Diego Maradona has died. A vision of the beautiful game dies with him.
For a moment, the world was bathed in blue.
While reading various articles about Diego Maradona, after learning on Wednesday of his death, at 60, of a heart attack, weeks after undergoing brain surgery, a certain post gave me pause. Maradona was speaking ten years or so ago, and said that given how hard he had lived, he realized his days were numbered, at least in relation to his more steady peers. He was only about 50; he felt 80.
I have no idea if the video embedded in that tweet, from Asif Kapadia’s recent Maradona documentary, will be viewable, but I liked that it made the rounds last month, when Maradona was rushed to the hospital, in one of those rare moments of people coming together on the internet in the face of a potential horrible truth (Diego dying) and trying to find some modicum of comfort in celebrating what made us all love him in the first place.
It wasn’t the obvious choice of a Maradona highlight—his iconic, mazy dribble against England in the ’86 World Cup again made the rounds yesterday—but rather two minutes of Maradona tooling around on a muddy training pitch in Naples, the city he made his own in the late ’80s when he took Napoli to unprecedented heights, putting on a show of skill for a tiny collection of fans that had stopped to watch.
There is no way to quantify the effect Maradona had on world football, though the way it brought it to a standstill after the news of his passing gives you some idea. The man was a moniker: D10S (pronounced Dios) in Argentina, God with his fabled number in between. He was the inherent successor to Pele, a №10 capable of turning a match on its head at a moment’s notice through a dizzying array of skill.
The tributes began immediately, from rivals to longtime fans. They spanned the globe, but the greatest resonance was felt in the places Maradona affected most deeply. As Tim Vickery, one of the best football writers on the South American scene, noted, a Copa Libertadores match between Internacional of Brazil and Boca Juniors—one of Maradona’s former Argentine clubs—was called off after learning of the great man’s passing. Internacional took the unprecedented step of lighting their stadium in blue — not just the color of Brazil’s great rivals, but also Inter’s great rivals, Gremio.
Though I said I wanted to move past that England match at the ’86 World Cup, you just can’t avoid it. As so many articles on Maradona have evidenced, it is the seismic moment of his career. The perfect encapsulation of his genius and his enigmatic domain. As a French newspaper wrote in its aftermath, Maradona was half-God, half-devil.
He was responsible for both goals that day; both iconic—the first, the infamous Hand of God, when Maradona punched a crossed ball into the goal under the referee’s nose. Maradona never admitted to handling the ball, saying instead it was “a little with the head of Maradona, and a little with the hand of God.” It was also a little bit of revenge for the Falklands War, which had taken place a few years previously.
The second, the one I noted before, was voted Goal of the Century in a FIFA poll before the Japan/South Africa edition in ’02. (Maradona also came in third in that poll, for a goal against Belgium in the same ’86 World Cup.)
Throughout the ’86 World Cup, Maradona attempted or created more than half of Argentina’s shots, attempted a tournament-best 90 dribbles — some three times more than any other player — and was fouled a record 53 times, winning his team twice as many free kicks as any player. He scored two more brilliant goals in the semifinal against Belgium, and picked out an assist for the winning goal in the final against West Germany, which had devoted two defenders to him for the match’s entirety. He was repeatedly hacked down with ruthless fouls that would not stand in today’s more streamlined, well-mannered form of football. He had to be magician and street fighter, wrapped up into one.
Of course, we can only ever see him as some angel/devil mixture, constituting a firebrand of constant entertainment. But there’s a deeper level to the thinking, here. Writing for ESPN, Vickery notes that back home—not just in Argentina, but throughout South America—Maradona’s exploit against the England imposters was seen as a feat of cunning borne from street smarts sharpened from a youth spent playing the game dans la rue in Buenos Aires. This was not a craft honed on the well-manicured lawns endemic to the European game; this was win, by any means necessary. You can take your fair play and stick it back in your comfortable upbringing.
I remember being struck reading that, especially in context of a memory of what Roberto Martinez, then the manager of Wigan Athletic, said in early 2011, after losing a match to Arsenal in which Cesc Fabregas, a Spaniard, had won a penalty through dubious means to help gift a 3–0 win for the Gunners.
“Remember he comes from a different culture. You don’t cheat in a game and if you take a decision from the referee it is because you are clever and you are getting something for your team. Remember in England that is cheating whereas in South America or Spain getting a decision is clever and getting an advantage. Everyone is allowed to do it. I am just saying it is just down to your culture. In Spain if you do what Cesc did you get a well done from everyone but in England you will have people who won’t be too happy with it because it is a completely different approach to the game.”
It was poignant to see an article on ESPN FC’s front page in the wake of Maradona’s death, bringing up the prospect of retiring the №10 from football. Argentina’s federation had already lobbied such a request at the turn of the century, in honor of their maestro. ESPN was doing it for more click-baity reasons, I reckon, but the idea takes on a greater resonance when viewed in context of where the modern game is headed. And why, I think, Maradona will be so missed. He is a beacon of a bygone era in which individual skill carried the day.
Not so much, now. Is there any reason in retiring the №10, when its playmaking philosophy has largely evaporated from the modern game? A modern game that is all about speed, precision, and ruthless efficiency. Players as part of a well-oiled machine. No room for wanderers.
The heir apparent to Maradona, Lionel Messi, another Argentine who never hit the same heights on the international level (though he did win Best Player at the 2014 World Cup, in which he helped the Albiceleste to the final before losing 1–0 to Germany), is on the wane at 33. Who will take up the mantle of transcendent individual brilliance after him?
Another midfield maestro, one closer to my Arsenal-loving heart, Mesut Özil, has disappeared from the world of football. The New York Times ran an article about his erasure, due as much, it seems, to his troublesome political views as an importance to the club that has been construed “erstwhile”.
With Özil, it’s as much about a new manager putting his stamp on a side (put more crassly, swinging his dick around to make his mark) as a gradual phasing out of the need for an individual able to influence a game with spine-tingling moments of inspiration in favor of a swarming collective that steamrolls to titles thanks to an output of let’s say 2.3 goals per game and a well-drilled defense that only allows Oh, I don’t know, 1.1 goals per game.
In a recent interview, Arsene Wenger, Özil’s manager at Arsenal until 2018 (the club is on their second, since) noted that the obsession with statistics, and tactic-tics, could potentially create a disconnect between individual players and the game. The emphasis should be more on exploring neural pathways that might help make decisions quicker; and not throwing out the beautiful game in the process.
Maradona had his own ill-fated brush with the modern game, managing Argentina at the 2010 World Cup, which fatefully saw his Albiceleste side wiped off the pitch by a German outfit featuring an ascendant Özil, 21 at the time, who pulled the strings as he did the entire tournament during a 4–0 drubbing.
Germany was my favorite side to watch during that tournament; they were a refreshing change from the Spanish tiki-taka, patient possession play, or death by a thousand passes, that had come into fashion with Spain’s ascendency two years before. Here instead was ruthless German efficiency, but with a decisive №10 in the wheelhouse, making it all work. That was a marriage that gave me, the same wide-eyed 21-year-old age as Özil, hope as a soccer fan. You could bridge the gap into the future with one of the best things about the past.
Alas, the game took another turn, and much like society as a whole at the moment, the joy is being squeezed out of it in favor of optimization. The result is paramount; the importance inherent in how you attain it has disappeared.
Still, glimmers remain of football’s transcendent ability, unparalleled in the world of sport. It’s what Maradona said, after making his professional debut for Argentinos juniors on the cusp of 16, a match when one of his first acts was to nutmeg an onrushing defender. “I felt I had the sky in my hands,” he said.
For millions of rabid supporters around the globe, his brilliance lifted them. Bad day or week—forgotten. He found glory, and was gracious enough to chip off a piece for us too, allowing us to bathe ourselves in the descending residue.
Amazing, what sport can do.