By David McGaw
A vigorous early morning walk is a ritual which 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 opportunity to recognise you are alive, breathing and have another precious day afforded 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, not entirely unexpected, yet no less devastating to football devotees across the globe of El Diego is deeply unsettling. The sun will not send its timeless rays to light the face of Diego again. His life is over, 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 Albi Celeste that is irreplaceable. He did what Eusebio with Portugal, 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, suffering from political and civil discontent, not to mention the humiliation suffered when defeated attempting to reclaim the Malvinas.
As the Mundial approached in that year of 1986, it was Mexico to host the sporting party of the decade. Diego was considered too young to affect the world championship-winning team of ’78 who hosted and celebrated in victory alongside Rio de la Plata. Then in ’82 as an upcoming superstar, mixed form in the group stage culminated with Diego sent off for an act of petulance against eternal foe Brazil. A red card the result of his red mist which persistently haunted him, frequently simmering below the surface. The expulsion at the Sarria Stadium, home of the hated rivals of the Blaugrana whom 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 nitpick and chastise. His beloved Argentina eliminated and four years to wait for salvation; no, with Diego it would be revenge.
The preparation for ’86 was deliberate, dedicated and destined. The warrior Diego 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 leading 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 the writer. 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 of the people 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, the Peronists and his beloved nation; it is best to get out of his way and let him pass. The other memory within teenage dreams and wonder 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. Diego 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 catches my direct gaze for 90 minutes. The light is still blinding, yet I see him. Younger eyes are transfixed and follow him all over the pitch. His work rate, trickery and delivery of a pinpoint cross combine 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. An epic goal against the home of the gods from Greece, a failed drug test, another disgrace and more tears for Argentina. Diego had departed and a less-worthy ‘Maradona’ was now inhabiting the mind and body of a fallen idol. Terrible times ahead expose the decorated veneer. He is human, flawed. Even now, I will not abandon him.
His permanent departure proves once again we are indeed all mortal. This god of Argentina, Prince of Patagonia and King of world football has left us. Despised by many, never by this one. For 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, Diego lives. The world has lost some light and we should seek it keenly on that walk tomorrow at dawn, should we be gifted another sunrise unlike the diminutive number 10. The heartfelt, haunting lines from Evita and the legend of Peronist socialism ask ‘Don’t Cry for Me Argentina’; yet today we should cry for Argentina as their beloved son is no more. Vale Diego Armando Maradona Franco, 1960-2020.