Goodbye to an eternal genius
The world has witnessed an outpouring of grief and glowing tributes for arguably one of the greatest footballers of all time, Diego Maradona, who died of a massive heart attack on Wednesday at the age of 60.
“Unparalleled magician,” “the greatest,” “absolute warrior,” “eternal genius,” and “ridiculously brave” are some of the tributes paid by people from many walks of life from every corner of the planet to this iconic footballer, who brought magic and romance to football.
He had attained a stature in his country that could only be matched, probably, by Eva Peron. President Alberto Fernandez, while declaring three days of national mourning, wrote: “You made us immensely happy. You are the greatest of all. Thanks for having existed, Diego. We will miss you all our lives”.
Born as the fifth child but the first son among eight siblings in a poor family and raised in Villa Fiorito on the southern outskirts of Buenos Aires, Maradona was spotted by a talent scout when he was only eight. When he was 12, Maradona used to amuse spectators during half-time in first division games by showing off his wizardry with the ball.
Although Maradona made his debut in club football at the age of 16, it was only when he came to play for Barcelona and then for Napoli that the football world came to know this football genius. He was the only footballer to have set the world record transfer fee twice, first when he transferred to Barcelona and then to Napoli.
Maradona became a household name after inspiring his country to World Cup glory in 1986 in Mexico. He also became the “talking point” of the tournament with a memorable performance against England in the 2-1 win in the quarter-finals. The diminutive holder of the Number 10 shirt out-jumped goalkeeper Peter Shilton and punched the ball into the English net to score his iconic “Hand of God” goal.
But only a few minutes later, his genius was on show for the whole world, when he took the ball from his own half and, dribbling past half the English side, put the ball past Peter Shilton for the second time to seal his side’s victory. That goal was voted “Goal of the Century” by FIFA.com voters in 2002. That goal is till this day considered as the best goal ever scored in the history of World Cup football.
Maradona remained unrepentant about that infamous goal, terming the goal “a symbolic revenge against the English” for the Falklands War.
Maradona took his national side to the World Cup final in 1990 only to be beaten by West Germany. And, in 1994, when the World Cup was staged for the first time in the United States, Maradona had to make a disgraceful exit after failing a drug test. Maradona, by then, although regarded as one the greatest that football had seen, was leading a life off the pitch that was equally notorious, amid battles with drug and alcohol addiction.
He finally hung up his boots in 1997 after representing Argentina in 91 internationals and scoring 34 goals for his country.
He also had a career as a coach for various clubs, and was in charge of the Argentinian national side in the World Cup in South Africa in 2010. But his addiction to cocaine and alcohol took a toll on his health and he cut a very sorry figure whenever he appeared in public. Many people felt aghast seeing him during the last World Cup in Russia in 2018.
Many people wonder what more a genius like him could have achieved if his addiction to drugs had not curtailed his playing career. It is indeed a coincidence that Maradona died on November 25, the exact date that George Best, the Irish wizard and, in my view, the greatest footballer never to have played in any World Cup, passed away 15 years ago. Maradona considered Best as one of the few footballers who inspired him as a young player.
Tributes pouring in from footballing greats included those from Pele, Gary Lineker, Lionel Messi, and Cristiano Ronaldo. Pele, calling Maradona “a friend,” said: “Certainly, one day we’ll kick a ball together in the sky above.”
Lionel Messi paid a poetic tribute: “He leaves us but does not leave, because Diego is eternal.”
And Cristiano Ronaldo wrote: “Today I say goodbye to a friend and the world says goodbye to an eternal genius. One of the best ever. An unparalleled magician.”
Tributes have been paid by the Prime Minister of Italy; he had a special place in the hearts of the people of Napoli in Italy. Maradona brought this club from the south of Italy two Seria A titles, first in 1987 and that was followed by another, three later years. Hearing the news of their favourite player’s death, his fans gathered at a mural built in his memory to pay their respects.
People in Napoli hold Maradona in such high esteem that there is a shrine named after him with his photograph on the wall in Sapaccanapoli, one of the historical thoroughfares in that city.
Maradona will be remembered by millions of football fans as one of the greatest footballers, if not the greatest footballer, the world has ever seen, who led a life of glory but had to endure pain because of his addiction to drugs. Many would say Maradona was undoubtedly a genius footballer troubled with an addiction that cut short his life.
One thing is certain: The memory of Maradona the footballer will remain etched in the hearts of millions throughout the world.
Uday Sankar Das is a senior journalist, a political commentator, and sports analyst.