Emotions have been running high in Argentina as thousands bid farewell to football idol Diego Maradona as he lies in state at the Casa Rosada.
Barrilete cosmico? El amado hijo de Argentina.
A vigorous early-morning walk is a ritual that is mostly uplifting and usually allows – for a short time – a period of solace combined with the juvenile sun at its softest, kissing the face.
This feeling can be emotional and reflective as you have the opportunity to recognise you are alive, breathing and have another precious day afforded to your mortal coil. We may have only so many yet so few sunrises to savour. The first light we see is cherished the most.
A light that was blinding in my formative years is gone forever. It was a light that would always burn fiercely to honour this one. It could be at times harsh, intrusive and demanding. Yet now this light is out, a darkness is here, and an unwelcome shadow has formed where once there was radiance and something short of magical, yet most certainly unique.
The death of Diego Maradona – not entirely unexpected but no less devastating to football devotees across the globe – is deeply unsettling. The sun will not send its timeless rays to light the face of Diego again. His life is over, his demeanour silenced, his immense presence on planet football – a planet he ruled like a conqueror for a while – removed as he commences the journey awaiting all of us. Diego always seemed hurried to join the endless queue and be carried to eternal rest.
Numerous memories start pouring in to overload the senses. The goals, flashpoints, blemishes, ecstatic celebrations, embarrassing detentions, a love for Boca and the Albiceleste that is irreplaceable. He did what Eusebio with Portugal, Johan Cruyff with the Netherlands and others who are held in the highest echelon of football could not.
Maradona carried an entire nation, recently broken by dictatorship and suffering from political and civil discontent, not to mention the humiliation when defeated attempting to reclaim the Malvinas (known in English as the Falkland Islands).
As the Mundial approached in that year of 1986, it was Mexico to host the sporting party of the decade. Maradona was considered too young to affect the World Cup-winning team of ’78 who triumphed at home.
Then in ’82 as an upcoming superstar, mixed form in the group stage culminated in Maradona being sent off for an act of petulance against eternal foe Brazil. A red card was the result of his red mist, which persistently haunted him, frequently simmering below the surface.
The expulsion at the Sarria Stadium – home of Espanyol, hated rivals of Barcelona, the club he had recently signed for – is one of countless ironies in this tornado of a life that a fiction writer would struggle to invent. The sight of him leaving the pitch dishevelled at Espanyol quickly lured the vultures, massed to nit pick and chastise. His beloved Argentina were eliminated and had to wait four years for salvation. With Maradona, it would be revenge.
The preparation for ’86 was deliberate, dedicated and destined. The warrior Maradona was at his best personally, professionally and his physical strength reached its peak, never to be replicated. He was 25, he was the best player on the globe and after the final – where he led the blue and white to vanquish the Germans – he became one of the very greatest footballers of all time.
Two memories of Mexico ’86 are significant to me. Not the Hand of God to spurn England, instead the fabled biblical words of John 3:16. Behind what seemed every goal mouth throughout the sun-drenched tournament appeared banners proclaiming the words over and over at match after match: ‘For God so loved the world, as to give his only begotten Son; that whosoever believeth in him, may not perish, but may have life everlasting’.
These words may not have been written for El Diego, yet they resonate and appeal to the broader story of the boy from Lanus. When fighting for his people, the working class and his beloved nation, it is best to get out of his way and let him pass.
The other memory within my teenage dreams lie at the centre of the cavernous Estadio Azteca. With its heaving capacity of 112,000 in the dizzying terraced stands, seemingly reaching to the Aztec gods of ancient America, an adornment fit for a vast cathedral hung statuesque above the green turf. As the sun moved on its timeless quest across the sky, the shadow of this aerial monolith would dance above the players.
The greatest player would be seen darting inside the shadow and back into the glimmering Mexican sun on his way to score another goal, the greatest of all time perhaps in his second effort against the new enemy of Argentina.
Argentina had their god, father and holy ghost in one stout package of fire and flesh. Maradona led Argentina to glory seemingly with a single foot and perhaps a hand like no captain before or since in the history of football. Then in 1993, past a glorious prime, he caught my direct gaze for 90 minutes. The light is still blinding, yet I see him.
Younger eyes were transfixed and followed him all over the pitch. His work rate, trickery and delivery of a pinpoint cross combined to wound the host, my Australia, and propel Argentina to another World Cup party.
When the demons return to snatch him from the Mundial, his darkness is there for all to witness. There was an epic goal against the home of the gods from Greece, a failed drug test, another disgrace and more tears for Argentina.
Maradona had departed and a less worthy Maradona was now inhabiting the mind and body of a fallen idol. Terrible times ahead exposed the decorated veneer. He is human and flawed. Even now, I will not abandon him.
His permanent departure proves once again we are indeed all mortal. This god of Argentina and king of world football has left us.
He was despised by many, but never by me. Maradona lives through what he did on the football pitch of Napoli, in front of the world at the Estadio Azteca and for just 90 minutes in a harbour city so far from his home.
The world has lost some light today and we should seek it keenly on that walk tomorrow at dawn, should we be gifted another sunrise unlike the diminutive number ten. The heartfelt, haunting lines from Evita ask “don’t cry for me Argentina”, yet today we should cry for Argentina as their beloved son is no more.