Diego Armando Maradona Franco
The God of football is no more. When I heard the news, I wasn’t shocked. But it felt as if there is a hollow in the part of my heart that beats for the Jogo bonito, and no one will ever fill that again. That, with Maradona, part of the most precious memories of my childhood and adolescence have also felt this hollow that was left behind.
India, like all other developing nations, was always leaned towards Brazil, when it came to finding favourites in international football. From the 1950s, not only did they reach dizzying heights in terms of football excellence, but Brazil was also seen as the representative of the developing, so-called third world countries, against the erstwhile dominant colonial teams from Europe. Pelé was the crown jewel of the Brazilian team of that era, but there were other footballers who took Brazil to the peak of the glory days of football. Footballers like Didi, Vava, Garrincha, Tostao, Rivelino, Carlos Alberto… In a football-mad state like West Bengal, no wonder the football lovers flocked towards Brazil. It took one person, and his supernatural footballing prowess to sway half of these people over to Argentina. Not most of them knew where Argentina was, but since the 1986 World Cup, the streets of Calcutta were painted in albiceleste, alongside Brazil’s colours of seleção. Diego Maradona was the god they became mesmerised with; like the pied piper of Hamelin, Maradona not only charmed the ball on the pitch, he also won hearts of tens of millions of people, half the world away. Such was the magic of Maradona. No other player has left such a phenomenal impact in football. Never will.
I did not watch Maradona live in 1986 World Cup as we didn’t have tv then, and my parents wouldn’t let me stay all night anyway to watch matches telecast from Mexico. All I could remember were the details of his heroics in the newspapers. Growing up, we used to devour news from our favourite footballers and teams and learned how Maradona was excluded from 1978 and 1982 by Cesar Menotti, but in 1986 he could not be left out. As we all need to pick our sides, I chose Brazil, simply overawed by their brilliance in securing the Jules Rimet trophy forever, whilst many others chose Argentina, because of Maradona. And thus began the fierce rivalry between the friends, which would at least end in bickering and some cases, fights. Such was our loyalty. In our heart, when it came to football, we were Brazilian or Argentinian. We would hold Brazil vs Argentina football matches during all successive world cups for nearly two decades, a Sunday morning fraught with tension and suspense. None of us would give an inch to their opponent, but at the end of the game, all would go to the nearest pond, covered in mud head to toe, to wash and go back home. Then at night, we would get together in a friends house and watch the matches, no matter how late it was. At the end of the game, we would go out again, so the streets would become alive again for half an hour with everyone passing their expert opinion about the game as if had they been the coach of the squad, results would for sure have been different. Those days are gone, international football has lost its exclusivity, we can access every match, we now are keener on club football, and those gatherings at friends houses are replaced by sports bars and lounges. But the madness is still the same, rooted in its origin of fierce rivalry between Brazil and Argentina. It was only made possible by the magician called Maradona. He was the supernova that sparked our imagination, that anything can be done to the football and he was the main influence behind all our memories of football.
And controversies? Yes, that was part of his life, and so was ours. We found about the drug problems he had and it gave us great pleasure taunting the Argentina supporters. We could see the discomfort it caused amongst them, and they would always be looking for a reason to score one against us. We taunted then about his hand of God, about cocaine, about how he reacted as a man possessed in the 1994 World Cup before being tested positive for the drugs test. We goaded then when Pelé was voted the best footballer of the last century, over Maradona. Even a few weeks back, I was arguing with my friends, referring Maradona as the junkie, and my friend retorting that Pele has fathered more children than the entire Brazilian team. Those were friendly banters, even though we remained fiercely loyal to the sides we are defending. Beyond all that bravado, I have watched many videos of Maradona and was fascinated at his skills. I can’t say I wasn’t a fan of him, but I had no doubt that he can be referred to as the god of football. And putting one of the debate to bed, as great as Pelé was, and as much as a staunch Brazil supporter I am, Maradona was greater without a shadow of a doubt.
The times have changed since Maradona reigned supreme in the green pitch. Would he be able to carry on living the life he led in the 80s and 90s if he played in the present era? I doubt so. Can you compare him with the other two great players of this century – Messi and CR7? I don’t have the answer to that. The game has changed a lot in the last 40 years and players play a lot more matches these days which demands an unbelievable level of fitness. From that aspect, it might not be fair to compare Diego with the other two, or even with Pelé as such. But where it matters is his ability to inspire a half-decent team to go on and win the World Cup defeating giants of the era, and becoming the brand ambassador for Argentina. Through Maradona, the name of Argentina reached millions of households across the world. Maradona presented an alternative reality in the previous bias for Brazil in many of these countries outside Europe. He lived the life of a rebel — on and off the pitch — which gained him enemies, as well as loyal friends. And die-hard fans. Fans who would riot to see their hero for the last time on his funeral.
Personally, virtues like honesty and integrity mean a lot to me. And when I see athletes who are these virtues personified, no matter what team they belong to, what sport they specialise, I have a lot of respect for those athletes. Yet, a part of me is a rebel, who thinks everything is fair…at least in football. A part of me that does give a toss if Maradona scored a goal using his hand if he can score goals like the second goal against England. Morality is a virtue, but Maradona was special to forget that. He was a flawed genius, and after retirement, he was shunned by FIFA until very recent times. He was a misfit amongst the suave footballers-turned-pundits and football ambassadors, he was a misfit in this age of political correctness as news surface about his rave parties, connection with the Mafia, shooting photographers, to his crazy reactions in the Argentina game in 2018 World Cup. These moments will be forgotten, but tales his supernatural presence on the football pitch will stay on. There was something magical in that left foot of Maradona, and memories of that magic is eternal.
Diego will leave a legacy that won’t be easy to replace. There will be other players, talented players, but if Messi himself has not been able to fit into his shoes, we can say that the void he left will never be replenished. Sadly, that’s the way of life. We’ll still move on, watch football, cheer, shout, fight, swear…we’ll have our favourite footballers. But during one of those tense moments, if someone says this is the best player they have seen, I’ll shake my head in disagreement. No, they have not seen Diego Maradona. No, they have not seen God.