Diego Maradona seemed mortal and superhuman at the same time
Even by the atrocious standards of this annus horribilis, which is already spilling over with too much loss and longing, the news that Diego Maradona died on Wednesday (in his beloved Buenos Aires, of a heart attack, at the age of just 60) is an unexpected and wrenching blow.
“Diego is eternal” was Lionel Messi’s reaction, “he leaves us, but does not leave, [we] keep all the beautiful moments lived with him.” Meanwhile, on Instagram, Cristiano Ronaldo posted, “the world says goodbye to an eternal genius. An unparalleled magician. He leaves too soon, but leaves a legacy without limits and a void that will never be filled.”
“The Golden Kid” -- El Pibe de Oro -- was deeply beloved around the world, including obsessively in all our countries of South Asia, but he was literally worshiped in Argentina, where there is an Iglesia Maradoniana. This “Maradonian Church” has its own Ten Commandments, which begin with one of their deity’s most unforgettable utterances: “La pelota no es mancha” (the ball is not soiled).
Maradona had memorably said those words during his tearful last appearance in the very womb of his spectacular career -- La Bombonera, the home of the storied Boca Juniors football team in Buenos Aires. With the packed stadium sobbing along with him, it was a sorrowful admission of his public struggles with alcohol and drugs -- in 1994 he was even expelled from the World Cup after failing a test -- and consequent strings of poor choices in his personal life.
In his New York Times obituary, the outstanding Rory Smith writes with great insight: “If the flaws diminished what Maradona was, they burnished what he represented to those who watched him, those who adored him. That such beauty could emerge from such tumult made him mean something more; it gave him a resonance that stretched beyond even his outsize ability. His darkness sharpened the contours of his light.”
It is certainly true that no great athlete of the modern era has ever appeared so remarkably mortal and superhuman at the same time. From the vantage of just a couple of days after his death, it already seems as though Maradona’s rollercoaster life bears the distinct markers of martyrdom. Maybe he was telling the truth about “the hand of God” steering that unbelievable goal against England in 1986?
In his beautiful obituary in the Economic Times, the intrinsically Kolkatan football-obsessed journalist Indrajit Hazra says: “Maradona was one of the world’s greatest physical artists. Physicality, in the Maradonian sense, was not just about fitness. Although his recovery from injury during his ill-fated season at Barcelona [in 1983-84] showed his grit and determination towards being fit when he put his mind and body to it. Physicality for Maradona was about space-time to be created, expanded, contracted, controlled, and conquered. This is a divine quality.”
It is certainly true that those who watched Maradona play in his peak years can attest there was an uncanny aspect to his movements, as though the laws of physics did not apply, and a special spotlight was reserved only for him.
He palpably radiated an electric charge, which kept the ball magnetically connected to his body, and also displayed an extra set of gears which allowed acceleration, turning, and slamming on the brakes like no one else. His field awareness and ball control were outright extra-sensory: Angles appeared where he put them, passes bent however he wanted, sometimes in different directions at the same time.
All that magic was on prominent display in the Argentinian genius’s most famous goal -- the dagger that slew England in the 1986 World Cup -- where he sped up, feinted, and juked for 60 yards and 10 full seconds, before easily sliding the ball past Peter Shilton to make the score 2-0.
About this “Goal of the Century” the Spanish language broadcaster Victor Hugo Morales (he is from Uruguay, across the Río de la Plata from Argentina) later said, not entirely hyperbolically: “I imagined the whole Earth pending on that move. The dimension of Maradona’s feat led me to think that all humanity was a pair of eyes that collectively represented a taste for football. I immediately perceived that we were in the presence of a real work of art.”
Morales proceeded to make one of the most unforgettable calls in sports history, which serves very well to herald this moment of farewell: “Genius! Genius! Genius! There, there, there, there, there, there! Goaaaaaaaal! Goaaaaaaal! I want to cry! Oh holy God, long live football! What a goal! Diegoal! Maradona! I want to cry, excuse me! Maradona, in a memorable run, in the best play of all times! Cosmic kite (Barrilete cósmico), which planet did you come from, to leave so many Englishmen behind, for the country to become a clenched fist crying for Argentina? Thank you God, for football, for Maradona!”
Vivek Menezes is a writer based in Goa, India.