Diego Maradona dies at 60: Defiant and proud, El Pibe de Oro became symbol of Argentina and deity in his nation

Diego Maradona personified his country, with his cunningness and penchant for upsetting the established order, he was Argentina.

Samindra Kunti November 26, 2020 09:15:27 IST
Diego Maradona dies at 60: Defiant and proud, El Pibe de Oro became symbol of Argentina and deity in his nation

View of an improvised altar set up by fans of Argentinos Juniors' football team, where Argentinian football legend Diego Maradona used to play in Buenos Aires. AFP

On Wednesday, football's God passed away.

Diego Armando Maradona, 60, departed, taking with him the childhood memories of generations and a quintessential part of the beautiful game that he shaped and transcended. Argentine newspaper Clarin, which broke the news of his death, wrote: “The Long Goodbye. There will never be someone like him.”

Maradona will always be Argentina’s football deity. Born into poverty, he played in the mud near his home in the shantytown Villa Fiorito. He had a simple gift: the talent to become a better footballer than anyone had ever known. His rise, through hard work, was meteoric, playing for his beloved Boca Juniors before moving on to FC Barcelona and, later, Napoli. He illuminated football, flitting past defenders across Europe.

It is, however, a single game with the national team that ultimately defined Maradona’s career and life. The end of the Falkland War was the immediate backdrop of the 1986 World Cup quarter-final against England, but resentment in Argentina ran deep. Back in the 19th century, England controlled Argentina’s purse strings. Their relationship was not colonial, but it implied subjugation for Argentina. The English symbolized the big formal power.

During the match in Mexico City’s Azteca Stadium, Maradona played out Argentina’s ultimate collective fantasy. He didn't simply defeat England; he destroyed them. It was the manner and ethos of Maradona’s goals and what they represented that enchanted the nation back home.

Historically, Argentina had defined their football in opposition to England and in the span of four minutes Maradona ridiculed the English. First, he outsmarted his opponents, tricking Peter Shilton with the Hand of God, and then his mesmerizing slalom relegated the English eleven to a cast of tragic bystanders. His marvelous cameo was a reflection of both Maradona the player and the person, full of contradictions but the product of genius.

His divine intervention, his delirious dribbles and his goals against the English transformed Maradona: his success - he would later captain his team to the world crown as well - destroyed him. Maradona was no longer just a prominent player. No, in football’s pantheon and in Argentina, he was deified. He had prevailed in the match in a way that every Argentine identified with him.

Maradona personified his country, with his cunningness and penchant for upsetting the established order, he was Argentina. His compatriots no longer adored him, they worshipped him. They attained an existential fulfillment through him. They believed that Maradona was the ultimate thespian of the beautiful game. Standing for hours in the rain and sleeping in cars to follow him, they knelt, cried and wept when in his presence. Each of them wanted to shake the hand of God. They compared him to Evita Peron. They founded the Church of Maradona. A commandment read: “Spread Diego’s miracles throughout the universe”.

But he was not built to be God. No one is.

Images of Maradona during his prime capture and reveal a life that must have been desperately claustrophobic. Amid all the euphoria and hysteria, the circus always obliged wherever Maradona went. It was solitude at its cruelest, hidden in plain sight.

He was a man circumstanced by events. His extreme fame was toxic and the burden of his divinity was heavy. In reality, Diego never wanted to be God. He just wanted to be Diego. In fact, he loved being Diego. That’s what set him apart from both Pelé and Messi. Edson has always loved being Pelé and Messi is so ‘even-keeled’ that no one really knows or understands who Leo is.

Maradona's canonization in Argentina - and Napoli - airbrushed the flaws of his character. His genius generated wreckage and havoc. He indulged and escaped in excess that would ultimately lead to self-destruction. Maradona was no saint, but perhaps that is to miss the point. He never tried to fit in. Maradona, with his human frailties, was gloriously authentic. He was history’s most compelling footballer and that’s a beautiful, haunting and captivating legacy to have.

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