Diego Maradona died at 60, both more and less than expected.
It was not a sure thing that he would live this long, having serially cheated death due to drink, drugs and dissoluteness; his body was punished more off the pitch than on it. Still, it is not even 40 years since he soared and slithered, scintillating and sinister simultaneously, at the Estadio Azteca in Mexico City. Even if he had survived deep into his senectitude, June 22, 1986 would remain the supreme moment. For him and for soccer.
Every sport has them. The greatest moment. The 1972 Canada-Soviet hockey series. Jack Nicklaus at the 1986 Masters, when the greatest golfer of all time won his greatest victory on golf’s greatest course. The 1995 rugby world cup final in South Africa, when Nelson Mandela was the MVP — most valuable president. The 2004 American League Championship Series, when the Boston Red Sox vanquished 86 years of cursed futility by winning four games after losing the first three against the Yankees, something never done before or since in baseball.
Every sport has them. The greatest moment
Those moments happen when sport breaks through the boundaries of strength and speed and strategy to touch something of the human spirit. It happens in the life of a nation — Sidney Crosby in Vancouver 2010 — or the at the crossroads of history — Jesse Owens in Berlin 1936 — or in a far away place that in a potent mix of politics and culture fascinates the whole world — Muhammad Ali rumbling in the jungle in 1975.
But there is only one truly global sport, and Maradona provided its greatest moment in 1986. Not even a whole game actually, but just few minutes in the quarter-final game against England at the World Cup.
All that is sports, all that was Maradona, came together in those moments. First the mendacity, then the magnificence.
Maradona’s first goal in Argentina’s 2-1 defeat of England was accomplished by cheating; he punched the ball in with his hand, but faked using his head. Mockery followed his (literal) manipulation; he would say that it was the “hand of God” which guided the ball into the net.
The Argentina-England match, just four years after the Falklands War, already was heavy with history. The deception of the illicit goal poisoned matters further.
Minutes later though, from one extreme to another, in a sort of summary of Maradona’s triumphant and tortured life, came the most beautiful goal in the history of the beautiful game. From midfield Maradona launched a solo run that took 11 seconds, 44 strides, 11 touches — all with his magical left foot — and scored what became known as the “goal of the century.” If God himself had been on the pitch, it could not have been any more marvellous.
“(Maradona) touched the sky with his hands but never took his feet off the ground,” Argentine President Alberto Fernández said on Wednesday. Unwittingly, he could have been referring to the twin goals of Mexico 1986, hands and feet both.
Maradona wore number 10, and with the “D” from Diego, it was a short step to a nickname, “D-10-s,” Dios, God in Spanish. Years later, when he launched a nighttime TV show in Argentina, it was billed as “God comes to TV.”
There was very little of the divine about Maradona. Leave aside the sins of the flesh. Weakness, especially in the discipline of the appetites, is not uncommon in grand personalities. In any case, while sins of the flesh remain just that, there are worse corruptions, as Dante taught us seven centuries ago.
Maradona, even while stretching the bounds of sybaritic consumption, fancied himself as a champion of the poor. Yet he consorted with and supported the corrupt strongmen who have done so much to keep Latin America so much poorer than it should be. The saddest thing about the later Maradona’s body was not the bloated, wretched size, but the communist homage he rendered with tattoos of Fidel Castro and Che Guevara. The sins on the flesh were worse than the sins of the flesh.
Maradona lay in state in the Casa Rosada, the presidential palace in Buenos Aires. He was hymned as a symbol of his country, and so he was. Few countries, blessed with so much in natural and human resources, have squandered it so spectacularly.
The “goal of the century” is usually accompanied by the ecstatic commentary of Victor Hugo Morales, who instantly named it the “greatest play of all time.” He wept with joy on the air, concluding, “Thank God for football, for Maradona, for these tears.”
Maradona would bring tears aplenty, of joy and pain. Requiescat in pace.