On Maradona’ first death anniversary, here is an excerpt from Rajeev Ramachandran’s upcoming Malayalam work ‘Cheli Puralatha Panthu’, a book on the political history of the evolution of Argentine football.

Argentine football player Diego MaradonaFacebook
Features Books Thursday, November 25, 2021 - 11:40

The following is an excerpt from a chapter on Maradona from the upcoming Malayalam work Cheli Puralatha Panthu (The Ball Sans Stain), a book on the political history of the evolution of Argentine football, by journalist Rajeev Ramachandran.

“Sometimes I think that my whole life is on film, that my whole life is in print. But it’s not like that, it’s not like that at all, there are things which are only in my heart – that no one knows. Even though I have already said so much, I don’t think I’ve ever told the important stuff, the most important stuff.”

This is how Diego Maradona starts his autobiography, El Diego, which was published in 2000. It took another eight years for Emir Kusturica to make one of the best sports documentaries of our times, Maradona by Kusturica. No doubt, these two works – the text Maradona wrote with the help of journalists Daniel Arcucci and Ernesto Cherquis Bialo, and the flamboyant and out-of-the-ordinary documentary by one of the contemporary greats – are the most honest accounts of the life and times of Diego Armando Maradona.

There is a nude picture of Maradona in his autobiography, a black and white photo of him standing in a bathtub in some hotel room. “I have nothing to hide, nothing. I have always shown myself as I am and now, I can look the world in the eye. That’s why I am willing to show myself like this. This was in Amsterdam, I thought it was fun,” reads the caption. This was quintessential Maradona, the same naked man Kusturica captured in his film.

In the first available picture of him, Maradona presents himself as a showman, a 10-year-old ball juggler. Juggling did not have the glory and glamour as freestyle football back then. He used to juggle the ball in front of the crowds, showing off his skills, “bouncing it from insteps to thighs to back heel to head to shoulder and back again on and on” during match intervals.

“The best time was during an Argentinos – Boca match in 1970, remembers Diego, (when) I started with my skills tac-tac-tac-tac, the crowd started clapping along and the first team players returned, the referee came back, but the crowd started shouting, let him stay, let him stay. It was the whole crowd shouting, not only the Argentinos fans but the Boca fans too, even louder. The Boca fans, that’s one of my happiest memories of them. I think that’s when I started feeling what I feel for them now; I knew then we would come together one day,” Maradona says in El Diego.

According to Jonathan Wilson, renowned journalist and author of the book Angels with Dirty Faces: The Footballing History of Argentina, the first ever write-up on Maradona had got his name wrong. Wilson writes: “On 28 September 1971 Maradona was mentioned by the national press for the first time, as Clarín’s reporter was captivated by the show he put on at half-time of a game between Argentinos and Independiente – although the tribute was rather spoiled by the fact he referred to him as ‘Caradona’. The ten-year-old, the report said, demonstrated a ‘rare ability to control and dribble with the ball’ but what seems more significant is the way Maradona was immediately placed in the pibe tradition: ‘His shirt is too big for him and his fringe barely allows him to see properly. He looks as though he’s escaped from a potrero. He can kill the ball and then just as easily flick it up with both his feet. He holds himself like a born footballer’.”

Ball juggling, popularly known as freestyle football these days, is no child’s play. It’s more than transfer of weight or balancing of the legs. It demands body orientation, ambidexterity, reflexes, rhythm and timing, which effectively translates into a sort of communication with the ball. In almost every great dribbler of world football there exists a little juggler. It was sheer ball control and rhythm of movements that took Maradona to the top of his game, which he owed greatly to his ball juggling skills. It was his raring-to-go chest position that defined his playing style as an attacking footballer. The oft-talked about advantages of being short and having low centre of gravity come only after that. His body posturing was so outward as if he always thrived to move forward with the ball in front of him just like a hunting hound. The essence of his football was this race with the ball, which he always wanted under his sole control.

Comparisons between Maradona and Pele played out for decades starting from 1986 perhaps, on terraces in bars and wherever a crowd watched football, which the television and internet took over later. The debate about whose legacy was greater so divided the football fraternity that FIFA had to split the Player of the Century award to allow the pair to share the glory. Maradona was the winner of an internet poll while Pele got the backing of experts and ex-players. Apart from the stellar statistics, it was the off-the-ground personality that gave Pele an edge over an erratic Maradona.

Pele was so particular not to challenge the public conscience by any means that it was probably the reason he kept his distance from politics. He did not say a single word against the notorious rule of the military junta in Brazil in the 60s nor did he carry any regret about it. Even today he is of the view that the military dictatorship did not affect him as a person and a player. David Tryhorn’s 2021 Netflix documentary has him admitting it in public. This is where Pele is the polar opposite of Maradona, who was very vocal in supporting the South American left movements and marking his political opposition against the USA-led Capitalist Bloc. However, Maradona too had not opposed the Argentine military junta that suppressed human rights and free speech in his youthful days, but he never tried to justify it in later years.

Considering the structural changes that happened in the game of football between the times the two players were active, this writer puts Maradona slightly ahead of Pele. Yes, Pele raised the World Cup more than anyone else who had played the game, but one should not forget that he had the service of a bunch of world class talents beside him. When Maradona lifted the cup in Mexico in 1986, it was almost a solo effort, just like his second goal against the mighty England. It was Maradona’s World Cup. Pele’s World Cup teammates – starting from Garrincha, Vava and Didi to Jairzinho, Tostao, Zito and Bellini – were as good as Pele. Theirs was more or less a collective effort, with Pele excelling as the primary scorer. But in 1962, it was a different story when Pele got injured in the first stage of the tournament. It was Garrincha who shouldered the responsibility of the team and carried them along to the podium. Unlike the classical Brazilian team which used to perform like a well-oiled engine, it was a solo show by Garrincha after Pele’s injury. Maradona’s performance in Mexico could be seen as a close parallel to this incredible show of individual brilliance on a football ground.

Statistical analysis, including possession rate or pass accuracy, was not available those days, but the running commentary of the matches give us a vivid picture of Garrincha on the field, which could very well be superimposed on the Maradona of 1986 for a perfect match. In 1962, Garrincha also had scored a brace against England, including a header. It was Garrincha who made a better match for Maradona than Pele, be it his performance on the pitch or his celebration of life off-the-ground.

As the legendary Uruguayan journalist and author Eduardo Galeano put it, “the goal is soccer’s orgasm”, especially for the likes of Maradona and Garrincha. They tend to submit themselves to the ground after scoring their best goals just like a post-coital slump on to the partner’s body. Pele, on the other hand, is always seen as retrieving his balance after most of his best goals.

Maradona’s politics too was loud and exaggerated just like his football and personal life, maybe a touch more consistent. He did not hesitate one second to take the side of those were violated by the powerful. He joined hands with leftist leaders of the likes of Fidel Castro, Evo Morales and Hugo Chavez, lambasting the US and then President George W Bush.

In his interview with Emir Kusturica, Maradona says that he got his sense of justice only after he started seeing the world up close at a later stage of his life. It’s interesting to read his views on the Argentine revolutionary Che Guevara in his autobiography.

“Obviously I would have loved to meet Che Guevara. I carry him on my arm – I have a tattoo which is a work of art – but I carry him in my heart. I fell in love with him when I was in Italy. I think the fact that it did not start in Argentina is significant, because when I was there El Che to me was the same for most of my fellow countrymen – an assassin, terrorist, a baddie, a revolutionary who planted bombs in schools. That was the version of history I had been taught. ... I would love it if the kids were taught true history at school but I would be satisfied if the schools in my country mention the name Che Guevara.

By tattooing an image of Che Guevara on his arm, Maradona was literally reclaiming a revolutionary chapter of Argentina’s history. It should be noted that this was way before Che became a global insignia of youth, revolution, fighting spirit and what not. Kusturica summarises in his film: “I was sure of one thing – if Maradona hadn’t been a footballer, he would have become a revolutionary. He wouldn’t need an incentive to send him off into the woods. He was a revolutionary at heart.” Yes, he was indeed a revolutionary and his first act of revolution was the goal he scored against England with the assistance of ‘the hand of God’. Even though he had shrugged off the political overtones of the game in a pre-match press conference, he made it clear in later interviews that it was nothing but revenge.

But his political understanding driven by solidarity with the oppressed remained at a macro level as he could not walk the talk in his personal life, especially with his partners, including his wife Claudia Villafane. The legal battles Claudia and some of his other girlfriends had to fight, be it for maintenance or recognition of their children, exposed the darker side of Maradona, the ruthless male chauvinist who hardly cared for anybody but himself. Even after his death, a major section of feminists in Argentina, except for the mainstream leftist feminist groups – dubbed as Maradonian Feminists for their justification of his violent acts citing his working class background – chose to confront him stating that his violence was not limited to abandoning his children and their mothers but extended to psychological intimidation and harassment. His critics range from academics like Graciela Monteagudo to female football players like Paula Dapena of Spain, who refused to take part in an on-the-ground tribute for him before a match in Spain.

Maradona’s life has been the subject of many books and visual documentations, one of which is a course offered at Harvard University by Mariano Siskind, Professor of Romance Languages and Literatures and of Comparative Literature. According to Prof Siskind, Maradona should be approached via two social, historical and cultural ways – through Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy and a reading of Aristotle’s Poetics, particularly the section on tragedy. According to Siskind, the opposition and relation that Nietzsche develops around Apollo and Dionysus are applicable to Pele and Maradona. He also argues that Maradona incarnates the figure of the classic hero of Aristotle’s Poetics (Tragedy). In his class, the professor establishes how Maradona became a hero between 1979 and 1990 and how through his flaws he caused his own demise in 1991, in 1994, and at so many points later in his life.

“Aristotle also said that the hero has a moment of redemption when he recognizes that his actions led to his fall, he calls it anagnorisis. In the narrative arc of Maradona’s life, there is a beautiful ceremony celebrating his career at Boca Juniors’ stadium in 2001 when he acknowledged his shortcomings, which is his moment of redemption,” Siskind said in an interview with The Harvard Gazette.

And it was during that ceremony that the footballer crafted that touching epigram: “Football is the most beautiful and most healthy sport in the world. Nobody doubts this in the slightest. If one person makes a mistake, football does not have to pay for it. I made mistakes and I paid for them, but the ball doesn’t stain.”

Translated from the original by the author Rajeev Ramachandran.

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