Friday, November 27, 2020

In sun and shadow Maradona leaves the field

DIEGO'S WAKE SUMMED UP THE MAN AND HIS NATION

"Argentina would not let the old god die, for there is no one and nothing that can replace him." 

- David Goldblatt, The Ball is Round.

Singing and dancing, tantrums and tear gas - the day after Diego Maradona died was the perfect metaphor.

A raucous day in Buenos Aires left no one in any doubt how much the man meant to a country forever caught in a tango of pain and passion.

Fans go wild.
Picture from Clarin.com

Wakes are not sombre affairs in Catholic countries. I have been to Irish ones lasting a week where you could be forgiven for thinking a party was in progress. 

The government had announced three days of mourning in honour of the nation's greatest son but when it came time to hand the coffin over respectfully to his family for burial, the people did not want to let their Diego go. 

Don't cry for me, Argentina? No, please rage against the dying of the light, he seemed to be shouting from the other side. 

Riot police and an armed escort were needed to take the coffin to the tranquillity of a humble interment in front of no more than 30 people, where the national hero was calmly laid to rest beside his parents.

The Bella Vista garden, 35 km out of Buenos Aires, will surely now become a global shrine, Argentina's very own Graceland. 

That is another football pilgrimage to make. I have been on three, tracing Johan Cruyff's roots near Ajax's old De Meer stadium, finding George Best's family house in East Belfast and locating Matthias Sindelaar's grave in elegant Vienna. I even popped into the hotel in Bogota where Bobby Moore was arrested for stealing a bracelet. Sacred sites matter to any faith.

As I type, Argentina is still drowning in the news of Diego's demise, with polémicas (arguments) raging over the medical attention in his final days and the government's handling of the wake. Social distancing in a pandemic went to pot of course as the crowds surged in for a once in a lifetime event.

Then there is the inevitable family scrap over the pieces, even though Maradona promised to donate his riches to good causes only days before his death. When somebody dies the fallout is rarely pretty or smooth but when it is a king, the stages of grief are just magnified and spread widely.

Maradona

For now his native country is still dazed and confused, trying to mark a life like no other. Football is often dubbed a religion but to South American nations it matters more than in most places and having grown up in parallel to their nations, it has taken on a particularly patriotic character.

I would like to think my own country, the inventor of football and home of the richest league, is the epicentre, but England cannot hold a candle to the utter fervour stoked when a South American team has a big match. 

Unlike the USA, Latin nations look out to the world, but have shorter histories, fewer heroes, fewer legends and less stature on the global stage, unless the World Cup is on. Unlike Asian nations, their economies and standards of living are not advancing rapidly either.

So they fall back on their football to ease their sorrow and no one lived a life of private grief and football passion like Diego Maradona did.

Against Latin America's eternal trail of tears, which Maradona increasingly referenced in his later years in high-profile meetings with Fidel Castro, Hugo Chavez and Pope Francis, sport is the best balm and reason to be cheerful.

He donned the Robin Hood cape in his autobiography "El Diego," explaining his life as one long struggle against Goliath, but he skirted around his self-destructive habits. Nevertheless, Argentinians are content to consider him the people's champion, in the same way they overlook the faults of Che Guevara or Eva Peron.

In short, football just matters more over there and Maradona was Argentine football's king.

The pibe from the barrios was a Latin American idol like no other. "Victim, knight, defiant rebel, foul-mouthed aggressor - only Diego Maradona could claim to be all four in one statement," wrote Jimmy Burns in his biography, Hand of God.

Maradona excused his infamous punch by attributing it to the viveza (craftiness) he said Latin Americans innately possessed. There is some truth in this and in his belief that the fair play of English footballers allowed him to dance through them in '86 for his 'goal of the century', where more cynical cultures would have scythed him down.

The Diego and the Maradona, a double-life of professional triumph and private tragedy is a nice encapsulation of the dichotomy of man (body and soul), but some superstars - Pele and Lionel Messi spring to mind, have not gone down the George Best route. Not every angel has a dirty face.

The young Maradona was a prodigy who wowed the 1979 World Youth Championship in Japan and dazzled for Argentinos Juniors and Boca Juniors long ago, showing no signs of the character flaws with which we so readily tag him now. His dark side seemed to emerge as he struggled with fame through bad luck and circumstance, rather than personal design or nature.

 

While feted as a saviour in impoverished Naples, he was also soon surrounded by the worst crowd - the Giuliano clan of the Camorra made a beeline for him and embedded him in their grasp in the same sickening way Pablo Escobar polluted Colombian football a decade later.

But although he was known for falling into a mire of drink, drugs, sex and organised crime at Napoli, Maradona had gone off the rails already at Barcelona, indulging in cocaine and wilder than wild night life, which he explained as youthful partying. 

Was it the pressure of being a 22 year-old at a superclub with the world at your feet, the failure of family to rein him in or his employers' lack of duty of care? He had been pumped with performance-enhancing drugs since his youth by coaches worried about his small frame so was no stranger to stimulants.

The infamous tackle by Andoni Goikoetxea meant he needed an outsized left boot and cortisone jabs for the rest of his career and the often brutal tackling he took as a ball magician may have pushed him towards painkillers of any sort. The 1984 Copa del Rey brawl with Athletic Bilbao, his last time in a Barça shirt, was merely emblematic of the war on the pitch he always found himself hurled into.

The huge entourage of worshippers he acquired in Italy and Argentina may have been a respite for him after the on-field battles but in the end proved at least as damaging as comforting. Surrounded by an army of yes men and women and without a Roman to whisper in his ear 'Remember thou art mortal', Maradona slipped.

His rollercoaster life has certainly supercharged a nation's emotions but in which direction it is not clear. Can football ever be more than a placebo when it comes to real problems?

"The Maradona country lights up an illusion one day and the next day brings shame upon itself," wrote Fernando Gonzalez, editor of Clarin, in response to today's riots. Gonzalez went on to say the proper way to honour their idol is to eliminate the nation's inequality.

Maradona has joined Che and Evita as the third great Argentine icon, like them, flawed and destructive, adored and idolised forever.

The man of the people brought joy to millions but cut a deeply melancholic figure for years, palpably assailed by his demons and suffering acute physical pain, interspersed with childish joy, Latin warmth and humour extended to those close to him. 

Maradona

His love of the game never left him and beyond his immediate family, remained his true oxygen. He died employed in football and former teammate Ossie Ardiles believed it was the lack of football action during lockdown which was responsible for his speedy demise.

A football-mad nation is now left to contemplate the body of their saviour and where it leaves them as a people.

Chilean writer Eduardo Galeano wrote in his classic 'Football in Sun and Shadow' of the irreplaceable man:

"When Maradona was finally thrown out of the '94 World Cup, football lost its most strident rebel...uncontrollable when he speaks, but much more so when he plays...Maradona was the best of the best...By night he slept with his arms around the ball and by day he performed miracles with it."

The king really is dead now, but long live Argentina and football.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

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