When you discuss the greatest to play any sport, there’s definitely a mythical edge to it. Jordan, LeBron, Gretzky, Lemieux, Mantle, Mays, Payton, Sanders, whatever your names are, it always feels like you’re talking about some sort of separate being. Something bestowed upon the Earth, unknowable in any way. And a lot of them preferred it that way. After all, if there was a logical reason and build to what made them what they were, then someone else could do it. Certainly there is a gift each was given that is rarely replicated, a way of seeing the game that is unique only to them because they could do things no one else could, or even conceive of.
Diego Maradona is the only one who didn’t reach that plane, and yet was also completely above it. Maradona was unquestionably human, much more so than any of those mentioned above. And he was also, essentially a god to an entire nation, to a region of Italy, and to a sport. He was reachable at the same time he was a celestial being. He was, and sadly today that’s in the past tense, far more layered than any other athlete who was in the exclusive club he resided in. If indeed anyone was.
The soccer aspect of Maradona is unquestioned. While you can have debates that rage on into the wee hours of who was better, him, Pele, Best, Cruyff, Messi, Maradona’s claims are probably more concrete than any of them. While Pele’s crowning achievement is seen as the 1970 World Cup win in Mexico, he was merely the tip of a team of legends. Go through that Brazil lineup, and you’ll find just about every single one of the other 10 considered some of the best to ever play their position.
In 1986, Maradona dragged an Argentina team devoid of legends other than himself, and in fact quite pedestrian in a lot of places, to a World Cup and legendary status on his own. While the English whingeing about his “Hand of God” goal has been so persistent and so loud for so long that it’s tended to overshadow the rest of the tournament, what exactly was their excuse for this?
That’s 60 yards through five defenders and a goalkeeper, starting with taking three English stooges out of the game by simply moving the ball a couple feet. He would do much the same to Belgium in the next round, and then set up or directly assisted all three goals for Argentina in the final. He scored or assisted on 10 of the team’s 14 goals in the whole tournament. Another eye-bulging stat is that he attempted or created over half of Argentina’s shots. And he almost did it again four years later with just about the same barely passable squad, this time losing in the final.
Maradona did it at the club level as well. Napoli were hardly the most glamorous club in Italy’s Serie A, and far from it. Before Maradona arrived, they had one Serie B championship to their name. They were not Juventus, or either Milan side. Maradona shows up and hands them two Scudettos in four seasons, as well as a UEFA Cup. They haven’t been champions since, and in fact have been relegated three times. There’s putting your team on the map, and then there’s what Maradona did for Napoli.
Not only that, but Maradona arrived in Italy when it was unquestionably the best league in the world, and known for its brutal and uncompromising defending. Serie A defenders essentially took to the field with spiked clubs and lead pipes, and didn’t think their job was done until attackers’ ankles looked like rancid cottage cheese. His 115 goals for Napoli in 259 appearances is astronomical by that time and setting’s standards, and doesn’t even get into all that he created.
But to try and describe Maradona merely by team titles or goal amounts is to miss a whole chunk of the point. It is what Maradona meant to so many. Leading Napoli to the title isn’t just about a sporting accomplishment. Italy was, and still is, a deeply divided country between north and south. Maradona was the defiance of a whole region, a swashbuckling and dominating middle finger to those who had spit on that part of the country for centuries. He was their reason.
And that is probably only fractionally of what he meant to Argentina as a whole. He is more than Jordan could ever dream of being to the U.S. (and would refuse to be even if offered) or Gretzky to Canada. He was a walking statue of a deity, something that represents them all, good and bad. Brazilian players don’t have to measure themselves to Pele anymore. Nor Germans to Beckenbauer. But you best believe everything in Argentina is measured against Maradona, even Messi, who is one of the greatest players to ever live. You can’t outrun that shadow, and no one will.
And maybe that’s what most sets Maradona apart from the rest the most. While most other sporting royalty carefully guard their personas and what they present to the outside world (and just as importantly to them, what they present for sponsors), Maradona was (to borrow a phrase from James T. Kirk) the most human. If you haven’t seen the HBO documentary Diego Maradona on him, it’s worth your time. It’s a shame that Maradona played at a time when drug addiction was still considered the area of the damned, instead of the more understanding position (partially at least) that we have now of it being vulnerability and sickness. The documentary shows how much the owners of Napoli and the Camorra (inexorably linked if not one and the same) fed Maradona’s addiction to continue to use him to glorify or justify themselves. That doesn’t mean Maradona was powerless or merely a pawn, but he also didn’t have anyone around him who wasn’t using him.
Which only made him human. Reachable. As much as his soccer exploits made him feel alien, a museum worthy piece of art that everyone could watch be constructed in real time, his human traits were out there for all to see. He wasn’t behind a legion of PR people or only presented via commercials and hand-picked interviews. He could be weak, he could sabotage himself. Be emotional, vindictive, wary. He could be taken advantage of. Well, who can’t? Everything Maradona was, was easy to see for anyone who looked. He was this guy, even toward the end…
Now who can’t relate to that?
There are plenty of videos out there to show you the genius Maradona was on the field. This one’s nearly half an hour and probably only scratches the surface. But that’s only part of Maradona’s tale, and the fact that there’s so much more is what makes him truly unique, on the Mount Olympus of athletes. He was whole. Genius, idiot, inspiration, puppet, strong, weak, angel, demon, all of it. He had more than one story to tell.
And all of it was gripping.
The phrase “rest in peace” is such a cliche, such an easy reach, and doesn’t do some of our more fiery and magnetic personalities a service. More rest isn’t what they need, they’re too lively. But Maradona does. From carrying a club or two, a country, the burdens placed on him by others and himself, his constant health battles because of that, and the constant furor around him.
Kick your feet up, Diego.