Diego Simeone: “You think that Diego cannot die”
Throughout history, there exist those who have transcended the established bounds of fame, occupying an abnormal status of power and dominance. Few experience this sphere of intense influence, where the given figure inspires such ferocious emotion and feeling.
One can look at any given society and clearly identify individuals who surpassed the norm. Historically, the masses that appeared at the assemblies of Christ or Gandhi, do so in awe of greatness. Such figures naturally exude a certain allure, capturing devoted followers along the way.
While seeking to avoid the serial writing trope of sensationalising the subject of the piece, I would suggest it is acceptable to bestow upon Diego Maradona such a level of prestige.
Anyone mapping the career of contemporary greats such as The Beatles or Elton John could easily find comparisons to a man who was responsible for giving football a platform that it had not yet even glimpsed. Over the course of his career, footballers moved from a remit of inanimate parts in a collective whole, swiftly forgotten about at the final whistle, to an era of showbiz and unparalleled global prominence, allowing them to exist far beyond the four corners of the stadium.
This recognition afforded Maradona global adoration, most apparent in his native Argentina and his adopted Naples, with fans going as far as to establish a religion in his name; Iglesia Maradoniana. The faith, 200,000 members strong, sets out its own ten commandments, with the requirement for followers to name their first son Diego. He was, quite literally for some, a God.
Maradona personified football. The name, the look, the style of play; all these components married together to form an individual like no other.
Simply put, he got to the heart of what people love about football. No one grows up salivating over defensive organisation at a corner; enjoying such a phase of play is a learned behaviour that respects the immense work ethic and organisation imposed by a tactical martial back at base camp. To paraphrase an often cited quip, no one grows up wanting to be a Gary Neville.
What keeps a child up at night fantasising, could be a lucid dribble evading onrushing defenders, or a speculative effort that nestles nicely in the top corner. Neymar and Kevin De Bruyne are modern examples of players that make the regular consumer marvel at their talents and want to pay to witness such football. Maradona was all they are, with an added enigmatic wild persona.
In a touching obituary, Gary Lineker said he’d “never seen anyone have such a beautiful affection with a football”, recounting a story of the simple brilliance with which Maradona would juggle football socks, so effortless in manner.
As aesthetically pleasing as he was profitable, Maradona embodied what those at the peak of their discipline should aspire to be; pure, unadulterated class, mixed in with a healthy side of swagger.
Albeit, this article would not make for an accurate account, to ignore some of the ills that led to the chaotic life so synonymous with his name. Drugs, gambling, the list of vices go on, but what they concoct is a man that was fallible, arguably the reason for his complete adulation. The trope of the troubled genius, unfortunately, has to rear its head in any discussion about Maradona, but the phrase doesn’t do justice to the extreme nature he operated under on both of those fronts.
With any interview or public appearance, there was an air of sadness sprinkled in with the boisterous persona. Case-in-point, Moscow summer 2018, and a wide-eyed Maradona screaming to the skies, was a sight so emblematic of the man. The sheer unbridled emotion, following another magical moment from his heir-apparent, was instantly lampooned from all angles for its crazed embodiment, but a considered celebration just simply would not have sufficed.
While it is important not to trivialise the addiction problems that ravaged his life and career, I find it impossible not to empathise with a man that clearly endured so much internal trauma. “I did wrong and paid for it, but the ball is not to be stained”, a quote from Maradona himself that really summed up his overall philosophy.
In light of his follies, it is important to remember the joy football brought him; “when you’re on the field, the life goes away, the problems go away, everything goes away”. This element of escapism, that gets to the core of why so many live and breathe the beautiful game, is an essential reminder of the power of football in transforming lives.
It wasn’t just football either that he left a significant mark on. The ever-fluctuating dynamic between the game and politics is often a can of worms that players are told to keep well shut. However, Diego didn’t play by the rules.
In the aftermath of Argentina’s victory over England at the ’86 World Cup, Maradona linked the game to the Falklands war that had taken place only four years prior. The revenge element was important to a country that had undergone such hardship as a result of the war, with Maradona proudly spearheading this effort to restore national pride.
Having grown up in a poverty-stricken area of Buenos Aires, Maradona was no stranger to struggle. Choosing to go to Naples, the criminal underbelly of an otherwise flourishing Italy, signalled this approach of being on the side of the downtrodden. The move revitalised a city that had been the underdog for a long period, demonstrating his impact on the wider socio-economic sphere.
Diego Maradona gave beauty to a world that could only return him vitriol and turbulence. While critics seek to distort this conception of the man, maligning him with allegations of cheating and ill-discipline, they fall foul of committing a straw man fallacy.
No rational individual would seek to situate him within the corridors of outstanding virtue, but denying him a seat at the table of footballing greats, on charges extraneous to the game, is to commit a kind of blasphemy (well, at least maybe in Argentina).
Photos by Leandro Neumann Ciuffo and Antonio on Flickr