Maradona spoiled me.
Mexico ’86 was the first full football tournament I watched. The excitement began well before, when every recess time a bunch of us nine-year-olds would huddle in the Saint Andrew’s School canteen, sometimes near the char kway teow uncle’s corner, sunlight creeping in to light his halo.
We would pull little Panini packets out of our navy blue shorts and conduct the daily sticker exchange. By then school had become a distraction, our emotional cycles guided by football sticker fate.
Even if the packet that you nervously tore open the evening before did not deliver, there was a chance that during recess you could trade. Some show offs would show up with rare commodities such as Gary Lineker or the glittering golden team stickers, insisting that they were strictly not for trade; only to later accept some ridiculous five-stickers-for-one offer. We were starting to learn about which friends would one day make great salesmen; and which friends should forever be kept far from the money.
For some reason in 2010 a few of us middle-aged kids again got into the Panini sticker game for South Africa ’10. It sounded like a good idea until somebody showed up with an entire box of stickers, and proceeded to rip open packets like they were growing on trees. It made me miss the days when I had to skip meals to buy stickers.
The tournament itself was like a dream. It is one of the events in my life that just keeps getting better, the more opinions I hear, the more commentaries of Maradona’s second goal against England I listen to, the better my knowledge of the man’s emotional state leading up to the tournament. (Asif Kapadia’s documentary on Maradona: find it, watch it.)
I think Mexico ’86 taught me a few things about life. First, sport can be so exhilarating and absorbing that one forgets, if only momentarily, about everything else. Second, one person’s leadership can dramatically raise the levels of those around. Next, everything is political (read: Malvinas). And finally that the world is, unfortunately, more tolerant of cheating if it is followed by genius.
At the time I remember thinking, with glee, that some of the best things in life really are free. Only much later did the damage to Diego, the person, of being Maradona, the footballer, become apparent. In a way Diego’s generation was the last to grow up with one foot in the outside world: going out, partying, drinking, doing things that other kids might do (boosted, no doubt, by money and celebrity).
Footballers today seem to be mollycoddled from a young age, insulated much more from the outside world by protective agents, scouts and parents.
One of them is the other M whose name shall not share this page. The thing that has annoyed me the most over the past few days is reading obituaries where this other M is mentioned alongside the great Diego Armando Maradona. Mine is just one of many voices in this evergreen debate, but let me give it my best shot.
Maradona turned two mediocre teams into champions. Yes, there was some talent, like Burruchaga and Valdano at Argentina; and Ferrara and (later) Careca at Napoli. But those teams would never have merited a shout without him. The reality is that the other M has only known glory at one single club, the club he joined as a boy, a club so worshipped around the world that its success over the past two decades has felt pre-ordained. Consider that Maradona’s Napoli team was at the receiving end of such slurs from the opposition: “Sick with cholera! Victims of the earthquake! You never washed with soap! Napoli shit! Napoli cholera! You’re the shame of Italy!” (Kapadia’s flick shows Maradona playing in these racist cauldrons.)
One of the great tragedies of Maradona’s story is that we will never know how talented he really was. Imagine if he were playing today? With better protection against hatchet men on and off the field, with more career guidance and counselling, with fewer hangers-on, with the definition of party changed from cocaine to Playstation, what might Maradona have achieved? It is a moot question, of course. Maradona is a legend because of his flaws, because he kept overcoming all of those things (until he couldn’t).
“Maradona is the two mirrors, that in which it’s a pleasure to regard ourselves and that which shames us,” said Clarín, an Argentine newspaper.
Anyway, while I am grateful to Diego for allowing Maradona to bloom, at great personal cost, I am frustrated, irritated, despondent about the fact that Mexico ’86 was my first ever proper football tournament.
Like the virgin diver who descends in Raja Ampat, like the kid whose first taste of chocolate is Pacari, like the eighteen-year-old whose first dram is also eighteen, every child whose first proper tourney was Mexico ’86 was irredeemably spoiled by the diminutive Argentinian.
Everything else, Diego, I can forgive. That I never will.
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If you have twelve minutes, you must watch “Diego Armando Maradona – World Cup 1986 – Unique Kinetics”. So much attention, rightfully so, is given to his goals against England. Yet throughout the tournament he was sublime. The high point was arguably the semi-final performance against Belgium.
If you don’t have time, at the very least please watch the famous second goal against England with the commentary by Víctor Hugo Morales. You don’t have to understand Spanish to get it. But even better if you do.
My favourite obituary so far is Simon Kuper’s in the FT, which includes this paragraph:
“He debuted for Argentina aged 16, rescued his family from poverty and became the public property of his compatriots, who seemed to expect him to redeem the nation’s failure in other realms. His first World Cup, in 1982, ended with a sending-off for karate-kicking the Brazilian player Batista. It was a mistake: he had meant to kick Falcão instead.”
My favourite thoughts about Maradona are from Mariano Siskind, an Argentinian professor of romance languages and literatures at Harvard. Some gems:
The other meaningful thing about Maradona, particularly for people like me who are very, very secular and non-religious, is that when he was on the pitch, he created something that was similar to a secular divine experience, an experience of what Hegel calls the Absolute. For people like me, this only happens through art, but then again soccer is a performing art, at least when Maradona was on the pitch. For me, Maradona is Beethoven; John, Paul, George, and Ringo rehearsing at Abbey Road Studios to record the White Album; Picasso painting “Guernica”; he is Shakespeare, Cervantes, Joyce, Borges; or Miles Davis and Bill Evans playing together; and a little bit of “Antigone.” Watching Maradona was akin to an experience of transcendence…
…The first goal [against England] established Maradona’s legacy as a mythical figure across the Third World and the global South. There are two interpretations of that goal that break along geopolitical lines: The typical U.S., British moralistic view said that was cheating, but across Latin America, Africa, and the Third World, they view it as a form of humiliating a former colonial power and the ultimate expression of cunning or shrewdness, which is central to a ludic conception of the game (and of life) that stands outside of the realm of morality…
…To answer your question about how one comes to terms with these aspects of his life, we don’t. Because there is no need. Maradona was the most imperfect of human gods. There’s no need to reconcile the contradiction that our love for him creates in us; you just live with that contradiction the same way you live with contradictions in your own life. You don’t come to terms with it. Morality and love don’t go together…
…Yes, I really wanted to include a class on Diego! For that class, I propose two social, historical, and cultural ways of approaching the figure of Maradona that shed light on why he’s such a meaningful figure. One is through Nietzsche’s “The Birth of Tragedy,” in particular the opposition and relation that Nietzsche develops around Apollo and Dionysus as the figures that represent the two forces that define humans in their relation to the world around them. On one hand there is Apollo, the god of poetry, light, well-being, social order, rational behavior, and of measured forms of freedom. In my mind, Pelé represents an Apollonian figure in the world of soccer. On the other hand there is Dionysus, the god of festivities, wine, dance, music, madness, sexual drive, and of unrestrained forms of freedom. For Dionysus, there’s no morality; there’s only desire and it’s a force of creative destruction. I propose that Maradona is the perfect embodiment of the Dionysian in us, and how important it is to make room in our lives, in the world, for the forms of unbounded freedom and desire he represents. Maradona and other Dionysian figures make it possible to imagine ourselves beyond the boundaries of social pieties, to imagine ourselves breaking free from structures we often experience as asphyxiating prisons.
I also argue that Maradona incarnates the figure of the classic hero through our reading of Aristotle’s “Poetics,” particularly the section on tragedy. Aristotle explains that the hero is a demigod, the son of a god or goddess and a human, and therefore imperfect, and that he experiences a reversal of fortune (peripeteia) brought about by his own fatal flaws (hamartia) or by excessive pride (hubris). The tragedy of the hero revolves around having everything to enjoy a prominent place in the world but not being able to avoid causing his own downfall. In the class we establish how Maradona becomes a hero between 1979 and 1990 and how through his flaws he causes his own demise in 1991, in 1994, and at so many points later in his life. Aristotle also said that the hero has a moment of redemption when he recognizes that his actions led to his fall, he calls it anagnorisis. In the narrative arch of Maradona’s life, there is a beautiful ceremony celebrating his career at Boca Juniors’ stadium in 2001 when he acknowledged his shortcomings, which is his moment of redemption. That day he crafted one of so many brilliant epigrams that are now part of the unconscious of Argentine popular culture: “I paid dearly for my mistakes, but the ball will never be stained.”
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