Allow me to tell you a short story, the story of a 20-year-old like so many others. It was 1996, I was in my second year of studying Economics and Diego Maradona, my idol, the reason I had fell in love with football in the first place, was a guest on a radio show. It was a radio show that asked for listener calls and allowed them to interact with guests. I dialled, and dialled, and dialled, knowing it was almost impossible to get through, until it happened. The miracle. A producer picked up the phone and told me to wait.
A few moments later, I was introducing myself and asking a question to Diego Maradona. My legs were shaking, but my voice wasn’t. I have no idea what I asked, it’s all blurry, but I do remember that he said how glad he was that someone had asked that question, before he started answering in a very passionate way. That was it. I quit Economics and soon moved to journalism. Maradona had given me one of his famous assists.
And here I am, 24 years later, feeling as devastated as every Argentinian does, unable to fully process the news, frozen watching thousands of fans queueing outside the presidential house to offer their last tribute to the myth.
Like me, each of us have a story about Diego, and how he influenced us, on and off the pitch. Maradona was not just part of our national identity, but had also emerged as a sacred crystal box that allowed us to go back in time every time we wanted. Everyone remembers what they were doing the day he scored the goals against England in 1986, or when he cursed the fans that were jeering the national anthem in 1990, or when he tested positive after Argentina-Nigeria in 1994.
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Maradona is a ticket to our past, a carrier for listening to voices and seeing faces that are now gone. It’s not just about watching impossible goals on YouTube. Nostalgia and time-travelling are the biggest gifts that Maradona gave to Argentina, more than any trophy. In every journey back awaits an immediate sense of comfort.
If someone chooses to discuss the Hand of God as the cornerstone of Maradona’s identity, then there’s nothing else to read here. That goal is just an appendix of the myth. It’s time to let it go.
When it comes to Diego, we’ve also learned to judge what needed to be judged, and to let go the controversial side of his personality. This is a very Argentinian way to put it, and goes against those that choose the patronising road— it was never about what Maradona was doing with his life, but what he was doing with ours instead.
In all these years, Maradona become part of our vocabulary. His surname is a noun, an adjective and a verb. Anyone can dribble, but only a few are able to maradonear. Argentinians, even millennials who did not see him play, have adopted some of his trademark expressions, impossible to translate into proper English without sounding ridiculous, but deeply rooted in our culture.
With his departure, a part of my past, a part of everybody’s past, is also dead. It died on Wednesday morning, in a gated community that none of us had heard of before, and that now will be part of our lives forever.
Barrio San Andres, Italia Avenue 4558. This is where our childhood ended.
It has been mere hours since Diego Maradona died and Argentina is experiencing the longest night it has ever had. Thousands decided not to sleep and headed to Casa Rosada for a final tribute. Earlier, hundreds were chanting outside the morgue or escorting the motorcade that carried his body to the undertaker.
Since his professional debut in 1976, at 15, the life of El Diez had always been cyclical. Up and downs, high and lows, excitement and depression, rants and compliments, all mixed up, all coming up suddenly, in furious eruptions of a seemingly never-ending metamorphosis.
Every time you thought you had decoded Maradona, a new version of him appeared, turning the old one into what looked like an obsolete, bad-copy of himself. In the blink of an eye, his friends and partners could become sworn-enemies, his words sailing in a sea of permanent contradictions. Yet if there’s one thing you could hardly accuse Maradona of was lacking authenticity. Every time he said something, it was because he was convinced of it, not because he was politically speculating.
We as a society were his first consumers, a rolling series broadcast live since 1976.
The number of anecdotes, of people whose lives changed after a divine intervention from Maradona, are endless. A former footballer remembers when he asked Diego to go to a charity match for someone who’d lost his legs in an accident. In the game, Diego gave him his jersey and told him: “My legs are your legs now”. It’s the same gesture Diego famously had with Gianfranco Zola, the talented youngster in the Napoli dressing room, one night in which he found the number 10 jersey waiting in his spot. Zola said it was a mistake. “It’s not a mistake", Diego corrected. "Today you will wear the number 10”. Maradona was always more generous with his own than he was harsh with his enemies.
“I’ve been up there, where very few people have been", he said in an interview a few years ago. "It’s a place that has no pressurisation. From above, you could see many mediocre people judging you. Up there, there is loneliness, there is coldness, but also there’s a heart that beats faster out of excitement. For having made things right, for being able to say to my mom, ‘look how far I went’. I only dreamed of buying her a house, and look…”.
In the last years, Diego retracted inside his own bubbles in football outposts, like Culiacan, until he was offered to manage Gimnasia. It was a homage from the football of his country, and every game was a tribute to his life. The more he coached, the better he looked. Until the pandemic made us lose track of him. To find out that he was depressed, that he felt lonely, that his family had no access to him, that his former teammates claimed someone was blocking their messages, was a blow.
A prisoner of his own circle, Diego had lost track of his life, and he was just a product used by someone else. Just as his Instagram account, that would create a dystopian reality completely different to the one that we could see. Diego was dying, but we chose not to believe it.
It is perhaps the ultimate contradiction of Argentina’s greatest myth of all-time. Diego Maradona, the hero of millions, died alone in his bed. Now, a country in shock needs to find its answers.