Games have ploughed ahead in South America in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. Only one event, the death of Diego Maradona, could stop the show.
The Copa Libertadores clash between Internacional of Brazil and Argentina’s Boca Juniors was postponed after confirmation of the news that Boca legend Maradona had passed away Wednesday at the age of 60 at his home on the outskirts of Buenos Aires following a heart attack.
At the time the match was due to kick off, Internacional paid tribute to Maradona by lighting up their stadium in the blue of Argentina — a remarkable occurrence. Blue is the colour of Gremio, Inter’s local competitors in Brazil’s fiercest rivalry. Inter would never normally embrace the colour. But then the passing of Maradona is no ordinary occurrence. And it is an event that is not only deeply felt in Argentina.
The Brazilian artists Mulamba posted on social media a photo of Maradona wheeling away in triumph after scoring against England at the World Cup in 1986, illustrating a key point: Maradona’s body is making the shape of South America.
He belonged to Argentina, of course. And to Naples. But he also belonged to his home continent. He could almost have been invented to illustrate the history and the importance of South American football.
The game caught on in the port cities of the Cono Sur in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It was a time of mass immigration and rapid urbanisation, when a new working class was open to fresh traditions.
Football was introduced by the British, arriving full of prestige. It moved swiftly down the social scale, taken up by the locals and reinterpreted, emerging as a balletic, graceful affair ideal for those of a low centre of gravity. And this reinterpretation led to international triumphs and recognition for a part of the world that was usually starved of such things.
This sets the broad canvas onto which Maradona painted his masterpieces. Partly of Italian immigrant stock, partly indigenous American, he could almost have emerged from the South American collective imagination of what a football star should be — a kid born on the wrong side of the tracks of the urban sprawl, dark, short and squat with unruly hair. A kid quick of body and sharp in mind, part gleaming smile, part malicious cunning.
And if Maradona appears almost as a scripted character from a work of fiction, so does the game that defined his life. His performance against Belgium in the semifinal of the 1986 World Cup was even better. And in the final he came up with the pass that set up the winning goal. But it is the quarterfinal against England that has provided the prism through which the extremes of his life have been viewed.
The war over the Falkland Islands between Argentina and the U.K. just four years earlier supplied a specific Argentine dimension to the occasion. But scoring those goals against that opposition is also a South American revenge fantasy — for the way that they believed the then-English-run FIFA looked down on the continent in the 1960s and, more deeply, for the power they had wielded on the continent at the height of colonialism.
Maradona’s notorious “Hand of God” goal — when he punched the ball past goalkeeper Peter Shilton and into the net without the officials seeing it — was seen as a homage to South American street smarts. His glorious second — scored after a supreme solo run with the ball that began in his own half — as a testament to natural talent. Put together, they serve as a living register of a continent’s potential, and maybe also of its fascination with curves rather than what some might see as a limiting obsession with the straight line.
Maradona rode those curves with a spontaneity that was engaging and charismatic. There is an obvious contrast here with the colder, more calculating Pele. The Pele story fits the classic three-act model: The hero emerges in a blaze of glory, the hero goes through setbacks and is doubted, the hero comes through to win in the end.
The life of Maradona does not fit such a neat pattern. It is as mazy as one of his dribbles. Had he died in 2004, it would have been easier to pigeonhole as a cautionary tale of the dangers of hubris. But there were twists in the storyline as he got back into shape and launched a coaching career. It now seems clear that he needed the discipline of coaching.
Argentine football shut down in March because of the pandemic, and by the time it returned — less than a month ago, on his 60th birthday — he was no longer in a fit state to work.
When his death was announced on Wednesday afternoon, the Argentine press went with a recent photo of him to illustrate the news. This 21st century Maradona will surely now fade into history. The Maradona that will remain will be the one from 1986, immortalised in the act of striking a blow for Argentina, for South America, and for millions around the world who could relate to this stocky little man from the shanty towns of Buenos Aires.