Farewell Diego Maradona, the imperfect genius who ruled the world
We often look for perfection in our heroes.
Of course that inevitably leads to disappointment. They can never live up to the idealised avatars we dream up for them. It is pure projection. For most people lucky enough to have them, our parents are our first heroes. Even before we know what the word means they symbolise our ideal. But then as we get older, and we learn more about their natural failures and weaknesses, we look elsewhere. And many of us, perhaps somewhat pathetically, look to football.
Diego Maradona was, and is, a hero to a great many people. A bona fide genius and leader of men who rose from desperate poverty to rule the world. To others, he is a pariah figure. A selfish, indulgent, sometimes cruel man who shirked his responsibilities and succumbed to hedonistic temptation at every turn. You can weigh up the pros and cons all you like; debate with strangers for hours on end about whether he was more angel than devil. In the end, it doesn't matter.
That's because love - the kind of love you have for a stranger you'll never meet - isn't a cerebral matter. You don't get to decide what you want to think. You feel it instinctively. It is a feeling that overpowers every rational thought. More than anything, Maradona made people feel intensely. Sometimes adulation, often loathing, but he was a transcendent, illuminating, captivating figure. It goes far beyond his footballing ability. He seemed to have the superpower of bending fate to his will through sheer force of personality.
To those old enough to remember his pomp, he was the greatest player of his generation. To those familiar only with archive footage and hearsay, he is an icon bordering on myth. For me and those of my generation, he is a bit of both. There are flashes of first-hand recall, warped and melded with retrospective viewing. As a child growing up, Maradona was like Pluto or Mars, something other-worldly and magical that found a place in my conscious and never left. Once old enough to fully appreciate him, he was already a fading light.
Of course, Maradona can be defined as much by his demons as his gifts. There were so many fundamental flaws to his personality that it seems crass to list them. So many ill-effects and collateral damage. A heartbroken wife, a disputed child, an adopted nation made to choose. Even on a purely footballing level, we can only hypothesise as to what Maradona could have achieved had he not self-sabotaged on such a regular basis. We were robbed of so much.
But we can't separate the bad from the good - nor should we try. Flaws feed into triumphs, and triumphs feed into flaws. It does no good to airbrush reality or maintain a falsified ideal. It is a disservice to anyone to ignore imperfection. Maradona did not lack greatness due to his weaknesses; he achieved greatness because of them. To go through what he did - to contend with everything that he was - and still scale such heights is the real victory. It is perhaps the overriding reason why he is so loved, from Buenos Aires to Naples to Manchester.
Heroes are complicated. They are never perfect. Over time, you learn about both their virtues and fallibilities, and you decide whether you like them or not. But you don't get to choose if you love them. It's like your very first heroes - the parents who go from being your entire world to everything you don't want to become. Each of their defects cuts like a betrayal. Until enough time passes that you can properly relate to them, and then it hits you just how much they achieved and did for you in spite of everything.
Diego Maradona is a testament to fundamentally broken greatness. And let's face it, that makes him so much more enthralling and irresistible than just plain perfect.