“As a man I'm flesh and blood. I can be ignored, I can be destroyed. But as a symbol, as a symbol I can be incorruptible. I can be everlasting.” This encapsulates Diego Maradona. A man of imperfections and a man of many flaws. But above all, a genius and an enigma. He was a global citizen. An Argentine who belonged to everyone.
Maradona was a magnet, he attracted without differentiation. Fortunately, the genius stuck and unfortunately, so did the crazy. Despite all and even perhaps because of it all, he transcended football. Maradona transcended sport in all of its vast expanse. He became popular culture in his hometown and in the hometown of everyone else.
Maradona in Kolkata
The year was 1987. In a far away land, away from any of Maradona’s myriad stomping grounds, an elderly lady walked into a dingy corner shop. This was the festive season in Kolkata and all she could afford was one new garment for her 5-year-old grandson. She was a little hard of hearing and quickly aeging into lack comprehension. But full of love, she asked the shopkeeper, “One Aradhona please”.
Aradhona, in her local language, translates to prayer. The shopkeeper, as bemused as intrigued, pointed to his top. The venerable lady saw a football and nodded. It was a black t-shirt. And printed on it was the word, Maradona. And of course, a football. That top sold like hot cake that year. Those who could afford luxury, purchased it. Those who could barely afford necessity, sacrificed and purchased that same top. In a land hundreds of miles away. A land that had World Cup heroes of its own in a different sport.
That was the draw of Maradona. The man defied logic and common practice. On the pitch, he defied belief. Off the pitch, he defied common sense. But, such was his aura and so large was his personality, it was all forgiven. Lauded even. “When Diego scored that second goal against us, I felt like applauding. I’d never felt like that before, but it’s true… and not just because it was such an important game. It was impossible to score such a beautiful goal.”
Hand of God or God himself?
Gary Lineker was, of course, talking about the best goal of last century. Maradona’s wonder goal. One that left six English men and jaws of an entire world population on the floor. What preceded that is a talking point of far greater significance than football. In pure footballing terms, it was an act of cheating and blatant wrongdoing. Yet, it is that very moment that elevated a diminutive man to the status of God. Or maybe, God himself planned it. Greater still, was he God himself?
The quarterfinal game between Argentina and England was unlike any other. Because, it was set in the backdrop of political tension. Atleast for the Argentines it was. Maradona had commented in the pre-match interviews that football was separate from politics. But, self-admittedly, all he and his teammates thought about was the suffering of their people back home. A tale told through times of tyrannical yore. Theirs was a game built in defiance of the English. The sprawling, lush vast expanses of green in England. In Argentina, that was replaced by the small, crowded slums. Here, manoeuvre was a skill borne out of necessity and not developed in fashion.
Is handball cheating? What is cheating? Is it cheating if you get away with it or is it if you get caught? To the Argentines, Maradona’s handball goal against England was only but a tiny portion of justice. Perhaps even to all the world that faced English tyranny. It was not a goal against the English football team. It was who they represented – the British, the quasi-colonial power. Maradona had not forgotten the suffering of his people. He called it the “Hand of God” in arrogant brilliance perhaps. But, to the wider world who shared the excruciating pain of imperialism, his hand was truly divine. It is as though, an otherwise act of evil, had made him God.
Maradona as God
The godliness of Maradona was omnipresent. He is revered in Argentina. And prayed to in every other place. In Kolkata, a place he has visited only twice, Maradona is bestowed with unanimous worship. Every time he lands in the city, from policemen to ministers and footballers alike, everyone just wants to feel his feet. They look at him hands folded and eyes wide open. It is awe. It is disbelief. Yet, it is all very true. In Buenos Aires, there is a Church of Maradona. And a religion named after him, Iglesia Maradoniana. A fake penis of the man was put on display as a religious relic in a museum in the same city. It was subsequently stolen on a nationwide tour. Everyone wanted a piece of him.
Maradona himself was a boundless man. He could never be shackled. The limitations of commoners did not apply to his genius. When he did not have a ball, he juggled an orange. At times when an orange became luxury, he juggled a crumbled newspaper. When he got nothing else, he juggled a bunch of rugs. Limitless and free-spirited, Maradona wanted a piece of it all. And perhaps, that was his greatest undoing.
Diego and Maradona - two identities
“For Diego, I would go to the end of the world. But with Maradona, I wouldn’t take a step,” his fitness coach had once said. He was two people in one at the same time. Diego and Maradona. Beauty and beast. Seduction and scandal. Creator and kryptonite. Every week he would dance on the pitch. The audience would groove to his beat. His left foot, body feints, subtle touches, dizzying movements. Watching Maradona play was a transcending experience. He would take the onlooker to a world of make believe and make them believe.
But the other man in him caught up eventually. After a game of football came his evening of ethereal leaps. The boundless man he was. Cocaine, women, drugs and beyond. He had a son from an extra-marital affair which he admitted 29 years later. Injured reporters courtesy of shooting an air gun. Went on three-day cocaine tours and slept inside bathrooms as a weekly practice. It was as if he were suffering, living under the heavy halo of his own aura. It felt he needed his ills to forget this pain. He escaped through cocaine like the rest of the world experienced escapism through his football. And all this caught up with even the greatest ever.
Yet, he remains adored to the day. How has a man so flawed remained this universally revered? Because, as a man he was flesh and blood. He could be ignored, he could be destroyed. But as a symbol, as a symbol he stands incorruptible. He stands everlasting.