From the very start, Diego Maradona was a man who had to deal with life imprisoned within the body of his own myth. A child of the Buenos Aries slums, educated in the vacant potreros with rags bundled into the shape of a ball – fame seized upon him young and never let go. By 11 his feats with the ball were national news, by 16 his sublime talents at Boca Juniors were billed as prophecy answered, and by 26, as a World Champion, he was placed at the table of the divine. Such is the perversity of fate – to bestow the world upon a man dredged from poverty and of highly addictive impulses by his mid-twenties. To cope, his personality skewered. His personal fitness coach Fernando Signorini, commenting on his dual-persona, would say to him openly; “With Diego I would go to the end of the earth, but with Maradona I wouldn’t take a step”. The reply would come; “Yes, but if it wasn’t for Maradona I’d still be in Villa Fiorita”.
Understanding Maradona’s legacy requires understanding him as a symbol. Unlike Messi, his heir to the Argentinian football throne, whose brilliance is at least in part relentless accumulation (of goals, trophies, accolades) – Maradona’s genius is not measurable by an analysis of his career statistics. His tallies are less impressive, his number of truly great seasons perhaps only four. Maradona is better understood in the strength of feeling he evokes – a quasi-deified figure in Naples, his face etched into crumbling stucco murals of grand scale throughout the city, and martyrdom in Argentina – his memory etched into the collective mourning soul of the nation following his passing, aged 60.
The intensity of this love derives from Maradona’s status as a figure of rebellion, as an emblem of the disenfranchised. Inked proudly on his arm was the face of fellow Argentine revolutionary Che Guevara – in many ways a more natural point of comparison than Messi. Guevara, an icon of the Latin American poor, with his wild black straggled mane and threat to order – ousting the US-backed Batista puppet Government in Cuba in one of the most remarkable underdog stories of the Twentieth Century, was also deeply human, deeply flawed. The other most remarkable underdog story of the Twentieth Century, Diego Maradona leading lowly Napoli to two scudettos and Uefa Cup, rupturing the North-South power axis of Italian football (banner’s describing Naples as “the sewer of Italy” and worse were put up whenever they played the Northern teams), was also underscored by the flaws of the profit. At Napoli, Diego became known for his wild partying, contacts in the Camorra (Mafia) and a cocaine habit that would plague him for a lifetime. Between endless glorification, a proclivity towards defying the rulebook and easy access, a deadly recipe formed.
It was between the white lines however, where his magic always shone. As a player, Diego was undeniably shaped by his youth – diminutive, plucky, quick-witted and individually minded, a product of the dirty and unforgiving back-streets of Buenos Aires in every way conceivable. Revisiting his legendary goal against England in the 1986 World Cup Quarter Final is like watching a dirty-faced urchin slaloming through the crowded environs of the slums, dodging past beggars and pickpockets, ducking falling debris and skipping through mire in a sepia-toned blaze of grinning joy. His other, equally well-known goal in the same game, the infamous ‘hand of God’, was arguably his favourite of the two though. It was like “stealing the wallet of the English” he proudly claimed. In his autobiography Touched by God, Maradona, characteristically undiplomatic, outlined the deep political and personal meaning of that match, stating his desire to go out and “machine gun” the English players as retribution for the killing of Argentinans during the Falklands War by the British Army.
Describing the unequal nature of the Falklands conflict, he joked that the Argentinian soldiers were “sent out in Fletcha tennis shoes” to fight one of the world’s most powerful armed forces. In many ways, this mirrors how Maradona played football, against the odds, for the ‘little guy’ against the mighty. Unlike the Argentine army, he walked away victorious. In life, this was where Diego thrived, standing as the valiant underdog in the face of a seemingly unconquerable might, be it the post-colonial British powers or the ultra-wealthy racist Northern Italian elites, which his genius would then invariably conquer.
When he was no longer the underdog, when his name had been sewn into folklore and his status evaluated to that of Perón in his homeland or of God in Naples, the cracks began to appear. Facing the fatal desire to embody the grandeur of his own myth every day, his life post-football spiralled and had much sadness. He will be remembered however, as the street urchin who delivered the world.