I am black and white. I’ll never be grey in my life: The Maradona legacy
The easiest pieces to write are memorials, particularly in sport. The playbook never fails: start with an anecdote, connect that seemingly innocuous but highly significant story with the larger context of the protagonist, weave in a few highlights, then some low-lights to add balance and perspective, and save some ammunition for a big, flourishing finish.
So, with that blueprint in mind, shall we begin to encapsulate the life, times and legacy of Diego Maradona? Or shall we, just this once, throw the cheat sheet out of the window?
For, how do you define someone who defined your generation — not over 24 highly efficient years like Sachin Tendulkar defined post-liberalised India; nor by being the perfect role model while languidly pursuing excellence like Roger Federer did; but by being so passionate, so human, so in-your-face, and using every ounce of all these traits of a somewhat flawed personality to create magic that engulfed dabblers and connoisseurs alike?
All of sport-watching is about arguments and opinions. And then a few people come along with whom arguments end. Sachin or Lara? Federer or Nadal? Messi or Ronaldo? Even Ali or Foreman / Frazier? There have always been debates that have raged and made following sport more invigorating.
But which of his peers shall we compare with Maradona?
Michel Platini? Who was so in awe of him that he once said, “What Zidane can do with a ball, Maradona could do with an orange.”
Ruud Gullit? Who gave this verdict: “The best player there has ever been, better than Pele… Some of the things he did were unbelievable. He could control the ball without looking.”
Jurgen Klinsmann? Who believed Maradona was otherworldly: “So many times I knew he was just from a different world… I always described Maradona as an artist that other people couldn’t see.”
Of course, we could trawl footballing history and bring up the only formidable comparison — with Pele. One side could talk about scoring 1,000 goals, and the other about winning the 1986 World Cup single-handedly. But since we’re breaking all epitaph-writing rules anyway, how about we, in the spirit of Maradona, abandon predictability altogether?
Those who first watched Maradona play in 1986 — there were many of us across the globe, apart but together — did it because there was little else to do then. The World Cup was brought to our homes in India, conjured up by Doordarshan through some fortunate bilateral deal, at a time when the hangover of the 1982 Asiad had brought enough TV sets into middle-class homes. Large parts of the world, even its most forgotten corners, happened to follow a similar model in what was still the first generation of live sport.
The summer vacation was on. I was eight, my father was in his thirties, my grandfather in his sixties. It was not important how much footballing history we were familiar with — everyone was starting from scratch. Over the course of that month, you didn’t have to be a follower of the sport, just a follower of Maradona, to experience the joy of football. The frizzy-haired magician with feet of gold and the hand of God became the physical manifestation of the beautiful game, and of the World Cup itself. Instead of someone who was shining on the biggest stage, he gave the stage its relevance and its sheen.
Through him, sport became a celebration of human endeavour stripped of all its biases. A moment when there was no team jersey, no club loyalty, no national pride — what would we otherwise care for Argentina or Germany? — just a man with a ball at his feet and a target in his eyes. After the England game, children in my neighbourhood would walk around, rhythmically chanting, “Maradona ne dono mara (Maradona scored both the goals).”
It’s easy to box Maradona into what he did in 1986, into his cult following at Napoli in the Italian league, into the problems (drugs, obesity, the Mafia) that his extremely emotional, passionate and naturally rebellious personality pushed him into during and after his playing years.
But his legacy goes far beyond all that. He is the single largest factor responsible for the true globalisation of football — as a sport, as a passion, as a form of entertainment. Would it have happened without him? Yes, eventually, as TV grew; but not that soon, and not with such a high benchmark of what live sport could offer.
He is responsible for the redefinition of fame; not retrospective fame, but current fame. Everywhere in the world, people knew there was someone called Maradona — a status he shared in that decade only with Michael Jackson.
Maradona is also responsible for making football free of the otherwise never-ending cycle of looking for a successor. Basketball was searching for the next Michael Jordan (and will soon look for the next LeBron James), tennis for the next Pete Sampras (and will now look for the next Federer / Nadal / Djokovic), Formula 1 for the next Michael Schumacher (and will now look for the next Lewis Hamilton). But football, like boxing did after Muhammad Ali, has long abandoned the search for the next Maradona. It has accepted that there will be no such other.
If you think this is being unfair to Messi, here’s what the man himself said: “Even if I played for a million years, I’d never come close to Maradona. Not that I’d want to anyway. He’s the greatest there’s ever been.”
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