Artist Extraordinaire, Risk-taker & Human – Diego Armando Maradona
Maradona played art football, at the core of which was his amazing close-range ball control with the left foot.
Diego Armando Maradona won but only one World Cup and went close to gifting Argentina another. Four years separated his ultimate triumph in 1986 from his country's runners-up finish in football's greatest quadrennial show, which was in Italy, during which he had lost just a little of his speed. That was crucial. It meant he was a human, after all, a fact that came home again now as he died, perhaps the biggest casualty so far in a catastrophic year of tragedies galore.
No one has ever left this world on a winning note but what Maradona achieved while he lived, in terms of the sublime skills he displayed playing for Argentina or Napoli – who made the most of his natural flair – can never be forgotten.
He played art football, at the core of which was his amazing close-range ball control with the left foot. It was virtually impossible to take the ball off him as he, a pint-size marauder, got going and though every move he made did not end in a goal, the hope that another one was on the cards stimulated every heart.
If that sounds slightly utilitarian, let us think back to some of those vignettes that stick in everyone's mind. The laser-precise pass that paved the way for Brazil's departure from Italia90. The subsequent goal came like a roll of thunder after a flash of lightning.
The partially airborne trapping of the ball inches off the sideline in a do-or-die game the same year in the same tournament. The amazing solo run that culminated in the breathtaking goal against England four years earlier in Mexico.
When at his best, Maradona stimulated comparisons with Pele, which might turn out to be the yardstick for the fans of the future, who would also be told of Leo Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo.
The Maradona of 1986 was far ahead of either of the icons of today, not only as a performer extraordinaire but also as an inspirational presence in a team that had not really come into the World Cup all set to sweep all critics and assorted layabouts off their feet but ended up doing precisely that, besides taking the trophy home.
Central to this stupendous feat was Maradona's magnificent performances night after eventful night, which gave us all frissons of thrill rare even in top-class football.
Pele had been the best in Brazil's all-star combinations of the past but Maradona was the walking stick Argentina would have been wobbly without. He pulled it off with them, a hopeful lot with its all too palpable limitations but eager to be stirred to action by a leader who simply would not accept defeat.
So he won, but Messi never got anywhere near that level where he could be described as a one-man army. Ronaldo, unlike Messi, does not suffer fade-outs when the situation calls for heightened action but, for Portugal, the World Cup is a bridge too far. And if there is anyone can lead them to the destination they may have long wanted to reach, the path-finder has to be someone whose stellar role is required to be subsumed into his selflessly workaholic determination.
Arguably, Maradona fit the bill even better for a longer spell at Napoli, where he was nothing short of a divine gift. How he made so much of them – never deemed God's benevolent answer to humanity's patient prayers – simply by being as good as he could be as a footballer would be one of the game's best stories if it got written. It would be a fantasy.
As Messi and Ronaldo begin to appear fallible even in club football, and Naples mourns the death of Maradona, it is hard not to come to the conclusion that he leaves a void quite unlikely to be filled in a short while. Maybe he could have lived a better life but he wanted everything on his own terms. When it came to risk-taking, he did not seem to know just how much was too much. That his health was not quite all right in recent times was clear from the pictures on the telly but his broad grin after the latest hospital visit might have been mistakenly taken for a business-as-usual happy ending.
The hand-of- God goal versus England will not define him any more than the shock, drug-tainted ouster of 1994 or his unsuccessful foray into coaching.
It is as a player that he will be recalled, respectfully and romantically. He gave us a lot more than we would expect of anyone.
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