independent– In the minutes before the 1990 World Cup opening game, when the late Diego Maradona was at the very peak of his fame as the game’s greatest player, there’s a little anecdote that illustrates just how much that really meant.
Alphonse Yombi and Roger Feutmba of Cameroon saw him in the tunnel of the San Siro and immediately started crying. They were overwhelmed by the idea of being on the same pitch as him.
This was the aura he had, and the reverence he was afforded. He was an almost fantastical figure at that time, because of his fantastic talent.
Few players, to quote the great Argentine commentator Victor Hugo Morales, have seemed so “otherworldly”. Few sports figures have so many different incarnations.
Maradona meant so many different things to so many different people, above all to the populations of Argentina and Naples.
There, after the glories of the 1986 World Cup and two Italian titles, he was national hero and folk hero, to the point of sainthood. A god.
Argentina have announced three days of national mourning. Napoli want to name their stadium after him. The scenes of emotion will be sights to behold, and experience – an intensity of feeling that only Maradona’s football could inspire. In terms of social impact, it is possibly only Muhammad Ali that can compare as a sports figure.
These same three days will inspire a lot of discussion about the rest of Maradona’s incarnations, that were much more complicated than the exhilarating liberty with which he ran with the ball. There were the drugs, some of the attitudes, the pressure of expectation, the associations with the Camorra, the problematic personal life, as well as the relationship with his son.
Above all, though, there was Maradona the footballer – perhaps the greatest who ever lived. That is a debate that will itself intensify over the next few days and weeks, but ultimately comes down to subjectives and how you feel.
That is also what matters most about Maradona’s football. It was the way he made you feel when watching him.
Whatever about being the greatest of all time, there have been so few players who looked as natural with a football, as if it was a natural extension of them.
It meant he flowed with the ball like no one else, moved like no one else. For some of those runs in the 1986 World Cup and that time at Napoli – made all the more incredible by bad pitches and worse tackling – the ball seemed to impossibly and imperceptibly stay so close to him. It was hard to believe, and more difficult to stop. Maradona just went, bending the ball and the game to his will. That’s what he meant most.
He represented the freedom of football. He represented what it allowed you to do, as well as the level the game could be taken to.
It was awe-inspiring. Invigorating. For anyone growing up in the 80s or early 90s, he was the most exotic sporting figure you could imagine. This is what he did. He fired the imagination.
This sense of freedom was only deepened by Maradona’s own impoverished background, and how he was often somewhat disparagingly described as the urchin who rose out of the Buenos Aires slum. This was almost literal, given the story about how he fell into a cesspit as a toddler following a ball.
These are just more images that form the story of Maradona, but the one that stands out most is that picture of him – in that brilliantly coloured Argentina home jersey – striding forward with the ball at his feet.
Just as there was more to his legacy, there was also so much more to his game.
For all that the joyously childlike skill of dribbling formed the core of his play, it was only one part of what was perhaps the most complete player in history.
It is telling that the 1986 World Cup final against West Germany was won not by a run, but a divinely insightful through ball out of almost nothing. With the game in the balance and the ball bouncing about a rugged centre circle, Maradona flicked it forward to release Jorge Burruchaga for the fateful final goal. The touch was almost as innocuous as it was inventive and immortal.
That entire Mexico 86 tournament was Maradona’s magnum opus, and probably the last – and maybe only – time that one player has so singularly dominated and defined a World Cup.
This will always elevate his legacy, and last as his gold-standard achievement against which everyone else is measured, but what marked his wider career was the way he elevated Napoli.
Just as that World Cup came in a different era of international football, when the World Cup truly represented the pinnacle of the sport, his time in Serie A came in a different era of club football.
There wasn’t the same collection of talent or financial disparity. It is almost unthinkable now that the world’s greatest player would go to an unfashionable provincial club that had never previously won a league title.
In four years with Maradona at his best, they’d won two, and it could have been more.
The associations with the Camorra and just how much influence they had on him and the club were another complication of his career, but almost fit the darker edges that it undoubtedly had.
So much of this came together in his masterpiece, the 1986 quarter-final against England.
In the 51st minute, he showed one side of his game, by deceiving the referee and so many others by rising to punch the ball into the net. Immediately after the game, Maradona had the sheer bravura to immortally describe it as ‘The Hand of God’. The sheer impudence of that was almost greater than what was to follow. Others – not least Peter Shilton and most of England – called it cheating.
Maradona always felt it was the street wisdom that was part of football and defined his own game as much as his talent. He was shameless about it.
That was perhaps because, in the 55th minute, he showed he didn’t need to cheat at all. Maradona went and scored perhaps the greatest goal of all time. He just went. The memory is of Maradona beating five England players, but the true ingenuity of the goal is that he didn’t really beat any of them. The threat of his trickery was enough.
It was a goal of so many dimensions and such inspiration that Bank of England governor Mervyn King offered the following insight from an economist’s perspective.
“The truly remarkable thing … is that Maradona ran virtually in a straight line. How can you beat five players by running in a straight line? The answer is English players reacted to what they expected Maradona to do – run left or right – rather than what he actually did.”
Almost as memorable was what was said. As Maradona and his Argentine teammates released levels of joy on a par with the level of the goal, Morales came out with words in the commentary box that feel just as apt today.
“Always Maradona! Genius! Genius! I want to cry! Dear God, long live football! It is to cry! I’m sorry! What planet did you come from!? Thank God, for football, for Maradona, for tears.”
The last word, however, should go to the man himself. In Clarin’s deeply moving obituary of Maradona, they report what he said in 2005, when asked what his epitaph might be.
“Thank you for having played football, because it’s the sport that gives me greatest joy, the most freedom, and it is like touching the sky with your hands. Thanks to the ball, thank you to football.”
There are many images of incarnations of Maradona. The one that lasts is this folk hero, youthful and triumphant, joyously running with the ball.