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Maradona: footballer, enigma & legend forever

Posted: Nov 25, 2020

Diego Armando Maradona. A true genius. A man with no bounds. A man whose name reached every nook and every corner of the world. You may not have watched him play. You may have never watched a football game. But the name Maradona is evergreen. It cuts across generations. His name was pop culture then, is pop culture now and will be pop culture forever.

Football is amazing. It brings together people from different backgrounds in fervent support, and creates squabbles amongst friends and family. But no one can deny its allure. Millions tune in to games. Paragraphs and paragraphs of discourse written about it.

Then, there are those twinkle-toed footballers. Gliding through their opponents like the wind. From banging in goals, to dictating the play, or stopping it. Football has produced legends throughout time, players so wonderful that their brilliance seems to defy odds. It's a privilege to be alive during an era where one the football's legends are in action.

Some legends, we have the privilege to watch from the stadiums or on our television screens. Some legends, we only hear about, and watch in wonder their footage of their playing days.

Born in 1960, passed away in the wretched year 2020. In between, Diego Maradona enthralled the world with the magic of football. Weaving through the defences, leaving opposing players for dead, and rifling the back of the net with consistency, Maradona held the world in awe.

I never saw him in action. His final professional game was on October 25, 1997. That was more than a year before I was born. One of my earliest memories of watching football that I retain, is the 2006 World Cup final. But even before that, I had heard of the 'Hand of God'. It was like one of those legends, passed on through the generations: the goal, which eventually led to a World Cup title for Argentina. "Now I can say what I couldn't at that moment, what I defined at that time as "The Hand of God". What a hand of God, it was the hand of Diego!"

Indeed it was. Those were days without the cutting edge technology of today, and the referees hardly had the best view. 20 centimetres shorter than England goalkeeper Peter Shilton, Maradona jumped with his left arm outstretched. The rest, as they say, is history.  Alejandro Ojeda Carbajal immortalised the moment, his now famous photograph taken at the instant the ball touched his hand. "A little with his head, and a little with the hand of God" as Maradona would later say, leading to the now well-known phrase.

Intriguingly, it wasn't his only handball incident at the World Cup. Four years later, he would repeat the trick against USSR, this time to keep the ball out of the Argentine goal. once again, it went unnoticed. "Hand of God" became an oft-used phrase, that would be brought out again when Thierry Henry would knock out Ireland with a handled assist. Even beyond the avid football fans, Diego Maradona and his Hand, are well-known.

Only Maradona could follow up football's most controversial strike with the Goal of the Century, beating five England players on his way to the goal. Four minutes after the Hand of God goal, he would take the ball in his own half and slalom past any English player who sought to stop his advance. He finished it off by selling Shilton a dummy and slotting the ball into the net. It's called one of the best individual goals ever scored, and with good reason. The quality, and the technique, were unrivalled, and any goal ever since would ultimately fall short of the mark set by Maradona here. The 1986 World Cup encounter is probably the most famous (and infamous) football match in history.

Off-field problems threatened his legacy and career, but his contributions will remain etched in memory. His international career ended rather unceremoniously, in the cloud of a failed drug test. He would only play two games in the 1994 World Cup, bringing down the curtains on a career spanning 17 years in which he scored 34 goals in 91 games. Argentina's 1986 title will forever belong to him, however.

He came from the streets of Argentina, where the streets and small spaces available for games was in stark contrast to the sprawling fields of England. He crafted for himself a technique to navigate those tight spaces. And he showed that on the world stage. He had a successful club career as well, playing for the likes of Boca Juniors and Barcelona. But Napoli is where his most enduring legacy was built. He led Napoli to their first ever Serie title in 1987, and won it again in 1990. He also led them to UEFA Cup victory. For years, he was their top goalscorer, until Marek Hamsik broke that record, and his number 10 jersey was officially retired.

As always, Diego was a feisty man, even in his coaching stint. Who can forget his maverick stints in charge of the Argentina national team? He took charge back in 2008, and ended with Argentina being knocked out the 2010 World Cup by Germany. He made the headlines even when he coached sides in the UAE and lower league clubs in Argentina and Mexico.

I hail from Kolkata, on the eastern side of India. In a generally cricket-frenzied country, Kolkata's love for football has for years been an outlier. At the height of Maradona's brilliance, the city would revel in his performances. His goals, Argentina's victories, celebrated as if their own. Traditionally, Brazil and Argentina have been the most ardently supported clubs in the city. The generation of Maradona remembers his mastery, and I have heard his praises from them. Everyone who watched him play will mourn the loss of the great entertainer. Most of Kolkata will mourn him, especially the generation that grew up with him. For us, who never had that privilege, it's the legacy passed down and the hundreds of videos and compilations that have acquainted us with his footwork.

Diego Armando Maradona is one of the greatest footballers the world has ever seen. For someone like me, who is in love with every aspect of football, this is a heavy blow. Not just football, but sports in itself has lost a star.

Oh Diego, you were wonderful. Thank you, for everything.