Diego Maradona is smoking a cigar, elbow propped on the balcony rail. From a few feet below you can see the creases of his jowls as he shouts above the canned music.
A little later he leans perilously far out across the balustrade to conduct a group of his hysterically excited fans in song, red-rimmed eyes blazing, a kind, footballing anti-pope.
Maradona’s appearance at the Spartak Stadium in Moscow on 16 June 2018 for Argentina v Iceland was predictably thrilling, but also predictably disturbing. Encountering him on the stairwell at full-time was like trying to pass through the gravity field of some otherworldly object. As with all humans of this type, those whose fame and deeds live inside your head so vividly, it was hard to avoid the absurd impulse that he should also recognise you. But then, Maradona probably got that quite a lot.
He was in Moscow as part of Fifa’s World Cup Legends roadshow. At the Nigeria game in St Petersburg he was advised by the stadium doctor to go to hospital at half-time. He didn’t. And throughout those 10 days in Russia Maradona looked disturbingly alive, still shot through with that plutonium-level El Diego charisma, but he also looked like a man on his way to somewhere else.
Maradona’s death in Buenos Aires on Wednesday brings an end to life lived as part of the popular culture for half a century. He was 10 when his junior exploits brought his first flush of fame (named in newspapers as “Caradona”). This was never an everyday celebrity. It felt personal. You had to watch, had to follow everything he ever did from that first moment of contact (for me: Mexico 86). This was a talent so extreme everything else would be measured against it.
A tribute to Diego Maradona
This idea of sporting ultimacy has been present in the response to his death. This is after all sport, a place where everything must be ranked and rated. So we get the usual stuff. Where does he stand in the canon? Was he, in his own crowning moment, the greatest of all time? How does he sit next to Lionel Messi, idol of the present age?
It is a stupid question on so many levels. It leads you into suggesting there is something lacking in a footballer as good as Cristiano Ronaldo, whose only failing is to be brilliant on the merely human scale – numbers, athleticism, familiar patterns – in the presence of Messi’s more supernatural gifts.
It demands also that we pretend different eras can be compared, when in fact shapes and textures and outside forces have changed so radically you might as well compare badminton and the pommel horse.
And yet it is also the stupid question we can’t help asking, if only to come up against those points of contrast. Maradona’s greatness may speak to his own time but the comparison is also fascinating. It tells us for a start that greatness was more grudgingly given up then. It is no accident Messi and Ronaldo have been there to push one another along. The lab conditions are perfect. Come on in. Reach right up to the ceiling of your talent. There was no other Diego.
Maradona emerged as football was beginning the journey towards the current germ-free environment, a place where every surface is sealed, every space safe, every variable controlled. The most obvious change is the level of physical danger. To embark on a dribble, to attempt to assert your skill, was an act of calculated self-destruction. Basically, Maradona had the crap kicked out of him. He was fouled constantly and brutally.
In this context his range of skills – the dribbles, the passes, the impudent stride – was startling. That second goal against England at the Azteca Stadium in 1986, the run past three players that produced the first: all of this came out of nowhere. It didn’t happen. Football was a disjointed, concussive thing. Except suddenly a small man in tight shiny shorts is moving through entirely different air.
It is this self-made quality that marks Maradona’s path and also explains to some extent its crooked points. Football was a wild place. It was possible to fall through the cracks. As early as 1982 he was already getting into cocaine in Barcelona, a lonely figure, prey to sharks and temptation.
A year later Andoni Goikoetxea snapped Maradona’s ankle with a sound “like a piece of wood splitting” and the world’s most expensive footballer was carried off on a blanket, then driven to hospital in a small, borrowed van. The first person who came to speak to him, hours later, was a hospital cleaner.
Maradona had to propel himself though this world, had to succeed in spite of it, and even had to coach himself to some degree. There are those who will suggest, even now, he was a kind of moral pervert, to be remembered as a cheat and all-round non-Englishman, a vessel of vice, that we must factor in the missteps and the famous handball goal when we consider his brilliance. This is a failure of imagination. Never mind all the stuff about barrio boy chutzpah and reflecting a culture. Maradona’s triumph was a triumph of will, of bravery and of acute intelligence too.
The Maradona of 1986 wasn’t an accident or a product of anthropological forces. In Italy Maradona had worked relentlessly at finding the right tempo to play, the best way to weaponise his skills in a brutal defensive game. Italy taught him to play in high-speed bursts, to spot the moment of weakness, to ration out his strength and his capacity to take the blows. Mexico 86 was the reward.
It is also the reason those other sightings – Maradona in Moscow, Maradona stumbling around the globe – feel much more remote. In death it is clear he will remain preserved in his own imperial moment.
We remember the goal against Belgium, where Maradona glides past four players and the most remarkable part is how he keeps his feet after scoring, veering off, fists raised. Or the pass for the winning goal in the final, the perfect touch, perfectly timed into the perfect space, by a man seeing it all.
His death is sad in the way the death of a stranger shouldn’t be. But this is perhaps as much about the passing of a time that seems ever more remote. In the pictures of Maradona holding up the World Cup trophy in the sun it is as though the light is passing through him. A stupid question, perhaps. But he was in that moment, all things considered, as great as a footballer could hope to be.