The much-chronicled death foretold of Diego Armando Maradona offers sad confirmation of the reality that even when people manage to escape the poverty trap, they never really do. A walking (or should we say dribbling?) contradiction between supreme creative talent and extreme self-destructive tendencies in the same small package, Argentina’s greatest sporting idol was born and died in the same metropolis yet the contrast between the Villa Fiorito slum of his birth and the San Andrés gated community of his death could hardly be greater, renewed testimony to this country’s extreme social inequalities. The heights reached by this undersized maestro can only be properly understood when measured by the depths from which he rose. “The past is a foreign country” runs the famous literary quote but the glimpses of the shantytown where little Diego grew up as from 1960 offered by a recent documentary on his Neapolitan sojourn point to more than another country or another century – those inhuman conditions are another continent, another planet, another universe, another everything. Maradona faced up to those inequalities and went looking for a way out and when he found it, it eventually destroyed him – a modern Moby Dick. But in the process he offered a supreme example of upward social mobility to a country which has largely lost it, rising to the highest possible heights in his sport from the humblest of origins, and this example is probably what he ultimately represented for so many millions – transcending both his exquisite football skills on the field and some of his more disagreeable personal traits off the pitch.
Various words are in circulation to describe the reactions to this sporting great’s death – shock, grief, sadness, etc., all encapsulated into three days of national mourning – but somehow all of them seem inadequate to convey the dimensions of his passing. Dying less than four weeks after completing his sixth decade might fall below the average life expectancy but the football world has also known shorter lives and greater tragedies. The likes of George Best and Garrincha immediately spring to mind while air crashes devastated Manchester United in 1958, the Zambian national team in 1993 and the Chapacoense Libertadores Cup finalists in 2016 – Duncan Edwards, the most talented of Busby’s Babes in 1958, was barely a third of Maradona’s age. One might think that Diego “should have died hereafter” in the words of Macbeth but he could also have left this world far sooner, given his total disregard of all health risks – in his own book, perhaps as early as 1994 when they famously “cut off his legs” after kicking him out on doping regulations of the World Cup whose last two finals he had reached.
We will leave his vibrant politics (indifferent to no presidency) and torrid love life to other commentators to focus on the core talent where he truly shone – what a player! It is impossible to outline a career spanning more than two decades but the 1986 World Cup in Mexico says it all. Those two contrasting goals against England – from the “Hand of God” to the dazzling slalom past half the side – encapsulate Maradona’s multiple contradictions as well as anything (God and Devil, as French President Emmanuel Macron said in his eloquent and heartfelt letter). One of the most exciting World Cup finals ever (and the last where both sides scored until the most recent) gave Argentina a unique sporting triumph – superior to 1978 because it was won in democracy and without the local advantages helping the hosts to the title in almost half of the last century’s World Cups. But Argentina’s best-player ever without a doubt was also a contender for worst national squad coach ever – the contradictions do not go away even on his chosen ground.
A deity within his micro-universe, Maradona was thus as flawed and contradictory as the country which gave him birth but we should never forget that he was a child of poverty who was exploited by everybody and everything in his orbit. Exploited, he had to explode and now he has but the fallout will last some time and his memory even longer.