To see the ball, to run after it, makes me the happiest man in the world: Maradona the protagonist
The mortality of a childhood hero is difficult to consider. To worship someone as a child is to freeze a particular point in time. The rest becomes noise — Maradona is not the man struggling with addiction and depression, he doesn’t age, he doesn’t become so overweight that he walks with difficulty.
Childhood heroes do not die. Except when they do.
Yet, there he goes, rushing headlong like some reckless, mad warrior on a solitary charge at the enemy lines and emerging, a few bewildering seconds later, at the other side, having single-handedly felled a platoon.
Diego Maradona didn’t just play football, he transformed it, elevated it to an art. No single player has done more to extend the sheer possibility of what a person could do with the ball at his feet. To see Maradona play was to be consumed by football. This is what happened to me. To paraphrase a famous Argentinian journalist: “I don’t care what Maradona did with his life, I care what he did with mine.”
In 1990, my parents bought our first colour TV. For my father, the reason was sharply defined — he wanted to watch with his family as Maradona lifted another World Cup in that blue-and-white jersey. To properly induct us into the cult of Maradona, he even went out and rented a videocassette recorder and a tape of the 1986 World Cup.
So, there we were, wide-eyed with wonder, electrified to our bones and perhaps even a little scared at the visceral reactions one man with a ball on a TV screen could evoke. Maradona, unleashing passes tinged with magic and music, bursting his way through defenders, scoring goals from improbable angles with extraordinary power, twisting and turning through hapless defenders or felling them with feints or dizzying changes of speed.
The artist inspired other forms of art too: the legendary Uruguayan commentator Victor Morales, spinning poetry as Maradona scored that famous solo goal past almost the entire English team in the quarterfinals, referred to him as the “cosmic kite” — barrilete cosmico — evoking the image of a kite soaring jaggedly through the sky, a kite no one can catch.
By the time I saw footage of him lifting the trophy, I was crying with him, as if it were happening live.
Soon, in our small apartment in Kolkata, we were gaping at the screen together as Maradona played, now at Italia 90.
The first glimpse was magic: Maradona shook hands with the Cameroonian captain, flicked the ball up in the air with a twitch of his foot and juggled it on his shoulder. They lost that match — an unbelievable result! — but the sight of Argentina’s stocky No 10 on the ball was pure pleasure. The next match was in Napoli, where he was Saint Maradona, the deity who took a small club from a neglected, belittled city and almost single-handedly smashed through the traditional grand old powers of Italian football to hand them two Scudettos, the league title, in four seasons, as well as the European Championship.
In 1990, Brazil threw everything at him. Then there was a moment, almost déjà vu. A small packet of muscle burst through the Brazilian players, scattering them as if from a shockwave, before sending a painterly pass to striker Claudio Caniggia to score. Maradona played the entire tournament with the look of a man fighting riot police with Molotov cocktails. It was in his eyes.
He was Che Guevara and Picasso in one body. He knew it too. Asked about Pele, Maradona once said in an interview: “If (Pele) is Beethoven, I am the Ron Wood, Keith Richards and Bono of football all rolled into one.”
In the quarterfinals, Yugoslavia held Argentina to a draw. In the penalty shootout, Maradona missed. Argentina, nonetheless, were in the semis. Back to Naples! But now they played Italy and Maradona made an ill-conceived appeal to Neapolitans for support. Naples was furious. The man who has given them everything had come to snatch it all away and was asking them to help him rob their own house.
A banner unfurled at the stadium: “Maradona, Naples loves you but Italy is our homeland”.
The match ended in a draw. The stadium heaved in agony. Maradona was to take a penalty, again. Walter Zenga was at the goal. This was a man who had gone 518 minutes at the tournament without conceding (a record that still stands). He said to Maradona, “Careful, I know you.” Maradona, no smile, said, “I know you better.”
He scored. The final, Rome.
I did not know it then, but Maradona had suffered two terrible injuries on the training ground a couple of weeks before the start of the tournament. As Argentina coach Carlos Bilardo put it: “With Diego 100% fit, the trophy would be ours, but without Diego it would be pointless to even play.”
Argentina lost the final and, again, there were tears. But now something had changed for good. Like those who had seen him in action in 1986, the batch of 1990 was inducted into the cult of Maradona.
Every player who is any good at any level is still compared to him, or honoured with his name. In school, we called our finest attacking player Maradona. In college too. At our daily pick-up games in the park, a boy much younger, smaller and more gifted than all of us combined made us run around in circles with the ball glued to his feet. He came from the nearby slum, wearing nothing but shorts. We called him Maradona (the Argentine and his parents themselves belonged to the descamisados — the shirtless — as the extreme poor are called in that country). When relatives pointed to me and said, “This boy is not growing much”, I’d reply, “How tall do you think Maradona is?”
There was one more glimpse of the man on the pitch, at the 1994 World Cup. He was heavier, more grizzled. His cherubic boy-rebel air had worn off. Against Greece he scored a goal that briefly lit up the footballing universe. Then he tested positive for a banned diuretic. That, more or less, was that when it came to Maradona the footballer.
It was enough.