Diego Maradona, Argentina’s Hero, and Mine

I was on a work call late Wednesday morning when my wife ran into the room to tell me that Diego Armando Maradona, Argentina’s national treasure and arguably soccer’s most beloved and polarizing figure, had died of a heart attack. I immediately tuned into Argentine news, and a ticker at the bottom of the screen read, “Maradona has died” in all caps.

Sports pundits and journalists cried on TV, while soccer fans proclaimed, “Fútbol had died.” I spent the next four days rewatching Maradona’s most memorable goals and interviews. It felt as though I had lost someone close. Because somehow, he was.

But while millions around the world paid tribute, many others rejoiced in his death. The first post that came up on my Instagram feed on Wednesday was by a Venezuelan friend who hoped that Maradona was in “hell with Chávez and Fidel” and called him “a disgrace to the most beautiful sport.”

That’s one way to remember him. But I belong to a generation of soccer-obsessed kids who saw the best of Maradona.

For some he was the hero that led Argentina to the 1986 World Cup win, humiliating England in the process. In 1987, he was a hero to the impoverished Italian south, shepherding the Napoli team to its first national championship and then, in 1989, its first major European title. Along the way he never forgot his humble roots, and was a champion for the poor.

For others he was a villain with a cocaine addiction, and a string of unrecognized children scattered all over the world. He once shot at reporters outside his house with an air rifle. He was also a very close friend of Fidel Castro, and an outspoken supporter of Hugo Chávez and Nicolás Maduro. A Cuban friend who didn’t understand my grief asked, “He’s not a Commie?”

Diego Maradona in 1980. He played in four World Cups and coached Argentina’s national team. He was also notorious for his drug problems. Credit Mark Leech/Getty Images
Diego Maradona in 1980. He played in four World Cups and coached Argentina’s national team. He was also notorious for his drug problems. Credit Mark Leech/Getty Images

Argentines consider fútbol to be the most important of the unimportant things in life. My dad gave me my first River Plate jersey on the day I was born, in December 1976. It wasn’t just a birthday gift, but rather a baptism. By age 9, I played on the school team, on my neighborhood squad, on the youth league of a major club. I devoured soccer magazines; I watched every possible game on TV; I attended matches at the stadium with my dad and older brother.

A River Plate fan becoming a fan of Maradona — an icon of the archrival Boca Juniors — was an unlikely thing in the early 1980s. The rivalry between River Plate and Boca, the two most successful teams in Argentina, is comparable to, say, that of the Lakers and Celtics or the Red Sox and the Yankees — only a lot more violent.

But in 1986, that World Cup game against England in the quarterfinals changed everything. First, he scored a sneaky, illegal hand goal. Then, four minutes later, he delivered the most unbelievable goal any of us had ever seen.

One of the first things we learn in soccer is to pass the ball. If you don’t, you lose it. But on that day, Maradona did the stuff of movies. He defied the odds. He charged on as an army of English players closed in on him. I was in the living room right in front of the TV, yelling, “Pass the ball!” He forged on, leaving English player after English player, and even the goalie, in his wake. He covered almost 200 feet in 10 seconds, before sending the ball to the back of the net as Argentines all burst into screams of joy and disbelief.

It wasn’t just a World Cup win for Argentina. When he led a coup against Margaret Thatcher’s England, which killed our soldiers four years earlier in the Falklands War, he gave us the best (and probably the only) payback we could get as a nation. One hero to mend the open wound of millions. I would have been perfectly happy winning with a couple of average goals. But Maradona first gave the English a wet willy, and then he showed them — the creators of modern soccer — how it’s done. After that game, he scored another two incredible goals against Belgium in the semifinals, and then led us to victory against West Germany in the final.

Through him, I was able to experience the incomparable joy of being champion of the world in the sport I loved. It was the last time that happened. As much as our dear Lionel Messi has tried, we Argentines have not won a World Cup since ’86. And boy, have we held on to that moment, to that Maradona. Holding on to the memory of a nation that was once on top of the world is such an Argentine thing to do.

Ángel Cappa, a well-known Argentine coach, says that fútbol is an excuse to be happy, to forget all our troubles, even if it’s only for 90 minutes. Maradona gave us happiness for a lifetime. Of course, for people like my Venezuelan friend, he was a despicable character. But I simply saw him as human, with good and not-so-good qualities.

Maybe my perspective is influenced by the joy he gave me. Wait, let me rephrase that: My perspective is definitely influenced by the joy he gave me. And I, quite frankly, cannot help it. As the great Argentine writer and humorist Roberto Fontanarrosa once put it, I don’t care what Maradona did with his life; I thank him for what he did with mine.

Last week, when none of us had the slightest clue that his death was imminent, I bought a replica of the official 1986 World Cup ball online, which I had owned as a kid and cherished as a souvenir of one of the happiest moments of my childhood. About 10 minutes after I heard the sad news, I received a package — the 1986 World Cup ball. That it would arrive on the same day he died was an eerie coincidence, but one day I’m going to tell my daughter that was Maradona still working his magic with the ball.

Juan Manuel Rótulo is a head of music editorial for Latin America at Spotify.

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