Sports

Diego Maradona Was Soccer’s Tortured, Transcendent Megastar

The Argentine legend, who died Wednesday, was the sport’s most spectacular folk hero.

Maradona runs past English defender Terry Butcher on his way to dribbling goalkeeper Peter Shilton, already on the ground, and scoring
Maradona runs past English defender Terry Butcher on his way to dribbling past goalkeeper Peter Shilton and scoring his second goal—dubbed the goal of the century—during the World Cup quarterfinal match between Argentina and England on June 22, 1986 in Mexico City. Staff/AFP via Getty Images

The best way to understand the greatness of Diego Maradona—soccer’s trickster god and the scorer of what’s widely hailed as the greatest goal in history—comes not from a highlight film of his goals or a clip of his dribbling, but from a video of his warming up.

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Maradona, who died of a heart attack Wednesday at the age of 60, could not have more completely broken the mold of a great athlete. He is short and stout and kind of awkward in motion, bouncing in place, nearly dancing—maybe dancing while retaining plausible deniability that he is not dancing. His body looks as though there might not be an ounce of muscle on it. He is wearing a warmup jacket and his short late-’80s shorts, and he hasn’t even tied his shoes.

And then he kicks a ball into the air, and he becomes superhuman. It takes mere seconds for it all to click into place. As a youth player, he juggled at halftime to entertain crowds in Argentina. Here, he goes back to that time in his life, just him and the ball, no opponents trying to kick him, no teammates wondering if they’re ever going to get it back.

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The awkwardness vanishes; he is absolutely in his element. He stops it on his forehead and rocks it back and forth there. He hops in place to bounce it back into the air. He jogs in little circles, bopping it off each knee in succession. When he makes what looks like a mistake, he catches it on a foot and flicks it back up to his head. It is so easy for him, so nonchalant; he does it as you or I might reach into our pockets, reach for a light switch, brush our teeth.

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The root of his greatness is clearly visible, even in this silly, ancillary setting. There is no one who more thoroughly overcame the most fundamental challenge of soccer: How do you make a ball do what you want it to do and go where you want it to go without using your hands?

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Everyone who’s ever kicked at a ball on the ground, everyone who has ever dropped it onto a knee or a foot and tried to keep it in the air knows that these are unnatural acts. With practice and repetition and a little bit of instinct, a player develops touch and accuracy, learns how to control it.

Maradona didn’t control the ball; he commanded it. There was never any doubt whose side it was on, whom it favored in a game. It did his bidding as surely as if he had it on strings, on remote control, in his hands. “What Zidane could do with a ball, Maradona could do with an orange,” French superstar Michel Platini, the second-greatest player of Maradona’s era, once said. When Maradona dropped a pass onto a teammate’s foot in the middle of a crowd or arced a shot perfectly over a keeper’s head so that it fell into the net, you knew that he meant to do it. Somewhere in his subconscious, he was computing the physics and analyzing the geometry necessary to realize whatever he wanted to happen.

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That command was most famously evident in his dribbling runs, where total control combined with an impossible, magical sense of balance and a running style that was all arms and acceleration. Defenders often had to tackle him two or three times, because his equilibrium and his magnetism for the ball meant if you poked it away he’d likely get to it first. But almost no one could tackle him three times in succession. To really bring him down you had to commit assault, because anything less he could absorb and adjust and keep running around, like a weeble with the ball attached to the bottom.

His mastery made him the most elemental of all soccer players. You could drop him into any game in the world, on a dusty patch of empty ground or a neighborhood five-per-side court or the World Cup Final, and he would thrive. He was the sport’s premier individualist. He wasn’t dependent on tactics or teammates to do his thing, though the environment these created could help or hinder him. After all, the stable platform constructed behind him by Argentina coach Carlos Bilardo won Argentina the World Cup in 1986 and got it to the final in 1990. But Maradona mostly transcended these things. You got the ball to him and you trusted him to break the game.

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Combine this ability with a flair for the dramatic, and you were left with a folk hero, the archetypical pibe of Argentinian culture, a roguish youth who gets by on his wit and guile. Somehow the goal against England—the one where he dribbled past five English defenders in the span of 60 yards and slammed the ball home into an empty net that was voted Goal of the Century by FIFA in 2002—isn’t the most famous of his career, or of the tournament, or even of that game. Four minutes—four minutes!—before it, he ran through the defense onto a mishit clearance, leapt into the air ahead of England goalkeeper Peter Shilton, and punched the ball into the net with a fist bent in close to his head. Afterward he christened the goal by explaining that it was scored “a little with the head of Maradona and a little with the hand of God,” because he was also a marketing genius, in addition to all the other things.

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His legend would eventually come to feed on itself, to become self-fulfilling. There’s an oft-shared photo of him at the 1982 World Cup where he’s staring down six Belgian defenders arrayed in a narrow line in front of him. They look terrified. He looks like he’s about to inflict the sporting equivalent of the hallway fight from Oldboy on them. It looks like a summation of his whole career. In truth, the Belgians were lined up in the wall to stop a shot from a free kick by a different Argentine, and instead the taker passed it to Maradona. He’s not even facing the goal. Imagine how we’d think about the Hand of God goal if someone else had scored it?

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His reputation is built largely on his skills and on his success as an international player, including what’s likely the greatest tournament performance in the history of the sport at the 1986 World Cup. At the club level, Maradona’s journey was more fraught. He might be dominant, but his teams dominated only occasionally. He won one club title in Argentina and two in Italy in 20 seasons as a player, and he never scored more than a respectable but hardly Earth-shattering 23 goals in all competitions during a single European season. (Lionel Messi, by contrast, has not scored fewer than that in the past 12 seasons, though his pace thus far this year is not looking good.) Unlike the glory that defined his international play, Maradona’s club career was marked by fights with boards, with opponents, with teammates, and with his own appetites.

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Rarely did Maradona make it easy for himself. He served a 15-month suspension after testing positive for cocaine in 1991, and was repeatedly fined for missing practices or games while at Napoli. He was kicked out of the 1994 World Cup after testing positive for the banned substance ephedrine. He battled heart problems, obesity, and alcohol abuse in retirement. Earlier this November, he underwent brain surgery to treat a subdural hematoma.

He remained connected to the sport, managing seven teams in Argentina, Mexico, and the United Arab Emirates. He coached Messi and Argentina at the 2010 World Cup, but he never lasted with any one team for more than 38 games. He went viral in 2018 for his performance in the stands during Argentina’s World Cup games in Russia, which ran a gamut from unhinged to unaware that might best be summed up as unhealthy.

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It feels reductive to call him a tortured genius. Plenty of people without a fraction of his skills shared his struggles with health, with weight, or with addiction. The vast majority of us are ill-placed to determine whether the man resented that there were places in his life that his greatness could not follow him, or whether his greatness opened the man up to situations for which he was ill-prepared. At the very least his skills, his fame, and his money couldn’t protect him from these troubles, at least not entirely.

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A pibe needs an obstacle to overcome, a trickster needs an opponent to outthink, and Maradona and the world always conspired to give him something else that needed to be faced. He was one of the world’s great athletes, and yet he looked like nothing of the sort. He was the world’s best with the ball at his feet, and yet he scored his most famous goal with his hand. He had so much, and yet he always needed another battle. That’s why that clip of the warmup resonates so well: There is no opponent in sight. Nothing for him to overcome. Just Maradona and the ball in their shared element, together.

Listen to an episode of Slate’s sports podcast Hang Up and Listen in which the hosts discuss Maradona’s career and legacy below, or subscribe to the show on Apple PodcastsOvercastSpotifyStitcherGoogle Play, or wherever you get your podcasts.

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