The contradiction of Maradona will outlive him -- the sadder you feel, the more you laugh out loud
Those are the words I woke up to roughly 36 hours ago when I saw the cover of the French sports daily L’Équipe.
Dieu Est Mort. God is dead.
By the time he was nine years old, there was no mistaking what he was. A puny shantytown kid who could neither jump nor run fast.
But the way he moved with the ball, the control he had with that left foot, yes THAT left foot, had people gasping. Hardened youth coaches, narrow-eyed pragmatists who’d worked with enough young talent to be cynical about the whole business of early promise, had to sit down and ask themselves to breathe.
In youth leagues around the world divided by age groups, the classic scam is to sneak in older players, right? You take an older kid, falsify his birth date, and make paste out of the unsuspecting younger kids you play him against. With Diego, coaches ran the opposite scam.
By the time he was 11, they’d enter him into tournaments against kids three to four years his senior. Under a fake name of course, as he was already starting to be whispered about in those football circles.
“You bastard,” the opposing coaches would fume, when their teams of boys were left in ruins by an 11-year-old who looked nine. “Did you just play Maradona against me?” It turned out some of them weren’t even angry, just grateful for the chance to have seen him.
Football is the grandest theatre of them all. The crowd demands. The players play. And the crowd’s demand of any place or anywhere is simple. You play with your feet, and you are judged by your skill. Perform and make it beautiful, make it memorable. That’s it.
As he slalomed past this team and that, the masses swayed with him. He didn’t beat, he skipped by defenders. Even across sacred, hated lines, he transcended the game.
Real Madrid fans wouldn’t dare applaud anyone in the loathed red and blue, not until Maradona ripped their team apart, and brought them to their feet at the Bernabéu.
Perform, the crowd demanded. Applaud me, Maradona demanded back.
He never forgot his roots and was never afraid to speak his mind on topics he was passionate about. After his audience with Pope John Paul II, he was quoted as saying: “I was in the Vatican and I saw all these golden ceilings. Afterwards, I heard the pope say the Church was worried about the welfare of poor kids. Sell your ceiling then, amigo, do something!”
And the day before that infamous 1990 World Cup semi-final against Italy in Naples, at the Cathedral he built, his stunning remarks to the Neapolitans went something like this -- for 364 days of the year, Italy treats you like you are a foreigner in your own land. Except for the one day they need you. Back me. Back me and my fellow Argentinians tomorrow!
This is not a new story. Guy comes from nothing. Becomes one of the best we have ever seen. The entrapments of fame. And the rest that followed. Many athletes bring joy to people. Many athletes lead chaotic lives and many athletes die too early. But Diego was something else.
He was able to do things with the ball that, when you saw them, made you feel like the universe was telling you a secret. He had the power to make the world hold its breath. Maybe that’s another reason it’s hard to believe he is dead. Where he is concerned, we are the ones who are used to being breathless.
Perhaps his flaws diminished, to a degree, what he was. But to those who adored him, it burnished what he represented to them. 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.
We watched him die in public for the past 25 years and he still pulled off a sudden death. A trickster to the last minute.
He is gone but he is not. Because Diego is eternal, and maybe, just maybe, it is worth holding on to doubt, at least for a minute. If you follow it where it leads, it takes you backward through everything that was absurd and offensive about him, back to the bashful, beautiful, tumultuous, irreconcilable gift he gave us. And the contradiction of Maradona will outlive him, because the sadder you feel, the more you laugh out loud.
Enough ink has been spilled on that 86 World Cup, that game against England, and those goals. After a blessed but troubled life, hopefully, he’ll finally find some comfort in the Hands of God.
The ball was his. The game was his. The pleasure was ours.
Mashkur Hussain is a sports aficionado based in Toronto, Canada.