Ours may be an ostensibly egalitarian age, but most people remain resolutely elitist when something they really care about is involved. Even those who think that governments whose decisions directly affect the lives of just about everybody should faithfully reflect the demographic make-up of society, as does Kamala Harris (which is why she praised US President-elect Joe Biden for assembling a cabinet “that looks like America”), would reject with scorn any suggestion that those responsible for choosing their country’s sporting teams should operate on the same principle. The majority view is that for them to adopt a selection system based on quotas would be utterly insane.
For millions of people the world over, sport appears to matter more, much more, than anything else. This may not really be true, as when pressed most will admit that while they like seeing young men kicking a ball about or running between wickets on television they do not take such activities seriously, but many do talk as though they would be perfectly happy to sacrifice themselves and their relatives if called upon to do so for the sake of their favourite team and can go on for hours about what in their view should be done to improve its performance. It may be safely assumed that, apart from a minority whose members prefer to keep a low profile, most men, but far fewer women, spend more time thinking or day-dreaming about sporting encounters than they do about anything else.
In a way, this is understandable; sport, especially football, provides people with an exciting alternative universe, one in which their country, their town or the club they feel part of, can be world-beaters despite all their other failings. It also gives them an endless supply of material they can argue about with their friends. Over the years, many people who never went to university and do ill-paid routine jobs have acquired such an impressive stock of detailed knowledge about their favourite sports and, what is more, frequently display a notable degree of analytic ability that, had they dedicated themselves to something else, they could have achieved more than enough to enjoy academic success.
As the tidal wave of grief, whether simulated, genuine or the product of a strong desire to participate in what is felt to be something important, that followed the long expected death of Diego Armando Maradona is reminding us, in Argentina and many other countries football binds people together far more effectively than do most other shared passions. The resulting togetherness is intensified by awareness that Maradona’s international fame, like Lionel Messi’s, has made Argentina’s image shine that much brighter in the minds of a considerable proportion of the world’s inhabitants than would have been the case had they come from somewhere else. In many parts of the world, it has long been customary for anyone coming from Argentina to hear “Maradona” or “Messi” being used by people who would be hard put to say just where the country is located but know at least one thing about it. Their only rival in this sphere is Juan Manuel Fangio, whose reputation has not faded much with the passing of the years, but while motor racing has plenty of fans, it is far less popular than football.
No sooner had it been confirmed that Maradona had left us, news outlets both here and in almost all other countries began churning out journalistic versions of Pindaric odes in praise of his “genius” and “god-like” status and making a strenuous effort to assure us they are fully in touch with the way people feel. Would this have happened in response to the death of someone who had excelled in a less popular activity? Though Jorge Luis Borges did far more than Maradona to enhance Argentina’s reputation among the well-educated, the days have long gone in which the demise of a poet would bring many thousands of mourners into the streets. For this to happen, the person mourned must be a sporting idol, a popular singer, an actor, actress or an allegedly charismatic politician.
This was not always the case. After Victor Hugo died in 1885, more than two million Parisians joined the funeral procession that went from the Arc de Triomphe to the Panthéon attracted not only by his books but also by the political role he had played in difficult times. Much the same can be said about the funerals of Fyodor Dostoyevsky and Leo Tolstoy. And in 1980, approximately 40,000 lined the streets of Paris to say farewell to Jean-Paul Sartre, though unlike Hugo and the great Russian novelists, his once imposing prestige has withered along with the ideological causes he championed.
It may be assumed that most of those who are currently paying homage to Maradona know very well that, unlike the writers mentioned above, had he lived for 10, 20 or 30 years longer he would have made many headlines without achieving anything of significance. His gifts, which the football cognoscenti agree were extraordinary, were of little use to him or anyone else outside the playing field. They remember him for a few dazzling moments; they would rather forget what he did off the pitch when surrounded by his cronies.
It has been very easy to draw parallels between Maradona’s fate and that of Argentina, a self-indulgent country which, time and time again, has squandered its many assets, among them a considerable number of highly talented men and women who in any other part of the world would quickly distinguish themselves. Unfortunately, nationhood is a collective enterprise and a country’s status in the world, not to speak of the welfare of the general population, depends not only on the contribution of a handful of overachievers but also on the collaboration of those close to them.
Maradona the footballer became an international “legend,” but this made him a magnet for many unsavoury individuals who in one way or another wanted to profit from his immense reputation and the great deal of money he generated. They dragged him down to their own level. Was this inevitable for a man who rose from extreme poverty to become one of the most famous people in the entire world, a household name not just in Latin America and Europe but also in Japan, China and Africa? Perhaps it was. Simply being Maradona would have been hard enough for anyone; for the lad from Villa Fiorito, the weight proved so great that, as soon as his playing career came to an untimely end, it crushed him.