My first world cup was to be Diego Maradona’s last as player, although I did not know it then. I have no memory of watching live the famous footage that I would often see over the following years, of a squat man being led away from the field by several serious-looking staff, as he smiled wryly and shook his head.
The enduring memory I do have of that world cup is the hat trick celebration of the striker who would bridge the generation between Maradona and Messi, the talismanic Gabriel Batistuta, nicknamed ‘Batigol’ by Argentine fans. For some reason, perhaps Batigol’s magic, I took a liking to Argentina that world cup, and when I began to follow football seriously, I dedicated much of my time to watching specials and old footage.
As a child, I could never understand how the greatest player in the world could be a short, stout man with little legs – until I grew old enough to watch his second goal against England from the 1986 world cup, the goal that has often been called the greatest ever. About two decades after, another short man with little legs would beat the field, over and over again, seeing nothing but the goal, never slipping however often he was fouled. Perhaps that was why Maradona and Messi got along so well – they might have little else in common, but it is undebatable that they only ever saw the goal when they had their toes on the ball.
Maradona started his world cup career as a 22-year-old prodigious talent would be man-marked repeatedly, and reached the heights of glory four years later, captaining Argentina to victory in the 1986 world cup in Mexico. He not only scored five goals, but played every minute of every Argentina game. He had been fouled over 50 times in the tournament, and was man-marked even more aggressively than in the previous edition. The infamous “Hand of God” goal was followed in less than five minutes by the one that few people would have seen for a goal when it began, in the Argentine half of the field. And yet, he beat five English players to slot in the ball he had seen across more than sixty yards.
It seems incredible that a man of such skill should have reached his peak at 26, and left the game on a ban eight years later. His international career yielded 34 goals from 91 games, with innumerable assists and set-ups.
But when we eulogise the football legend, we forget the tragedy of the man who died at 60, leaving behind a legacy not just of incredible goals but bizarre footage of erratic behaviour over the second half of his life. Videos of his reactions to goals went viral, including one of his collapsing after Argentina’s entry into the round of 16 was sealed in 2018. He had stood screaming to the skies with his arms across his chest when Lionel Messi scored the earlier goal in the game, and celebrated the second by making wild gestures at the camera.
The GOAT debate is often raked up, weighing him against Brazilian hero Pelé and his own successor for the Albiceleste, Lionel Messi. The other two have remained synonymous with football, whereas Maradona became almost better-known for his addiction to cocaine.
After his collapse in 2018, the tabloids suggested he had high blood pressure and a heart murmur. He was first rumoured to have died back in 2003. He was often photographed trying to hide from the cameras, overweight and in disarray. The career of the man who was arguably the greatest footballer of all time was nearly overwhelmed by his life off the field.
Maradona’s mother and father lived to the ages of 81 and 87 respectively. He barely lived to 60. Two weeks before his death, he had been admitted to hospital for what turned out to be a bleed in the brain.
We often use euphemisms such as “colourful life”. But we rarely talk about the pressure and the loneliness of elite sport. We don’t focus enough on the pressure for sportsmen to be role models, even as women fawn over them and drugs find their ways to them. We think of them easily enough as legends, but we ignore what they were before they became legends, and what would have become of them had they not “made it” on the field.
What does a boy raised in a shantytown, with his only out being his skills with a ball, do when he becomes the most infamous and famous sportsman in the world, within five minutes of each other? What does a man who is so attached to his family he spends $15,000 a month making long-distance calls do when he spends his best years away from them?
Everyone loves an “enfant terrible”. But even at a time when there are so many conversations around mental health, we rarely take into account the abnormal lives our heroes live. It is an honour to play for one’s country, we say, and we forget the toll the sport takes on the man – the pressure of having to deliver repeatedly, especially when one has a track record of doing so.
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Nandini is the author of Invisible Men: Inside India's Transmasculine Networks (2018) and Hitched: The Modern Woman and Arranged Marriage (2013). She tweets @k_nandini. Her website is: www.nandinikrishnan.com