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OP-ED: The legacy of a political and cultural icon

  • Published at 11:13 pm December 4th, 2020
Argentina mourns Maradona
A fan reacts while mourning the death of soccer legend Diego Armando Maradona, outside the Diego Armando Maradona stadium, in Buenos Aires, Argentina November 25, 2020 Reuters

Why Maradona transcends generations

The passing of Diego Maradona has left the world in mourning. El Pibe de Oro, football’s golden boy, was one of the greatest to have graced the field. On the pitch, he was simply peerless, mesmerizing onlookers with his genius and dizzying opponents with his slaloming runs. But his legacy went far beyond the green grass. In fact, Maradona the political and cultural icon, was as significant as the legendary player. 

A devoted Peronist, a man who would later have a portrait of Fidel Castro tattooed on his leg, and that of Che Guevara inked on his arm, Maradona was the on-field manifestation of the late Cold War-era counterculture that was a hallmark of so many Third World countries -- especially in Latin America. He represented the forgotten world, countries with colonial pasts that overshadowed their futures. Born and raised in a shantytown, he was endearingly unruly, the anti-hero of the ultimate underdog story who resonated with the common man. And with the ball at his feet, he inspired an entire class of people to defy fate, to rise up against the circumstances the world had prescribed for them. 

How fitting, then, was it that his greatest hour came against mighty England, the nation that once ruled half the world, the embodiment of the very establishment he had been fighting his whole life? The match carried immense emotional weight -- the UK only very recently had left Argentina humiliated in the bloody Falklands War. And so, it transpired that in a span of four minute in the 1986 World Cup quarterfinals, the world would see two goals that defined Maradona’s career. There is something implausibly poetic about these two moments which elevated this man beyond the realms of mere mortals. These two moments exemplified the two equally loved but polar opposite traits of Diego Maradona: Divine brilliance and devilish cunning. 

First came the most infamous moment of his life, “The Hand of God,” as Maradona turned in an aerial ball with his left fist when he realized his head would not reach it. Yet, as dishonourable an act this may seem, it was very symbolic. Here was Maradona, a diminutive man from a poor background, gifted with neither physical height nor social stature, rising above -- literally and metaphorically -- the constraints he was born into on the grandest stage of all. Next, of course, came the most famous moment, “The Goal of the Century.” 

Perhaps the greatest single goal that will ever be scored in history, Diego Maradona set out on a 10-second, 60-yard dash that cemented his legacy forever, a testament to his invincible, untouchable best. Maradona was an artist -- the ball his brush, the field his grassy green canvas.  

That his historical one-two punch came against England was significant in so many ways. A country in political turmoil and on the brink of despair, Maradona and his teammates united Argentina. Football is the great equalizer -- Argentina could not match the military power of England, but the pitch belonged to Maradona and his countrymen. 

He would go on to captain the side to the World Cup. The victory was not just Argentina’s, but of Latin America, of the entire emerging world. Every goal scored was a reminder to their former masters of their unbridled potential. Maradona was at the vanguard of the revolution as he played with reckless abandon, a freedom that was as rebellious as his shaggy mane of hair. 

And yes, while his off-field struggles were well documented, they in fact endeared him to many and perhaps made him even more loveable: A perfectly imperfect man. Maradona’s vices were many -- drugs, constant overindulgence, Mafia links, and more. But through it all, he was always adored by the masses. He was the people’s champion. 

He spoke out against the global elite and their petty wars, and rallied against poverty. To his fans, he was El Ídolo; the outlaw who couldn’t be held down. On the field, he was superhuman, yet off the field, he was just a man, like the rest of us. The dichotomy between his highs and lows only drew in more sympathy. He was a deity, but only a human one. 

Even if Diego Maradona’s life seems like a movie script, it didn’t have a happy final act. Maradona lifting the World Cup in 1986 was the zenith of his life. In 1990, he came so close to another World Cup, only to fall at the final hurdle. In 1994, he tried too hard, and was sent home in disgrace after a failed drug test, his eternal plague. 

In many ways, he lost the latter half of his life chasing the proverbial dragon. Nothing in life would ever match his exploits in 1986, and when he realized that, he lost all direction and struggled with his wellbeing -- another painful reminder that behind the free-scoring superstar, there was only an achingly troubled human being. Like the brightest of stars, his fire burned very briefly, but for a while, his blazing left boot lit up the world. 

To his last breath, he viewed life through the innocence of a child’s eyes. That is what let him express himself with such freedom on the field and call out the injustices of the world off it. 

But that is also what let him down, as he dove headfirst into scandal after another when he should have known better. 

Yet, it is only fair we remember him for what he was. Diego Maradona was not just a footballer or a sportsperson. He was a loveable rogue, a rebel in every sense of that word. An iconoclast who not only went against the system, but tore it to shreds -- and did so with aplomb and clamour. A man with a personality larger than life itself, he was a global icon, a timeless legend who transcends generations. He was an absolute supernova of a human being, an irresistible force of political and cultural significance. 

It is said that a man only really dies when the last memory of him is forgotten. If that is so, then Diego Maradona is immortal. 

Arfaa Islam is a freelance contributor.

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