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Adiós to Diego and adiós to Maradona

There is something perverse in a life that saw all of his dreams come true and in which he suffered the generosity of his destiny like no one else. It was the fatal path from his condition as a mere mortal to legend that divided him in two

Jorge Valdano embraces Maradona during the 1986 World Cup.
Jorge Valdano embraces Maradona during the 1986 World Cup.Getty
Jorge Valdano

Those who screw up their faces thinking about the last Maradona, the one who had problems walking and talking, who was seen hugging Nicolás Maduro of Venezuela, and living his life however he wanted, would do well to stop reading this farewell, which will embrace the genius and absolve the man. You won’t find a single reproach here, because the player had no defects and the man was a victim. Of whom? Of me or of you, for example, who no doubt praised him without mercy at some moment.

There is something perverse in a life that sees all of your dreams come true, and Diego suffered the generosity of his destiny like no one else. It was the fatal path from his condition as a mere mortal to a legend that divided him into two: on the one hand, Diego, on the other, Maradona. Fernando Signorini, his physical trainer, a sensitive and intelligent guy and perhaps the man who knew him best, used to say: “With Diego I would go to the ends of the Earth, but with Maradona not even to the corner.” Diego was just another product of the humble neighborhood in which he was born. Maradona was overtaken by an early fame. This glorification sparked a chain of consequences, the worst of which was the inevitable temptation to ascend to the height of his own legend every day. With an addictive personality like his own, that was fatal by necessity.

If football is universal, Maradona is too, because Maradona and soccer are now synonymous. But at the same time he was unmistakably Argentine, which explains the sentimental power that he has always had in our country and that gave him impunity. A man who, given his condition as genius, had no limits placed on him since his teenage years, and who, thanks to his origins, grew up proud of his class. For that reason, and also due to his power of representation, with Maradona the poor beat the rich, and so the unconditional support that he had from those down below was proportional to the mistrust that those from above had for him. The rich hate to lose. But even his worst enemies had to take their hats off in the face of his unprecedented footballing talent. There was no other option.

It didn’t matter which shirt he wore, he was a genius, he was Argentine, and that was enough to spark pride

Aged little more than 15, he began to compete for the post of god of soccer. He did so, what’s more, in a country that adopted him as a sentimental messiah, because in Argentina, football is a game that only reaches the brain after having passed through the heart. The fascination for the neighborhood art that Diego took to the stadiums transcended fandom. It didn’t matter which shirt he wore, he was a genius, he was Argentine, and that was enough to spark pride.

Given that it is his art that made him great, and not his life, let’s start there. There is the first image of Diego dominating the ball in a humble setting, concentrating like a bureaucrat and happy as a child, playing with the toy of his life. First his left foot and then his head don’t let it fall in what appears to be a genial conversation with that ball that still rebels against him. It is at the point of escaping, but Diego doesn’t let it, he subdues it as if he were taming it rather than dominating it. He is little more than 10 years old, and is already looking like a virtuoso, but the ball and Diego are still getting to know each other.

The love affair between the tamer and the ball grew over time until the point when watching Diego handle it was a spectacle in itself. When he was practicing, and just to give one example, he would shoot it up into the air with an effect that only he understood, and while the ball flew, Diego would do exercises as if he had forgotten that he had left it hanging in the air. But when the ball, already falling, reached him, he would look at it as if surprised, only to send it back up into the air with another effect and forget about it again for another moment. He knew exactly the time and the place of the re-encounter. Everything else was down to his millimetric precision. His infinite repertoire left you embarrassed.

Bilardo and Maradona embracing after the qualifiication match against Uruguay that enabled Argentina's national team to participate in the South Africa World Cup.
Bilardo and Maradona embracing after the qualifiication match against Uruguay that enabled Argentina's national team to participate in the South Africa World Cup.DIARIO OLÉ

We were in Berlin waiting for a game with Argentina and Bilardo insisted on the need to refine our technique, repeating time and again that an Argentine player had to live with the ball by his feet. “Morning, noon and night, always with the ball.” He said the same for days. With that in mind, at lunchtime Diego would leave his room dominating a ball, he would take an elevator and carry on doing tricks, he would get to the dining room, sit down and the ball would stay up in the air while he was nibbling at the bread. Bilardo entered, he saw him, and with a smile from ear to ear, he swelled with pride. “See? That’s why he is Maradona.” This anecdote, which I have always told with a smile, today has an inevitable sadness to it.

The bravura that he achieved with the ball, and that we all admired, took him to a concept of the game where perfection became a habit. With that owl-like glance from the corners of his eyes, with the noble elegance of a magician to deceive, and the power of a 4x4 to escape, and with a Napoleonic personality to face the great battles…

He was never happier than when he was on the pitch. It was there that he would have a date with the love of his life, the ball. But he also had a spectacular command of the stage, as if he didn’t feel part of a team but was on his own. Like a rock star driving the crowd wild rather than a football player. He incorporated the confidence that he had with the ball and the abusive superiority of his play into his mentality until the fateful day when his character outweighed the person. He was different, he felt different, and he acted different.

He was never happier than when he was on the pitch. It was there that he would have a date with the love of his life, the ball

At some point in the previous reflections I spoke about two concepts that could seem offensive if misinterpreted, and that it would be convenient to clarify. The first, when I said that he was more of a singer than a soccer player. I wrote that image to praise the soloist, but never to downgrade the football player. He always had, and he died with, the soul of a soccer player. The second clarification is about his condition as a “soloist.” He stood out from the team with an incomparable shine, but not only did he feel a part of it, he was also very generous with his teammates. The happiness that he felt on the pitch made him supportive, brave, skillful to the point of being an exhibitionist and with a hunger to be competitive. For that reason, I’m convinced that his life was worth it just for having been able to gloriously tread those 100 by 70 meters.

As this memory also proposes to draw attention to the exaggerated life of Diego, we have to go to Naples, where in seven intense years that were more like a century, his football reached unknown dimensions for the club and were glorious for him too, but this is also where his life came off the rails. The pleasure and the pain, the light and the dark, the highest heights and the deepest depths. His health, which was soccer, and the illness that infected his life. No one I know took such a long and winding path.

A superman inhabited both the pitch and his life. On the pitch because, surrounded by normal players, he was stronger than the referees, than the power of the north, than the super-Milan of Sacchi and the poor history of Naples. It was him against the world. And he won. At the 1986 World Cup, where he played in a state of grace, his ingenuity reached its highest heights the day that he beat England. As Homer did with his Ulysses, it is convenient to not use external descriptions and to save for Diego the same adjectives as those for the hero of the Odyssey. “Astute,” “skillful,” “accurate,” “of many tricks.” Diego’s football was a thing of beauty, creativity, pride, masculinity, and was quintessentially Argentine, with similar amounts of brilliance and ability. Diego scored one stratospheric goal and another that was deceitful. Here is the best use of that phrase that we apply in occasions that are less timely than this one: he could do no wrong.

A superman inhabited his life too because, while Jesus Christ was resurrected the third day, something that is not simple, Maradona was brought back at least three times, which is also not easy. He was as strong physically as was his footballing brilliance. In fact, all of his excesses were an attack against the sport, but even so, they didn’t manage to detract from his massive talent, even though on occasion he would play in alarming conditions.

Different types of emotion fit within admiration and sorrow. This week, even the ball – the most communal toy that exists – will feel more alone and will cry heartbroken for its master. All of those who love authentic football will cry with it for Maradona. And those of us who knew him personally will cry even more for that Diego who, in recent times, had almost disappeared under the weight of his legend and his excessive life. Adiós, great captain.

English version by Simon Hunter.

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