaldo, elevated to ‘the greatest’ status by some fans, are alright. On manicured surfaces and with rules that forbid defenders from butchering them, Messi and Ronaldo are excellent. Throw them in matches played in muck and blood, or the heat and vomit of daytime Mexico. Let them play for a hopeless team in the Serie A and take it to the top two years in a row, like Maradona did with Napoli. Let us see the consistency the modern greats manage then.
Pele, with three World Cup titles, has a better collection of trophies than Maradona. But as an individual experience, Maradona stands above Pele. Left-footed and with the ability to dribble past defenders at pace, Maradona was one of a kind. When he scored the greatest goal in World Cup history, against England in the quarterfinals in 1986, he ran 60 yards, almost three cricket pitches, in about 10 seconds past five English players. He did that in the sapping heat and altitude of Mexico City. He did that on the uneven pitch of the otherwise magnificent Azteca Stadium. The modern greats will need to stop for a drink and a massage if they were to go on a run like that in those conditions.
Agreed, the Hand of God goal, scored by Maradona with his left fist, shouldn’t stand. There is nothing to be proud of about it. Maradona and the Argentine people use euphemisms such as ‘street smartness’ to legitimise the goal. That’s nonsense. It was cheating.
But the point is, even if the goal was disallowed, the score would have been 1-1. The match would have gone into extra-time. True, it would have been a different England on the pitch, not a deflated, angry England. But that’s hypothesis, in which the possibility of Maradona conjuring up another goal must also be factored in. After all, he did create goals out of nothing against Belgium just days later in the semis, even when no decision had gone against the opposition to crush their morale.
The other bit that proves Maradona’s greatness is that despite the Hand of God goal, no one grudges him the 1986 World Cup. In fact, it is almost universally agreed that no one man has left a similar stamp of authority on a World Cup in the 34 years since. There have been eight editions of the tournament after 1986. There have been some standout individual efforts, such as Lothar Matthaus in 1990, Zinedine Zidane in 1998, Ronaldo (Brazil) in 2002 and Kylian Mbappe in 2018. But none had the cocktail of great goals, assists and theatre as Maradona.
Along with the play, Maradona brought an electrifying charisma and pathos to the game which moved entire countries. At times it was exaggerated, but for the most part it was genuine. If fouled he would grimace and fold his hands and plead with the referee for fairness. In defeat he would look skyward and weep, knowing well the cameras were on him. If he scored or won he would grin ear to ear and open his arms to the fans. He certainly was a man of the people, born in a tin slum in Buenos Aires, which did not have water or electricity, and where he once fell in a deep pile of fecal matter and was pulled out by his uncle Cirilo.
Maradona has visited India thrice. His most recent trip was to Kolkata in 2017. I booked tickets to go because Maradona is one sports idol I have not seen in person. But he rescheduled his trip a couple of times. I ended up not going. When I saw visuals of that visit, however, I felt I had not missed much. Maradona was on crutches, or hobbling along. Worse, the light had left his eyes. This wasn’t the full-of-life Maradona I knew.Since then, Maradona’s speech has become more slurred. And he seems to have undergone a facelift which makes him look like a ridiculous geriatric-cherub with white stubble on artificially pink cheeks. But at least he is alive. And a little bit of the old spunk remains. In a commemorative interview with France Football a few days ago, he said he dreams of scoring another goal against the English, “this time with my right hand.”