Feature

Why genius Maradona meant so much to us

0:00

Sitting in the same room as Diego Maradona is an experience you’ll never forget. The man contained an aura that turned all around him into immediate, starry-eyed fans.

Protocol, however strict, simply vanished in the presence of Diego.

Even in his final years, laden by a slowing body and mind, the man walked on water.

The rules that applied to others did not apply to him, except the one that got him in the end. You can only nutmeg the grim reaper so many times.

His loss will be felt everywhere today; in every street, in every country. But what are we lamenting? Just a great player?

He was more. So much more. We are mourning the departure of a genius, equal parts mercurial and ethereal. You knew what it was when you saw it but won’t ever find the adequate words to describe it.

You don’t just analyse Maradona, though many will be attempting to in the coming days. You feel it. Why he means so much to so many of us lives in our hearts, not our heads.

That’s why we forgave him, over and over, for all he did wrong. That might sound silly but, for better or worse, it is true. There was endless space in our hearts for Maradona’s redemption.

There’s BC and AD for Diego - before and after the 1990 FIFA World Cup.

For a long time, so much coverage of Maradona was dedicated to the AD period, when his problems; barely manageable, culminated in the undoing of his image, his grip on reality and life itself.

But I am relieved that in recent years, a series of documentaries, films and books have begun to cast light on why we became so enamoured with Maradona in the first place.

Watching those re-mastered highlights, one could almost make the case that Maradona’s footballing ability was perhaps underrated. Defenders openly set out to break his legs, or at the very least, cripple him so badly that he could not continue.

And yet there he is, with unequalled ball control, changing direction at impossible speeds - not just side to side, but forwards and back. No shooting angle was too acute. No pitch too bumpy or muddy. No wall too high. No pass unmakeable. It was though his legs were made of a compound of rubber, elastic and nitroglycerin.

We often wax lyrical about the Serie A of the 1980s and the unbreakable defending that went with it.

Again, the rules did not apply to Diego. He reduced those walls to rubble time and again, with an unfashionable Napoli team that would have finished mid-table without him.

For context, consider this - when Napoli won the 1986-87 Scudetto, none of the top six teams scored more than 42 goals.

In the most recent two Serie A seasons (even with eight more games), we’ve seen teams relegated with more than 50 goals.

The game lives in an alternate, attacking universe today. It’s worth bearing that in mind when we compare Maradona’s record to others, especially when the ‘greatest of all time’ discussion comes up.

My belief is that Maradona’s five-year peak between 1985 and 1990 was higher than any other. Napoli never finished lower than second. They won the UEFA Cup in 1989, beating Juventus and Bayern Munich along the way. Argentina won one World Cup, largely thanks to him, and made the final of the other.

Was he as consistent as Pele, Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo? No, probably not. They dominated the world for almost two decades. Maradona was closer to one. Today isn’t the day for that argument, anyway. 

But none will be as loved as Diego. He is worshipped in Argentina in a way that Messi never will be, and Messi’s reputation has suffered (unfortunately) by comparison as his seemingly clinical approach to winning has latterly been joined by a brooding frustration.

Maradona was many things worse than Messi - playboy, drug addict, cheat, absent father - but even after his worst moments, it never took long for the music to start playing again in the Diego Disco.

It was like that when he came to Australia in 1993.

His life was spiralling out of control at the time, his best football was well behind him. His stomach, like his use of narcotics, had grown. And yet the nation was totally transfixed when he arrived.

I distinctly remember my own father - not a football fan by any measure - ensuring we watched both legs of those World Cup qualifiers.

That’s the thing about genius: be it in football, or music, art, literature or otherwise - anyone can appreciate it.

You’ll see Maradona’s cross for Abel Balbo’s goal replayed quite a bit this week, but do seek out the lead-up to that moment.

He takes a throw-in, receives it back from Gabriel Batistuta, wrong-foots Paul Wade and Jason van Blerk before Wade’s incredible recovery tackle. But Maradona then pinches it back from Milan Ivanovic and, despite being hemmed against the sideline, changes his balance with four tiny touches and then whips in the perfect cross. Those who saw it live were blessed.

These days, coaches often talk about “finding solutions” to the problems on the field, and how the entire team must solve it.

In those days, Maradona was every solution to every problem, all the time. You just gave him the ball and hoped.

No image sums that up better than the famous shot of him appearing to take on six Belgium defenders in the 1986 World Cup.

Optical illusion or not, it captured the spirit of what made us love Diego. He took on the world without fear and conquered all those who stood in his path.

He made us all dream that anything could be accomplished with a mixture of rat cunning, passion, sleight of hand and a big heart. You didn’t need to be from anywhere special in life: Maradona came out of Villa Fiorito; Buenos Aires’ poorest slum.

That immediately endeared him to Argentines, many of them suffering the indignity of a heinous, awful military junta and whose inhumane policies led to the dual catastrophes of the Falkland Islands War and the disappearance of 30,000 political dissidents.

The shadow of that period still hangs over the country today. But Diego’s aura lingers just as strongly: his memory still makes the broken and downtrodden feel on top of the world.

Likewise, when Maradona arrived at Napoli, beaten up and angry after a fractious time with Barcelona, he found like-minded souls.

Napoli was poor, dirty, mafia-ridden and ridiculed across Italy. But Neapolitans were good people, down on their luck. Diego knew that feeling. They clicked, spectacularly.

And ultimately, that’s what Diego represented. Evidence that wonderful things could come from the worst places. That obstacles could be overcome, even if your character was flawed, as we all are.

That humanity resonated as far as his genius.

There will be never be another Maradona, which is why we always wanted more. As it will be with all those greats who died young, so it will be for evermore.