Diego Maradona: A splash of genius on the green canvas

In the land of the never-ending spring, a curly-haired boy is now flaunting his magic with the ball
Last Updated 26 November 2020, 14:39 IST

Sometimes I think that my whole life is on film, that my whole life is in print.
- Diego Maradona

Maradona is dead. The footballing fraternity and the world beyond is in a state of shock and despair. Condolences are pouring in from almost every corner. As the dust from the news settles, all that will remain is a state of despondency, a sense of dim reality that lingers in the thoughts: Henceforth, the world will always be less colourful.

Besides everything else, Maradona was a colourful character. That was probably his way of dealing with the darkness of Villa Fiorito, a poor neighbourhood on the outskirts of Buenos Aires where he was born and raised. While growing up amid humble working folks, Maradona longed for a canvas where he would be able to unchain his spirit, cheerful and carefree. Was that why he first played football as a defender? He enjoyed being a libero, he actually loved the position. In his own words, “As a libero, you see everything from the back, the whole pitch is in front of you, you get hold of the ball and you say, let's go that way, let's look from another perspective.” Like an artist with a brush gazing at the horizon in front of him.

The days in Fiorito moulded Maradona into a man of unbridled gusto and sheer courage. A tremendous force who would galvanise himself and anything he met on his journey as he would often do on the field as a midfielder and off it with his penchant for controversies. That helped him in the early days of his career when he was frustrated about not being selected in the Argentina team for the 1978 FIFA World Cup. Argentina won that edition, their first World Cup win. Ironically, years later, when people looked back and ruffled through the pages of football history, they repeatedly focused on Argentina's 1986 World Cup win and left the 1978 victory to perish in the shadows due to numerous controversies, including the then dictatorial regime in Argentina.

Maradona swiftly answered the critics who thought he was unfit to play for the senior team in the 1978 campaign by winning the 1979 FIFA U-20 World Cup. The event, more than anything, remained significant for one particular reason: It was the beginning of Maradona's lifelong struggle to silence his critics.

That struggle would intensify once Maradona reached the hallowed FC Barcelona from the Boca Juniors. Boca, despite being Argentina's champs, were tiny in comparison to the fame and glamour of Barcelona. It was a giant leap for Maradona. The transfer fee amounted to a then world-record of £5 million. Maradona dreamt of conquering Spain, of making the Catalan club his own. However, a troubled relationship with the then president of the club Jose Luis Nunez meant that he was always crossing swords with the administration. And nagging injuries, especially a fracture suffered from a tackle of Basque Antoni Goikoetxea while playing against Athletic Bilbao aggravated his woes. He stayed for two years and looked like a forlorn figure, uprooted from his habitat, despite winning three major trophies in 1983.

And then, Napoli happened. It was another world-record fee of £6.9 million. Maradona's stay at the club was not just another successful footballer at a successful club. Instead, his Napoli love affair was a story of the tussle against socio-cultural discrimination: Of poverty against wealth, of the marginalised against the elite.

Napoli lived on the brink of the footballing community in Italy. The city of Naples itself was not considered a part of Italy by the prosperous northern half of the country. That is why the cumulative struggle of the club and the city went beyond the boundaries of football. Maradona realised this in his debut match, which was an away clash against Verona. The home supporters greeted Napoli with a banner, ‘Welcome to Italy'. In the words of Diego, “It was north against south, racism against poverty.”

If one visits Naples, he or she will see Maradona murals all over the city, even inside churches with his image at the altar. The city worships Maradona because he resurrected their beloved Napoli and himself. The five trophies that they won during his stay (the Serie A twice, and the UEFA Cup, the Coppa Italia and the Supercoppa Italiana once each) baptised the club and city and earned it an elevated spot in the Italian football hierarchy. The team's winning run shattered racial and class barriers, and as Diego described, “They (rest of Italy) could not believe that a bunch of poor southerners were taking a slice of the cake that up to then only they ate: The biggest slice!”

Napoli's Scudetto victory in the 1986-87 season had always been an "incomparable victory" for Maradona. It was a team built from scratch whose process, Maradona said, was "proper workmanship". It was perhaps apt that the working class of the region, so often shunned by the rest of society, would be gifted with a team formed from the labours of love and hard work.

The year 1986 is the year when the halo of Maradona enlightened fans worldwide, becoming the most compelling part of his tale. The stories of his exploits in the 1986 World Cup are now well-known. The fables describing his performance against England have been told and retold by successive generations. Years later, Maradona would explain that it was his revenge against England over the Falklands War. "It was a nice feeling, like some sort of symbolic revenge against the English," he said.

That memorable match still serves as the brightest example of his genius, that untameable brilliance coupled with a dash of madness. Who else could have scored both the Goal of the Century and the controversial Hand of God in a single match, nonchalant about the incredible storm that the latter feat would go on to stir? As the wave of exemplary mastery over the ball crashed against the sands of an illegitimate goal, it brought a question. And it came from both adorers and critics: Who exactly was Diego Maradona?

Among the many lanes of Argentina, people will lovingly call him a rebel who proudly wore a tattoo of Che Guevara on his right arm. On the streets of Napoli, people will describe him as a saviour who became the voice of the voiceless. Even England has hailed his greatness, a testament to his immortal legacy.

In the land of the never-ending spring, a curly-haired boy is now flaunting his magic with the ball. It has become more colourful as the boy continues to paint on his green canvas. Adiós, El Diego.

(Published 26 November 2020, 09:14 IST)

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