An Ode to a Myth
The story of how Diego Maradona rose from the ranks of a footballer to a God for his countrymen.
Football is probably the simplest of all sports, thus lending it a universalistic appeal. Anyone can play the game, but only a few are good enough to extract a profession out of it. And among those few, only a smaller group can be truly considered the best, the greats. To subsume Maradona to that group would be a disservice to him and to others in that group. This was a man who conjured an illusion of immortality by merely shuffling the ball in and out of spaces and past opponents with an ease that was almost ethereal. For a generation, Maradona was no mere footballer, he was a living, breathing symbol of a time of untethered imagination and a world of opportunities.
Maradona was never an emblem of perfection or even decency. His actions off the pitch might even border eccentric or even illegal. He never shied away from controversies nor controversial personas. With a tattoo of Fidel Castro’s face on his dominant left leg, Diego Maradona was someone who wore his opinions on his sleeves, someone who took no prisoners when it came to an issue. But the halo of his capabilities on the pitch was so overpowering that it blinded everyone who witnessed it into kneeling before this diminutive genius.
Was Maradona the greatest footballer of all time? Some might argue it is Pele. Was he the most influential footballer of all time? Some might push the case for Cryuff. Away from all these binaries and perspectives, out on a football field, nobody could have definitely sparked as much joy in the hearts of the spectators as much as Maradona did. His legacy lies not just in the incredible number of goals he scored or the trophies he won but in the intensity of emotions he evoked within the soul of a viewer. For that reason alone Maradona is eternal in his own right. A man who not just single-handedly ran past almost the entirety of the English team, but also managed to wipe away almost everything and everyone who was involved in the 1986 Mexico World Cup and to carve out an illusion of memory – The Maradona’s World Cup. If this is not how a man elevates himself into divine proportions, what is?
With Maradona’s ‘Hand of God’, not only did Argentina advance to the semi-finals of the 1986 FIFA World Cup, but the day also witnessed how Diego Maradona rose from the ranks of a footballer to a God himself for his countrymen. For Argentina, it was more than a mere match of football, and ‘mere’ isn’t an adjective an Argentine would ever use in the context of football even otherwise.
Argentina, a country that had only recently succeeded in overthrowing a dictatorship was badly in need of a unifying force, and, football emerged, as it had many times before and after, to be something greater than the game itself. The national identity as represented through football in 1986 for Argentina is perhaps unmatched in the rest of the history of the game for the nation.
The quarter-final match between England and Argentina was a single shot at redemption of sorts the country had against the British after their defeat in the undeclared war over the ownership of the Falkland Islands (or Islas Malvinas, as they are known in Argentina), wherein hundreds of Argentine soldiers were killed and their bodies were thrown off in the middle of the ocean by the English troops.
From 1982 to 1984, the Malvinas remained a disputed area between England and Argentina and only ended after 74 days of fighting which truly epitomized the paucity of resources the latter had. Naturally, the British crushed the inexperienced, undertrained argentine army of young-adult soldiers.
With the stakes that high, 22nd June 1986 was a crucial day. Two second-half goals from the Number 10 put Argentina in the lead, and after much dispute, led them to the next stage of the World Cup. The English may have brought the game of football to Argentina, about 200 years before the day of the face-off, but that day the whole world stood to witness as the erstwhile colonizers knelt before the Hand of God.
Looking back, it’s difficult to separate emotion from the game to actually see it for what it was. The romanticization of the game and the implications of its result vis-à-vis the political status of the two countries, especially the triumph of the otherwise fallen Argentines, earning a tribute for their war heroes doesn’t still take away from the footballing miracle Diego Maradona pulled off that day on the field.
George Orwell once said, “Football is war minus the shooting.” As a regular football fan, you understand the sentiment behind it, of course. Despite Britain’s efforts to keep the word ‘war’ metaphorical in the figurative field of football, Maradona, being the man he was, gave official statements of how the game was indeed a tribute to the argentine heroes of the war. “This was our revenge”, he said.
What Argentina, as a country took away from the game was the pure pleasure of seeing the collective enemy’s defeat, and with it, the bustling feeling of nationalism and the rise of a true national hero- Diego Maradona.
He might be hated, admired, abhorred, or adored, at the end of the day, the fact remains- Diego Maradona herded his nation to a victory that surpassed anything previously known to the space between the two posts.
For as long as a football rolls around in any part of the world, the myth of Maradona will stay alive. The story of how a mere man was elevated into the pantheons of god. A story that gives us all faith in the religion that is football.
The story of Maradona.