Diego Maradona and the Glory of a Nation

Diego Maradona
Diego Maradona holding the FIFA World Cup trophy. PHOTO CREDIT: Unknown Author//Wikimedia Commons

The cover for the Nov. 26 printing of the French sports newspaper L’Equipe was simple: A photo of Diego Maradona in his prime. He was decked in the white and blue of the Argentinian National Football Team, beside the words “God is Dead.” 

It’s a fitting front page for any paper that came out one day after Argentina’s most celebrated athlete died of a heart attack in his Buenos Aires home at 60 years old. Maradona transcended sports. So, it’s only right that his passing be conveyed with philosophical grandeur. Hell, he’s the center of worship for an actual church. But a lot of people on this Earth knew him as a guy who kicked a ball around. It takes the same sweeping perspective that brought us the term “God is Dead” in the first place to understand why he was so, so much more than that. 

The central conceit of society is that human beings can make a better go of life when they work in groups. This world is a hard, lonely place, surviving it is far from a foregone conclusion. So we tilled the fields in groups. We got so good at farming that some people didn’t have to farm. Instead, they devoted themselves to pottery, carpentry, trade and art. In this way we built and evolved.

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But hidden in that deal for civilization, writhing between the letters in the social contract, were the demons that would come to define our years on this planet just as much as our penchant for cooperation. Somewhere along the line, some of the people who controlled the food made themselves kings on threat of starvation. Packed into cities, they could deal with the people who resisted, often violently. Suddenly conflict wasn’t nomads chucking rocks at one another by the watering hole. It was legions of soldiers laying waste to everything their enemies had ever known. This was the birth of war, repression and domination.

There are few places where those demons got a better run of the show than the Argentina of Maradona’s adolescence.

Argentina’s government for most of the Cold War was a series of coups with a few years of relative stability sprinkled in. The conservative push against President Juan Peron’s brand of governance led to military juntas whose repressive cruelty cast a shadow over the nation for a generation. By the end of the 1976-83 Dirty War, the government and its right-wing death squads disappeared about 30,000 people, yanking dissidents off the streets and subjecting them to almost unimaginable torture. The journalist Rodolfo Walsh laid bare those methods in a 1977 open letter. That was published a day before he himself was also disappeared. 

“You have regressed to periods when victims’ joints and internal organs were operated on directly, only now you use surgical and pharmacological aids that the old executioners did not have at their disposal,” Walsh wrote. “The rack, the drill, skinning alive and the saw of the medieval Inquisition reappear in testimonies alongside the picana and waterboarding, the blowtorch of today.”

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This final Argentinian junta passed into history in 1983. Its end was not the result of some glorious uprising. Instead it shrugged off its power in a moment of disgrace. Argentina’s withering dictatorship had launched a last-ditch effort to win some nationalistic mandate by asserting Argentinian sovereignty over the nearby Malvinas Islands, which the British had claimed on and off as a part of their empire since the heyday of the Spanish Empire. The resulting Falklands War saw 3 times as many Argentinian dead as British in a decisive victory for the colonial power. The Malvinas were still out of reach, the Europeans still dominant. When democracy returned to Argentina in the resulting protests, it came in shame, not triumph. 

However, the last battle of the Falklands War wasn’t fought in 1982 between the dreadnought-wielding forces of evil. It was fought in 1986 in Mexico. 

Diego Maradona fought it. 

Maradona grew up in the shantytowns at the edge of Buenos Aires. He was the son of a Guaraní father and an Italian mother. At 8 years old, he appeared on the pitch at tryouts for Los Cebollitas, a youth squad of soccer club Argentinos Juniors. Maradona’s talent was so incredible that youth coach Francisco Cornejo asked for his ID. Cornejo couldn’t believe a grade schooler could do the things Maradona was doing to a soccer ball. But Maradona was really only 8 years old, and when he joined the squad, he wound up leading them on an unfathomable 136-match unbeaten streak. It didn’t take long for the phenom to turn pro, Maradona signed his first contract at 15 years old.

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Maradona left a powerful legacy at every club he graced for the next decade and a half. He’s the most famous Argentinos Juniors player of all time by orders of magnitude. He laid waste to every opponent he faces in the last two years of his first stint in Argentinian football. Then, Maradona went on to win another title with Boca Juniors. 

In 1982, the Argentinian left his home country and transferred to Barcelona for a world-record fee. He shined for Barca when he saw the field, but sickness and injury marred his time at the club. Maradona’s most notable injury came when he suffered a broken ankle thanks to Athletic Bilbao defender Andoni Goikoetxea. Goikoetxea’s attempt at a tackle is still one of the most brutal fouls in the history of Spanish soccer. (Do not click that link) 

Despite early fears the injury could derail his career completely, Maradona was only out 3 months. The next time he faced off against Bilbao, the notoriously physical team kept beating him with hard fouls and racist taunts aimed at his indigenous ancestry. In a fashion befitting his legend, the 5’5” Maradona responded by picking a fight with the entire team. While the king of Spain himself watched from the stands, Maradona knocked one guy out cold with a flying knee. 

That game against Bilbao would, perhaps not coincidentally, be Maradona’s last match for Barcelona. Next season, Barcelona transferred him to Italian club Napoli for another world-record fee. Maradona’s worsening cocaine addiction began to seriously hamper his game in Naples. But he still played well enough that the club retired the number 10 in his honor. 

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Teams rarely retire numbers in soccer. When they are, it’s usually in memory of a player who passed during their time with the team. Nobody retires 10, not unless some poor dude got pressed through a meat grinder. Napoli retired 10 for Maradona. 

But Diego Maradona’s club accolades are dwarves compared to the legacy of his performance for Argentina in the 1986 World Cup. And there is perhaps no performance in the history of sports that equals the one he put together in the quarterfinals against England. 

That match was the 1st between the 2 nations since the ignominious clash in the Falklands.

While Argentina was beginning its climb out of the darkness, the English were 7 years into the neoliberalization that marked Margaret Thatcher’s tenure as prime minister. The Falklands itself had been a key factor in securing Thatcher’s re-election. The brutal economics of her term had seen unemployment skyrocket. When the crisis came, it came at a point where it looked like the Thatcher government would fall apart. But with an election to win, Thatcher ignored the pleas of her allies to enter peace talks and instead decided to steam warships off to some islands 8,000 miles from London. What came next was a tragedy in Argentina. To Thatcher, however, the decisive UK military victory cemented her status as the Iron Lady, and propelled her to popularity at home. 900 dead, to her, would be a confidence boost for the rest of her life. 

But, as the clock ticked in Mexico City that June afternoon, something entirely different played out. 

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Argentina came out firing that match. This team from a shaking country, held together by a man with a drug problem and wearing uniforms they bought off the street 3 days ago, was dominating. By the half, Argentina had a sizable advantage in possession, and were firmly in control of the pace of play. Still, England goalkeeper Peter Shilton kept fighting off shots to keep the game tied. There was a chance to write history—to right history—on the pitch, but it would all be for nothing if Argentina couldn’t break through the Thatcherite defense.

And then, all at once, he did it. 

Six minutes into the second half, Maradona made a pass to forward Jorge Valdano at the edge of the penalty box. The ball came in at the advancing Valdano’s back, and he couldn’t manage to field it cleanly with his momentum carrying him the other way. After a wayward dribble, England midfielder Steve Hodge got a chance to kick it away, but misplayed the ball back towards the center of the box, right towards Maradona. Shilton charged out in a vain attempt to deny the shot, but Maradona guided the ball into the back of the net for the 1st goal of the game with the flick of his…well…

From afar, and to the referee on the grass, it looked like a straightforward header. Video replay sorted out the confusion, but the play was never challenged, so the goal stood. Later that day, Maradona would say that goal was scored a bit with his head and a bit with the “mano de Dios” (hand of God).

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Most analysis of the so-called Hand of God goal will tell you Maradona snuck a deceptive handball past prying eyes for the score. But, actually, Maradona’s explanation was right. This goal was not some dirty trick; it was an act of providence. It was a sign from a Higher Power famously not invested in the outcome of sporting events that this victory should go to the long-suffering Argentinian people. And like the Penitent Thief before him, God chose Maradona as the flawed vehicle that made his will manifest. Peter Shilton will whine about the Hand of God like a balding Tory baby for the rest of his life, but he was helpless before divine intervention. 

For the impious, the legacy of this match might be debatable if it weren’t for what came next. Because four minutes after the Hand of God, Maradona made the greatest play in sports history.

He took the ball short of midfield, turned and wove his way through pressure from Peter Beardsley and Peter Reid. Then, Maradona bursted off to the right, racing downfield as defender Terry Butcher closed in to stop the run. Effortlessly, he shifted left and passed him. At the outskirts of the box, Terry Fenwick planted himself to squeeze Maradona off between him and Butcher, inevitably forcing Maradona to pass to teammate Jorge Burruchaga. But, Maradona just zipped through the narrow gap between the defenders, pressing the attack. Shilton set up once more to deny the attempt, but Maradona absolutely dicked on him, dropping the most capped English player of all time on his ass with an open net behind him. Then, ever the good sport, Maradona let Butcher tackle him as a consolation while he shot with his free foot. Net. Goal. Argentina 2-0.

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The whole thing took about 11 seconds, but that was enough time for Uruguayan commentator Victor Hugo Morales to lose his fucking mind on the air, barely able to comprehend what he’d seen. If anything in this world approaches the goal itself, it’s his commentary:

“He’s going to pass it to Diego, there’s Maradona with it, two men on him, Maradona steps on the ball, there goes down the right flank the genius of world football, he leaves the wing and he’s going to pass it to Burruchaga… Still Maradona! Genius! Genius! Genius! There, there, there, there, there, there! Goaaaaaaaal! Goaaaaaaal! I want to cry, oh holy God, long live football! What a goal! Diegoal! Maradona! It is to cry for, excuse me! Maradona, in a memorable run, in the best play of all times! Cosmic kite, which planet did you come from, to leave so many Englishmen behind, for the country to be a clenched fist crying for Argentina? Argentina 2, England 0! Diegoal, Diegoal, Diego Armando Maradona! Thank you, God, for football, for Maradona, for these tears, for this Argentina 2, England 0.”

The English made up for God, but they could not make up for Maradona. Argentina carried that victory, and providence carried them through the rest of the World Cup. When it was over, Maradona, the tournament’s best player, hoisted the Golden Ball. It was the perfect capstone to a performance that will never see an equal on this Earth.

And just like that, the rack and the blowtorch were gone, the shame and the terror were gone. The demons of civilization were supplanted. In their place was pride, camaraderie and glory. The old nation was dead, and a new Argentina came crashing out of the muck, all in that one shining moment. 

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Diego Maradona did that. He really did. This poor, tiny city boy who barely ever trained, dribbled 66 yards past the best defense Thatcher’s England could muster to light the spark that gave the phoenix life. That moment was apotheosis; he transitioned from mere mortal into the living embodiment of Argentina, the glory of a nation. 

Shit, let’s watch that again.

It’s so perfect it couldn’t possibly be real. Not here, not in this world of death squads and destabilization, ever teetering on the brink of nuclear apocalypse while we barrel our way towards planetary incineration. Nothing so righteous could ever happen to the keepers of the most prolific colonial empire the Earth had ever seen. It certainly couldn’t come from a nation that flexed off the chains of colonialism, from the son of peoples who had weathered invasion for nearly 500 years. It couldn’t ever be that this would be the cry of a people rising from a generation of unending terror and abuse from the powerful.

But it was. Diego Maradona made it that way. And the man who would go on to befriend Fidel Castro and tell the pope to sell his ceiling to feed poor children knew exactly what it all meant for his people. 

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“It was like beating a country, not a football team,” Maradona wrote in his 2000 autobiography. “Although we said before the game that football had nothing to do with the Malvinas War, we knew that a lot of Argentine kids had died there, that they had mowed us down like little birds. This was our revenge, it was … recovering a part of the Malvinas. We all said beforehand that we shouldn’t mix the two things, but that was a lie. A lie! We didn’t think of anything except that, like hell it was going to be just another game!”

There will be greatness in this world again. There will be athletes who can command legions by the grace of their bodies. There will be revolutionaries who cast the demons of civilization to the dark abyss of memory in the name of the people. There will be endless contradictions within us; kind souls plagued by sickness and Gods on Earth who rack up five-figure phone bills calling their families. 

But there will never, ever, be another Diego Maradona.

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