After only 60 years on earth, Diego Amanda Maradona, the short, stumpy man from Argentina who brought mesmerism to football and joy to mankind has received the last red card. The final whistle was blown for him on November 25. All national and international media devoted large acres of newsprint and long hours of prime time broadcasting to this little man who sprouted from the slums of Buenos Aires and held the world spell-bound with his amazing, awesome conglomerate of skills in football.
This legend belongs in the same class as notable legends in other sports such as Mohammed Ali in boxing, Michael Jordan in basketball and Usain Bolt in athletics. In football he is nearly as shoulder high in reputation as the tall, athletic Pele whose real name is Edson Arantes dos Nascimento. Pele scored more than 1000 goals and received three world cup gold medals, solidifying his status as the world’s best footballer of all time. But Maradona has established a solid reputation in the game as a tree that sometimes made a forest. That yeoman’s job was much in evidence in the 1986 world cup where he led Argentina to victory by his gutsy, hard-as-nails display of granite strength and commanding artistry.
In the epic quarter final battle against England, Maradona scored two goals, one with the unseen hand of God and the other with his godlike manoeuvring of the ball past five England players. That goal was voted “Goal of the Century” by FIFA.com voters in 2002. Maradona moved the ball from a distance of 60 metres, meandering through a forest of legs that attempted to hack him down but couldn’t until he had lodged the round leather in the opponent’s net. The dazzle and glitter of his movement, the elevation of dribbling to high art, and the appearance of the ball glued inescapably to his iconic left foot, gave the impression that we were watching poetry in motion. That movement was sublime, indescribably sublime, sublimely indescribable. The world gave him a full cup of adulation. There have been many moments of high drama in global football but there has been none like that. This former pick-pocket was able to elevate himself through his achievements on the football field from rogue to riches, from zero to the hero of football watchers.
He got endorsements from such high profile companies as Coca-Cola, Puma and Louis Vuitton from which he earned stupendous income apart from his salary.
He featured in the music video of the 2010 world cup song waka waka by Shakira. And in Argentina where he has a cultic following many artists have performed songs in tribute to him. As a measure of what he means to Argentines, the Argentine President Alberto Fernandez announced, as soon as he learnt of his death, three days of national mourning. That is the kind of regal treatment usually reserved for Heads of Government. Maradona to many Argentines was the equivalent of a Head of Government. He not only gave them joy with his skills but he represented the hoi-polloi who saw in him the high hope that they too could, one day, be successful like him. He was sympathetic to left-wing ideologies and became friends with the Cuban leader, Fidel Castro. Maradona even had a portrait of Castro tattooed on his iconic left leg. This identification with leg-wing politics which represented a blow for the liberation of the down-trodden endeared him tightly to the lowly people of Argentina. For non-Argentines it was his sparkling skills on the field of play that tied them to his boots. He gave the world something to talk about when it came to either the dead ball or the moving ball. He was the master of both. He was often able to move the dead ball with the swiftness of Usain Bolt with his magic left foot into the far corner of the net while the goalkeeper stands dumbfounded, stupefied.
Every goal tender facing a Maradona free kick would seek to escape from the humiliation of going into his own net, head bowed, to retrieve the ball, but more often than not, there was no escaping the humiliation. As for the moving ball, he was also the maestro. Whenever he was in possession of the ball, he would deliver to spectators the equivalent of paradise personified. No one could accurately forecast his probable move, whether left or right, horizontal or vertical and because he had the gift of unorthodoxy his performance also delivered, in turn, the gift of mesmerism. This man had the drive, temper, and the confidence level of a lion. Whenever he played, whether in Barcelona or Napoli or at the World Cup, the stadium was always packed cheek-to-jowl with people eager to see what magical lunacy he would produce. His skillful dribble-runs, his bobbing and weaving through rows of opposing legs means that if his dribbling was a means to an end, goals, it was also an end in itself, entertainment. In Nigeria the name, Maradona is engraved not only in the hearts of football lovers but also in our political lexicon.
Nigeria’s former Military President, General Ibrahim Babangida was nicknamed Maradona because of his endless dribbling of Nigerians on the transition to civil rule programme. Babangida’s dribble-run ended without producing a goal. It only produced confusion, which Nigerians insisted was not what they wanted for Nigeria. Someone else, General Abdulsalami Abubakar had to sort out the mess and return Nigeria to democracy in 1999.
Maradona was virtuous on the ball while Babangida was vicious in political engineering. For Nigerians the name Maradona has a dual persona, a virtue in football, a vice in politics. Argentine’s exceptionalism is etched in the minds of football lovers through Maradona and his number 10 blue and white stripped jersey.
Now another Argentine, Lionel Messi, also left-footed, also wearing Jersey number 10, is cementing that legacy. Messi and his hard core rival Ronaldo, the Portuguese icon who wears jersey number seven, are running neck and neck in the race for the football icon of this era.
Both men have entertained us with their abundant scoring skills but in dribbling terms Maradona puts them in the shade. On the field of play Maradona was a genius. Outside of it he was a loose cannon. He suffered front bouts of life threatening ailments because of cocaine addiction and alcohol abuse. His rascally lifestyle had brought turbulence to him and put him on life’s reserve bench until that thudding end a few weeks ago. On the field of play he often displayed this phenomenal balance that seemed to always defy gravity. No one in football, living or dead, has displayed such inexplicable stability with a ball under his grasp. That is pure genius. The total combination of his amazing qualities is what has made Diego Amanda Maradona a genius that is adored by the world despite his character flaws. But when death came that phenomenal balance was wrecked.