Diego Maradona's genius allowed him to come out of abject poverty and become a world star
‘As the snow flies
on a cold and gray Chicago mornin’
A poor little baby child is born
In the ghetto / And his mama cries’
— Elvis Presley / Mac Davis, In the Ghetto.
You can easily change Chicago with Villa Fiorito but the reality stays the same. Many a child from that shanty town on the southern outskirts of Buenos Aires broke the rules in desperation and met a sad end, as their hunger burnt. Diego Maradona’s genius allowed him to come out of abject poverty and become a world star.
What Maradona did with his life was absolutely inconsequential to us. It was for his family members, relatives and close friends to judge whether the stocky and diminutive Argentine failed them. For the outsiders, it was down to what he did on the football pitch, which changed a lot of lives. His left foot weaved magic. Nobody played the game better than him on the planet earth. The nonsensical ‘one of the greatest ever’ phrase should be laid to rest, as we talk about football and Maradona. He was the Mozart of football.
Zinedine Zidane was a great player in his own right – a World Cup winner for France and a Real Madrid legend. Zidane could have made the ball talk in his pomp and like many other top-class players, he, too, drew the Maradona comparison. As the debate raged on, the great Michel Platini – we are talking about the footballer here, not the administrator – was asked to compare the two. Platini was Maradona’s direct rival on the pitch, as he played for Juventus in Serie A (Italian top-division league), while the Argentine plied his trade for Napoli. Also, Maradona was the reason why Napoli had knocked Juventus off their perch.
Platini, though, didn’t vote for his compatriot, Zidane. “What Zidane could do with a ball, Maradona could do with an orange,” the former France captain was quoted as saying by the Fifa website.
India had its first date with live World Cup coverage on 1982. Only the two semifinals and the final were shown live. Four years later, when we got a real taste of the World Cup, with Doordarshan telecasting every game live from Mexico, fans from this part of the world bumped into Maradona and his soccer sorcery. His second goal against England made him a hero, so much so that even his ‘hand of god’ deception was celebrated. Many players in the Calcutta league tried to stick out a hand to score goals from crosses and corners, of course without Maradona’s ‘precision’. This correspondent personally knows a former India centre-forward who deliberately went for a ‘hand of god’ impersonation in a Mohun Bagan versus East Bengal fixture. Match officials spotted his attempt and ruled out the goal. Much later, after he had hung up his boots, the player confessed that he wanted to copy his ‘idol’. The 1986 World Cup made everybody who loved football, to fall in love with Maradona.
And it will never change. If you love football, you love Maradona. Period. Quotes from Jorge Valdano on the Fifa website summed up how Maradona was revered in the dressing-room. “Diego apologised to me after he scored the second goal against England (in the 1986 World Cup). He could see me unmarked at the far post the whole way but he couldn’t find a gap to get the ball to me. The fact is I felt offended. It was an insult to my profession. I mean, even on a run like that he still has the time to look up and see me. As a player I was nothing compared to him. He was incredible.” Valdano, a top-class forward in his own right, was Maradona’s team mate at the 1986 World Cup.
Maradona was respected by his team mates and opponents, he was adored by football lovers and every time he took the field, the little genius became a representative of the world’s have-nots. Many people in the smart seats sneered at his apparent “classlessness”. Maradona didn’t give a hoot. He had the support of the game’s biggest stakeholders, fans. He mocked Fifa, and the men running, it for fun. He lambasted the game’s governing body for forcing the players to play in sweltering heat to satisfy the broadcasters. He questioned Fifa’s financial dealings.
The high and mighty eventually had their opportunity at the 1994 World Cup. The Argentina captain was thrown out of the tournament after he had tested positive for five variants of ephedrine. His drug addiction and his off-the-pitch controversies didn’t do him any favours. Maradona, though, denied having taken illegal substances and hinted at a wider conspiracy. By the way, some of the officials, part of the Fifa then, are now banished from public life for alleged wrongdoings.
Maradona was no saint. Far from it. He was a flawed genius. Then again, Maradona was a by-product of the Third World poverty and what he needed while growing up in football was an education programme and an arm around his shoulder. Fifa and/or the officials concerned should have mollycoddled the once-in-a-century talent to ensure that his life off the pitch didn’t fall by the wayside. They chose conflict instead. The game’s parent body failed Maradona’s genius.