Diego Maradona: too grand to pity

The goal starts with the biomechanical version of a car’s three-point turn. One step past the closing Englishman, a twirl past the next, then one to flee both, so that he faces, say, south-east, west and north-east in the space of two seconds and two square metres. From there, his 40-yard dash has an air of the banal about it, so three more of Her Majesty’s finest are diddled for fun until the grass literally runs out and he must commit the vulgarism of scoring.

It feels wrong that a 60-year life is so often condensed to one goal, lush as it was, in the 1986 World Cup. But then it is better than remembering Diego Maradona as a cautionary tale, about fame, riches and deracination from one’s home. These things bloated and sullied him. They led to his encirclement in Naples by people with ill will and some with all too much love. But they also scooped him and his large family out of that bleak shack in (what a cruelly pretty name) Villa Fiorito.

This was a life of astronomical upwardness. It will screen generations of Maradonas to come from the pre-modernity that he knew as a child. On the way, it restored morale to Argentina after the rout in the Falklands and pride to the Mezzogiorno against Piemontese hauteur. Let us not clutch our pearls over the decadence and ask “if it was all worth it”.

None of which is to gloss over his spells of anguish amid a fog of cocaine. Or the wrongs he did to others. And 60, as they say, with meaning if not strict truth, is no age. But how to weigh these things against the suffering that might have taken place in a parallel life, where his feel for the ball was less silken, the scouts less dazzled, and success less forthcoming? There is analytic sloppiness, not just piety, in the trope that fame and wealth are corrosive. Corrosive compared to what?

Maradona splits England’s defence to score his and Argentina’s second goal in the World Cup quarter-final in Mexico City, 1986 © Getty Images

It is not just the obituarists, an unavoidably maudlin crew, who are prone to this stuff. Asif Kapadia is the best documentarian of his generation by such a margin that it is hard to think of the runner-up. For reasons I could not place at the time, though, his 2019 film about Maradona fell short of its antecedents about Oasis and Ayrton Senna.

Going over it this week, I see that it is no less resourceful in its archival footage, no less rich in its evocation of place. (In a pop-psych age, documentaries, like novels, lose themselves in interiority.)

The problem turns out to be a deficit of joy. It is Maradona the Tragic who comes through, over Maradona the grand or ludic. Even allowing that he is less bouncily quotable than the Gallaghers (whose meeting with him is an anecdote worth googling), he is mired in eternal Neapolitan night. The luminous scorch of the Azteca Stadium in 1986, where two English players now say they had to stop themselves clapping That Goal, goes too soon. So do the tyro years at Argentinos Juniors and Boca.

Perhaps I am just sour at having missed the best of him. After “Babangida”, Nigeria’s leader at the time, “Maradona” is the first name of a public personage that I remember hearing. When I moved to the UK, he was a spectral figure for our generation as foreign football was so scarce on television. By the time it spread in the 1990s, he was An American Trilogy-era Elvis: jowly, poignant, perspirant.

Signing autographs for fans after a training session in Naples, 1986
Signing autographs for fans after a training session in Naples, 1986 © Getty Images

I defer to older readers, then, on where he stands in the sport’s hall of gods. My sense is that Lionel Messi has been more devastating for much longer. Were it not for that air of coldness — and so his failure to “transcend” sport — more would place him top. Only Maradona would have asked Neapolitans to cheer Argentina against Italy to buck the snooty north. Only Messi scores and assists as metronomically as he does. Our taste for charisma distorts what should be a technical judgment.

Where no dissent can be brooked is over the more rousing story. While lots of footballers break out of dire hardship, Maradona’s trough-to-peak ascent might be the most vertiginous of all. How dreary, how first-world it would be to turn him into a parable — into Scarface — about whether success is all that it is cracked up to be. Of course it is. “There was nothing tragic about him,” tweeted Piers Morgan this week, overstating the case but approximating the truth.

Besides, looking around, lots of us seem able to self-destruct without the mitigating circumstance of galactic fame. “Metaphor for my country”, texted an Argentine friend on Wednesday, about the deceased’s flaws and glories. And for the species.

Email Janan at [email protected]

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