Diego Maradona was perhaps the best player to ever kick a soccer ball. Yet that only goes so far as to explain the worldwide grief when he died this week.
Some claim that the Brazilian Pele has won more trophies, or the Argentine compatriot Lionel Messi and the Portuguese Cristiano Ronaldo have converged on comparable skills.
But there is no one like Maradona – “el pibe de oro” or “the golden child” – who rose from the impoverished barrios of Buenos Aires to become a true international icon.
“He outperformed the sport,” Jon Smith, a leading British sports agent who represented Maradona between 1986 and 1991, told NBC News.
“He’s gone into some very dark corners,” he added, “but history will do Diego good because his talent was so outstanding and he never lost the desire to help the unfortunate.”
Maradona was buried Thursday after spending the day at Casa Rosada, Argentina’s presidential palace. At dawn, crowds lined up to see his body. Some of them became restless when the police tried to end the 12-hour visiting time before waking up. Fans threw bottles and stones, and the riot guards responded with rubber bullets, gas and water cannons.
It was a feverish moment during three days of mourning for the nation of 45 million. Tens of thousands of people have already filled the streets, leaving flowers and messages in Maradona’s childhood home and the former Boca Juniors team.
Pope Francis, who was born in Argentina, joined the honors. And the French newspaper L’Équipe stood out on the front pages of the world. The headline read: “God is dead.”
It is impossible to think of any other athlete whose death would produce a similar global response befitting a soccer player, rock star, and religious leader. Maradona was revered as the genius who graced by far the most popular sport in the world. He was also deeply human, a flawed hero who contrasts with the athletes who often define the modern game.
Maradona’s legend is all the more powerful as he fulfilled a kind of storybook prophecy in his country – only for this success, to make his downfall possible.
The Maradona myth has its roots in the 1880s when the British, who ruled Argentina, introduced the young South American nation to football.
British tactics were based on “strength” and “physical strength”, but a new Latin-influenced style soon emerged in the country that was “individualistic, undisciplined,” “agile and skillful,” wrote Argentine anthropologist Eduardo P. Archetti all in one 2001 paper.
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The spirit of the Argentine game revolved around the idea of the “pibe” – an unkempt street kid playing on the narrow, unpaved ground between Shantytown buildings, Archetti said. Maradona became the total embodiment of that image, his chunky 5-foot-5-inch frame and lightning-fast skill paired with rough edges that never smoothed out even when he reached the global superstar.
The climax of this myth-making was the 1986 World Cup, which he won almost single-handedly with a series of virtuoso performances. The quarter-finals were against England just four years after the United Kingdom defeated Argentina in the Falklands War.
Maradona had campaigned for his country’s claim to the disputed Falkland Islands or Islas Malvinas. In his left politics he befriended leaders like Hugo Chavez from Venezuela and Fidel Castro from Cuba, whose face Maradona had tattooed on his body next to that of the Latin American revolutionary Che Guevara.
This setting in Falklands gave the Argentina-England game a wild tribal and political advantage. It was about much more than football when Maradona scored twice, first with his infamous “Hand of God” – he hit the ball into the net unnoticed by the referee – and then with one of the biggest single goals of all time, which went over half the English Team.
At that moment, with his lonely raid on the English ranks, Maradona was again that street kid who embodied the Argentine fantasy of a brave, downtrodden outsider taking revenge on a former colonial power, Archetti said.
That catapulted him to a new level of fame.
It was also “the game that helps destroy his life because it brings him to the level of a god,” Tim Vickery, South American football expert and journalist. told the Brazilian Shirt Name Podcast On Wednesday. “Nobody should be placed on the level of a god. We are just not built for this, we are human – and he was definitely not built for it.”
During his time in Naples between 1984 and 1991, he produced the best football of his career. He also admitted feeling choked.
“This is a great city, but I can hardly breathe,” he said at the time. “I want to be free to run around. I’m a boy like any other.”
Smith, who wrote the book “The Deal: In the World of a Super Agent,” recalls Maradona having to get special permission from the city police to drive red lights because mad fans routinely bullied and dented his collection of Ferraris.
He developed a cocaine habit and his reputation was tarnished by reported connections with the city’s Camorra Criminal Syndicate. He would fail three drug tests: the first in 1991, which ended his Naples fairy tale in disgrace, the last in 1997, which signaled the end of his career at the age of 37.
After retiring, he was given a suspended sentence for shooting journalists with an air rifle. For years he refused to acknowledge that he was his son’s father and later became estranged from his two daughters. And he was charged with domestic violence.
He had two gastric bypasses after his weight shot up and at least one heart attack before the one who killed him at age 60. He was discharged from the hospital two weeks earlier and taken straight to an alcohol recovery clinic after surgery and is bleeding on his brain.
Throughout all of this, he rarely shied away from his mistakes. When he returned to Boca Juniors’ stadium, La Bombonera, in 2001 to say goodbye, he told the crowd that he hoped his mistakes hadn’t harmed his impact on football.
“La pelota no se mancha,” he told them: the ball doesn’t show the dirt.