An ode to Diego Maradona, from an Englishman
Maradona leaves a different world to the one he once ruled: one where there is genuine affection from the nation he hurt most
I wish, at a time like this, that I could be that bit older, that I could reel off some romantic anecdote about the first time I witnessed Diego Maradona play in the flesh. The truth, though, is I can’t. All the things Maradona did as a player - all the good stuff, at least - he did before my time.
The afternoon he was winning a World Cup in the searing heat of the Azteca, I was asleep in my cot on the other side of an ocean. When his chapter at Napoli came to an abrupt end five years later, I was far too consumed with Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles to even bat an eyelid. Yes, Maradona's best days passed me by, and like so many children raised in 1990s England, I was left to try and make sense of who - or what - he was amidst the lingering fog of Shiltonian resentment that remained.
My first exposure to Maradona came during the 1994 World Cup. The goal against Greece, the one he celebrated by charging over to a pitch-side camera, eyes bulging, screaming into the lens. I was eight, and would probably have forgotten the moment had my dad, who never used bad language in front of his children, not uttered the words "cheating bastard" under his breath. A brief explanation of who the screaming man on the television was and what he had done to deserve such an insult swiftly followed.
The Hand of God had left its mark. In a time before social media, before the internet, few Englishmen strayed from the widely circulated tabloid narrative that Maradona was a cheat: a villain who had the audacity to so brazenly break the rules to gain an advantage and then refuse to apologise to a country with a grand history of gentlemanly conduct and fair play. Stirred by the residual tensions of the Falklands War, Maradona was an easy public enemy, an obvious magnet for hate.
The problem with hate, though - without trying to sound like one of those inspirational quote pictures your mum might share with her 18 friends on Facebook - is that it screens you from the good in people. That was unequivocally true of Maradona in nineties England. People talked about the Hand of God; nobody seemed to speak about the fleet-footed brilliance of the goal he produced a few minutes after it. People derided his well-documented struggles with addiction at the mere mention of his name; few would speak of the frailties and vulnerabilities that made him so susceptible.
Perhaps this can be partly explained by the general sense of naivety that existed in the pre-internet age. People trusted the newspapers more 25 years ago. Information wasn't so readily available then. If it were, maybe perceptions of him would have been slightly different. Not everyone knew the extent of the crippling poverty into which Maradona was born, nor of the way his upbringing shaped the way he played the game he would master. Up against older boys on the dusty pitches in and around the Villa Fiorito slum in which he was raised, deceit and a sense of cunning were a necessity for someone so small - the only way he could compete and hone his craft.
While this background might partly explain the mindset of the man responsible for the Hand of God, it would, of course, never excuse it. It was clearly a goal which should have never stood, the sense of injustice amplified by the World Cup factor and the recent history of the two nations involved. And yet, all this said, in holding such a grudge it's difficult to overlook the hypocrisy. In a country where football fans will happily see a cumbersome centre-half kick lumps out of a smaller, technically superior opponent to keep him quiet for 90 minutes, the idea that Englishmen were above breaking rules was - and is - laughable.
Thankfully, for most, feelings mellow over time. News of his death on Wednesday was met with a response which showed an overwhelming sense of affection for the man. Maradona leaves a very different world to the one he once ruled. Social media has focused younger generations on his moments of brilliance on the pitch and created an environment where there is a greater sympathy with his struggles off it. I'd like to think that in recent years, English bitterness towards Maradona has waned as a result, even if it's not totally disappeared. There is an understanding now that his frailties and moments of deceit do not detract from his achievements, they enhance his legend.