Here’s a not-so-closely-guarded secret: back in my junior college days in California, in 1986, I wagged classes – save for my English and creative writing ones – so I could escape to a local British-style pub to watch games from the 1986 World Cup in Mexico.
And mainly, to witness Diego Maradona’s genius for Argentina.
And I have no regrets about that whatsoever. It was so very worth it.
I made up the class credits in succeeding terms, but viewing World Cup games in that pub – and that involving Maradona in particular – gave me a different type of education that I’ll never forget.
Diego Maradona died this morning (Australian time), aged 60, from a heart attack resulting from complications of recent brain surgery, where a blood clot was recently found.
Yes, his death – as sad as it is to hear of his passing – seems fitting for his life itself: brilliance on the pitch, a tragically flawed persona off of it, arguably of Shakespearean proportions.
What I saw on the big screens via satellite in that pub of Maradona was something special.
His uncanny skills, doing anything to win – yes, even the infamous “Hand Of God” goal, but also that breathtaking solo run for a legitimate goal minutes later against England – and willing his team to victory, even carrying the weight of expectation of an entire nation on his shoulders, and delivering beyond those expectations to capture a maiden World Cup for Argentina.
That World Cup had brought invaluable joy to Argentina’s people, just a few years removed from the realities of military dictatorships, martial law, dissidents, and the Falklands War, and a “Maradona mania” was at the centre of all of that.
In fact, I felt then, and maintain these feelings now, that no single player in any sport has controlled the outcome of a single championship tournament the way Diego Armando Maradona did for Argentina in 1986.
What did I learn from viewing his games in the pub? Besides developing a lifelong love for British ales and bangers and mash?
That his running, his touch, with any part of his feet or the rest of his body, his dribbles and the deft moves to run past and get around defenders, and his uncanny ability to find the goal and score some very memorable goals would be so awe-inspiring, that memories such as those can last forever.
And that’s to an American who grew up to love the game. Imagine how the people of Argentina felt.
When replaying his goals from that tournament, and if the play-by-play calls are available, I always prefer the Spanish-language versions of them. (Nevermind the fact I grew up on watching calls like those, long before the days of multiple soccer channels for choice, and so on.) And especially of that spellbinding, legendary second goal against England, from that magical first touch and the turn, up the Estadio Azteca pitch, onwards – and don’t even bother trying to translate the Argentine call from the native Spanish, just enjoy it for all of its idiomatic beauty.
And let it bring tears of joy to your eyes.
It was the perfect soundtrack for that goal, that match, and that tournament, and arguably, his entire footballing career.
And even leading Italian Serie A club Napoli to its first league title a year later, that was a sight to behold as well (also via foreign-language television in the Bay Area, this time in Italian). Maradona still holds the club record for career goals in a Napoli sky-blue shirt, but that’s where his life’s adult tragedies began, in Italy’s southern provinces.
Drugs, drinks, and parties – fair to say he fell in with a bad crowd connected to Napoli. Sadly, he never fully recovered from those, and battled those addictions for the rest of his life. Such was reflected in his relative petulance for Argentina in Italia’90 and his halted revival with Los Albacestes at USA’94.
But Maradona was also noted for his eccentricities at any distance off the pitch as he was heralded for his brilliance on it.
In my native San Jose, before his World Cup heroics for Argentina but just after his then-world record transfer to Napoli from Barcelona, I got to witness Maradona’s genius up close, just a few rows from the front, when Napoli took on Mexico’s UNAM Pumas in a friendly at Spartan Stadium in April of 1985 – complete with a few pitch invaders amid some very lax security.
Yes, I saw all the aforementioned brilliance in Maradona’s skill sets being showcased, but his eccentricities ahead of the match were displayed as well.
As he got off a plane at San Jose International airport, complete with an entourage, in the days leading up to the friendly, his management within that entourage had told the Bay Area’s media that only one interview would be done with Maradona.
“¡Diego! ¿Cómo estás?” hollered one voice from the area’s Hispanic media enclave when Maradona and that entourage were going through the airport.
“¡Muy bien! ¿Y usted?” Maradona called back in his native tongue.
That was enough, even via the most basic of Spanish-language exchanges, for the entourage to declare that to be the interview.
For all of his moments on the pitch, sublime skills and all, and off it, and even in his brief spells on various touchlines as a coach or manager, there never will be another Diego Armando Maradona.
He was definitely one of a kind. And that is how he shall be remembered.
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