Diego Maradona: the achingly human superstar who embodied Argentina

Marcela Mora y Araujo
·6-min read

“A man of genius is unbearable, unless he possesses at least two things besides: gratitude and purity” – Friedrich Nietzsche, on love, perseverance, and moving beyond good v evil.

Diego Maradona said that when you’ve been to the moon and back, things get difficult. “You become addicted to the moon and it’s not always possible to come back down.”

Maradona turned 60 on 30 October and the tributes that poured in from every corner of the globe, from special editions to personal reminiscences, felt a little bit like a celebration of a life that was almost over.

Related: Child genius Diego Maradona became the fulfilment of a prophecy | Jonathan Wilson

He had made a brief appearance on his birthday at the club he was managing, Gimnasia y Esgrima de La Plata, a sad image as a very overweight, slow-walking, slurry‑speeched figure struggled to walk unaided and was incapable of grabbing a gift offered to him – like the grasp he once had was no longer there.

“The way he is being paraded is an almost zoological exhibition,” someone pointed out and as if to echo the emotion a close contact uttered just a few hours after his death was confirmed: “Better this way. It was too painful to watch his decline.”

Maradona was born and raised in Villa Fiorito, on the outskirts of Buenos Aires, and his ability with the ball was so evident from a young age that he became used to TV cameras, interviews and the limelight from very early on.

Dropped for the 1978 World Cup squad after playing a few of the qualifiers, the young Maradona often spoke of that exclusion as the first important frustration that would shape his life. But the following year he won the Youth World Cup and several generations of his fellow nationals grew up with him, watching him play. Nobody told us about him; he was just there. We saw his moves and his plays unfold before our very eyes.

An Argentine flag flies at half mast on Plaza de Mayo in front of Casa Rosada in tribute to Diego Maradona.
An Argentine flag flies at half mast on Plaza de Mayo in front of Casa Rosada in tribute to Diego Maradona. Photograph: Ricardo Ceppi/Getty Images

It’s difficult to convey how or why that sharing a nationality with an icon turns into such a big deal. Why claiming him as ours by virtue of being born in the same country is such a strong glue for notions of identity, cultural and sporting, but Maradona became an emblem of Argentinianess, more so than other sports stars or celebrities.

Gifted, without question, and a genius by any definition of the concept, Maradona developed an almost superhuman ability to do with the ball what great artists do with a paintbrush, composers with music. The Argentinian writer Juan Sasturain said: “He is an artist, because where there is nothing, he creates something.”

From a very young age he was on TV displaying keepy-uppy skills and sharing his dream to win a World Cup, to play for Argentina. Some clips have become incredibly famous; some are archived among the many reels of his every waking moment that seem to exist. His entire life was played out on full view of the adoring public, courtesy of the media who, as legendary commentator Victor Hugo Morales said on Wednesday, saw in Maradona a selling machine.

His private birthday parties would be broadcast live; his disputes with his partners filmed on phones and leaked. When children born out of wedlock were proven to be his, chat shows were devoted to discussing the issue.

'Diego’s medication' was always a large sports bag, guarded by his entourage of the day almost as carefully as the man himself

He confronted his demons publicly, openly talking about his addictions, his recreational substance abuse and the prescribed pharmaceuticals that accompanied him everywhere he went. “Diego’s medication” was always a large sports bag, guarded by his entourage of the day almost as carefully as the man himself.

“I’m 45 years old and I’m alive,” he had pronounced on 30 October 2005, at an event I was privileged to attend. He spoke from a stage at this exclusive party, an extravaganza peppered with football stars of the day and worldwide celebrities among several hundred of his closest friends. His utterance was cheered by spontaneous gasps of delight, the whole room chanting as if celebrating a goal, for by then he had already been dodging death as if he were dribbling past opponents on a pitch.

The ensuing 15 years saw him not just survive, but honour life, as the song goes. He had been close to death through excessive consumption of pizza and champagne; endured a stomach stapling operation; had seen psychiatric lows of epic proportions and time and time again risen like a phoenix to reinvent himself, live life fully, and continue to delight.

Two fans outside the Estadio Azteca, scene of Maradona’s greatest triumph.
Two fans outside the Estadio Azteca, scene of Maradona’s greatest triumph. Photograph: Hector Vivas/Getty Images

Whether a TV show like no other or managing Argentina in South Africa 2010 – again, a task no one believed him capable of but through which he turned into the darling of the world media, with the New York Times publishing an apology for having disbelieved him – Maradona seemed to be capable of not dying, regularly.

“You have defeated your shadows,” the Uruguayan poet Mario de Benedetti wrote about him, when he seemed to be at death’s door giving way to candlelit vigils and mass prayers around the world.

His gift as a broker of emotions, his artistry in the most noble and revered of games, was his route to becoming a household name like no other. Polls repeatedly found him to be the “most famous man in the world” or his goal against England (the second one) in 1986, “the best goal in the world”.

It is a very Argentinian trait to claim the most something in the world; and in this sense Maradona was truly representative of his country, but his appeal was universal. Beyond any doubt, he was recognised and gracefully received everywhere he went.

As his legendary status grew, his human side – so flawed, so painfully angry and confrontational, so complicated – appeared to morph into an ever increasing grotesqueness.

Related: Diego Maradona obituary

People would talk about a brilliance with his feet that he lacked with his mind, but I would contest that. Diego Maradona was one of the most intelligent and astute beings to have graced the game. He was a perfect embodiment of the human ability to be contradictory, to do and convey ugly and beautiful at once, good and evil in the same stroke. His celebrity was not separate from his private self – he was achingly human in every way, yet a superstar at all times.

Often regarded as a prima donna for turning up late to training, he was extremely hard working. In his own terms. César Menotti always said Maradona would stay at training longer than anyone else and practise what he felt he was weak at over and over until he mastered it.

It is true he would sleep at odd hours and perhaps expected the world to keep up with his pace. Perhaps finally we can say that he can rest – hush now. Diego’s sleeping.