Margaret Thatcher could not have possibly seen this coming. The Falklands War had been won, and resistance from those puny Argentines had been crushed by the expensively assembled British offensive in a matter of weeks. The Prime Minister’s popularity was at peak, and more importantly, so too was the English sense of pride at having tamed another obscure population.
It was thus only fitting that the man bursting the Union Jack’s recently inflated balloon was Argentine. The manner in which he did it made it all the more poetic: arguably some divine assistance, and a display of unparalleled human aptitude.
Diego Maradona punctured the English with a mix of deftness and delight, and in the process, brought together a nation torn apart by an alien European adversary.That’s what he could do; such was his power. He was second only to God, and in Argentina, he transcended such base hierarchies to become an incarnation of the almighty himself.
It took Argentina a World Cup quarterfinal four years after their humbling in battle to face off against England again – and didn’t they take their chance, booting the Europeans out, on their way to winning the tournament famously in 1986.
Thatcher indeed could not have seen this coming. Neither did the referee, when Maradona, of slight build, reached up, and nudged the ball in the air with his hand ahead of the towering Peter Shilton. The onrushing English goalkeeper was beaten, and Maradona wheeled away in celebration towards the corner flag. The England players were furious for this unabashed exhibition of unfair means – the only part of the anatomy deemed illegal in football is the hand, and that was precisely what Maradona used to give Argentina the opening goal. None of the match officials could spot the means; all their eyes could see was the end, the ball bouncing with abandon into an empty English net.
It is hard to outdo a spectacle like that. Maradona, however, did just that, as if mocking the rest of the world: you thought you’ll remember me because I scored with my hand? Oh, just you wait. Collecting a harmless looking pass in his own half, he twisted around two England players with his second touch, spinning them into oblivion, and charging at what remained off a wary opponent. The touch past the third English player was out of a waltz, and the fourth was reduced to an apparition. The ignominy for Peter Shilton – one of the finest custodians in the game – was doubled, with him plonked on the grass, Maradona beyond him with a feint. Just to prove to the world that he was indeed the best player in the world and no cheater, he went on this eleven second solo orchestra, with a crescendo that brought a nation to its knees.
England bowed to Argentina; they bowed to the phenomenon that was Maradona.
This was not payback; it can never be for lives lost. Sport is, at the end of the day, the most important of what is merely trivial. Maradona, however, had single-handedly stitched back a sense of nationhood for a beleaguered peoples. “Although we had said before the game that football had nothing to do with the Malvinas War, we knew they had killed a lot of Argentine boys there, killed them like little birds”, he’d later say. Revenge was never the intention; unifying a reeling nation perhaps was.
Maradona almost specialized in bringing battered regions together, through his actions on the greens with a leather sphere. He conjured the same spells to charm the ignored, damaged port city of Naples in Italy, clawing them into global relevance with two league titles. He took the city to his heart, and they adopted him as one would a son. They have yet to win a title since he left their adoring shores, like a jilted lover deserted in romance after a bright but brief fling.
Football wasn’t his only dalliance, and he eventually paid the price for his varied pursuits. Maradona’s playing career spiralled to an unfortunate demise just before I was born, mired in drugs and alcohol. This was barely an honourable departure; football was squeezing him out, having tolerated his colourful life for a bit too long. Maradona walked out of his beloved sport, with his tail firmly between his legs, and a reputation undone by his own excesses. His politics always remained visible – he was inseparable from Fidel Castro – but despite his constant critique of Western imperialism and a cozying up with the left, politics never was his primary concern for him to take it up seriously. He loved football too much. A brief coaching career – including a disastrous time at the World Cup in 2010 as Argentina coach – ensued, but never really took off.
Much to the chagrin of many, and as his politics may suggest, Maradona was an island of instinct in an ocean of orthodoxy; a stellar firebrand amidst the subdued formalism of football. But that’s the thing about him. In spite of his infatuation with the sport, Diego Maradona did not lead the monastic lives required of footballers; he did not possess the discipline that professional sport asks of you. Yet, he stood with the world at his feet, driven to his exalted status globally pretty much through his ridiculous talent and skill alone. Make no mistake, this makes him the rare exception to the established norm for sporting success. He inspired with his borderline indolence.
It made him a unique paradox: a man with the two most talented feet in the world, and not much else, made him an icon of mystique. This was a magician born with spells in his legs, perennially precocious. At the same time, he stood out as a human, battling human problems, and often failing. He was accessible this way; in an odd way, it almost reassured the world that despite his unearthly skill on the field, he was a mere mortal off it. It only added to his draw.
I’ve only heard of Maradona; his enthralling footballing ability comes to me through grainy YouTube videos. But Diego Maradona’s legend knows no boundaries of time and space; it is this aura of the man I’ve witnessed flutter like a flag in a breeze. In my hometown of Calcutta four decades ago, as many households gathered around their first ever television to watch the World Cup, the little Argentine transported them to another plane of existence. Maradona murals adorn city walls, Argentina flags are strung across streets, and even today, the generation that watched Maradona for the first time, have their eyes light up at his very mention.
Maradona is the first taunt thrown at you if you’re too silky in a game of street football, and it is the last word when it comes to debates about the best footballer ever. The merits of individual honours in team sports are, to me, dubious at best, but Maradona’s celebration is not down to his statistics: nobody cares as to how many goals he scored, or how many assists he provided, or how many miles he ran. He made football joyous, and one cannot reduce that to something as obscene as numbers.
Maradona was the unifier-in-chief. He was the mender of broken hearts; the tonic to a rattled nation, and the balm to a pained city. He brought people together, in celebration of football, and often, of life itself. He was ethereal, and yet accessible; proud and yet pained; loved and loathed. His addictions never stopped at football, and it broke him in the end.
Diego Maradona can never be anybody’s role model. But his legacy, his joy, and the careless abandon with which he brought these to people around the world when on the pitch means that he is Maradona is now a global language. This universal lingo of Maradona is what, despite – or perhaps of – his colourful, curtailed life, brings a smile to millions, as it will forever.
Aritro Sarkar is a student of History and International Relations at Ashoka University.
Picture Credit: Wikimedia Commons
We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).