Argentine football fans usually recognise that their club passion far outweighs their sentiment toward the national team. In such a football-mad society, there are few clearer symbols of our internal strife. The period during which Diego Armando Maradona wore the light-blue-and-white shirt was one of the most important exceptions to that rule.
Even beyond the footballing world, it would be difficult to find another individual in Argentine history who succeeded so comprehensively in uniting the country.
Diego was certainly a working-class hero, overcoming adversity and skyrocketing to the top of the world from his humblest of origins in Villa Fiorito. But his greatness as a player, and as a representative of Argentine sport, transcended all class and political divides.
He played at the country’s most widely supported club, Boca Juniors, went on to become the best player in football history, brought home the World Cup and he was ours, Argentine. He conquered Italy and Europe, and returned to retire at home.
There are hundreds of reasons why he brought us together so closely, but his two goals against the English, only four years after the trauma of the Malvinas (Falklands) War, are among the most relevant. Having lived in London, I witnessed how those goals lingered bitterly, decades later, in the collective consciousness of the English. Despite the wounds, however, they never hesitated to recognise the genius of the “little man.”
Those of us who grew up in Argentina in the 1990s, when Diego’s days as a player were coming to a close, first started learning about the legend from our fathers. We would unanimously be told the “number 10” had been the greatest of all time, and how he had single-handedly won the 1986 World Cup. And so, when our love for the game was at its purest and most innocent stage, Maradona entered our lives as a bridge to our parents’ past as football fans, and as Argentines.
First with VHS tapes and eventually on YouTube, we would watch his majestic goals hundreds of times over. Our skin would turn to pure goosebumps as we imagined the experience of taking to the streets in 1986 to celebrate the greatest goal of all time, or ultimately, to scream with euphoria when we beat the Germans in the final.
The tears we shed now stem purely from our gratitude for the happiness he gave us doing what he loved most, even if that happened before we were born. We are thankful not only for the titles, but also for every single exuberant dribble, for every goal and every flamboyant warm-up or display of talent on the pitch.
Unfortunately, particularly after his retirement, Maradona began to divide the waters among Argentines, among other reasons due to his unflinching political pronouncements, as well as his addictive personality, which led to repeated substance abuses. Diego was a true reflection of Argentine society and humanity itself, riddled with faults, but also full of virtue.
We should have the empathy to understand how difficult it must have been to be Diego, a global superstar, and forgive him for his mistakes.
Thank you, Diego, for your grit, your talent and your courage in representing Argentina. Thank you for all of the tears. And thank you, Gustavo Aldaya, for the stories you told me about him.