I’d just got off the phone with a friend in London when my phone buzzed.
I blinked. What? Then my computer pinged. An email from a friend in Uruguay.
“Maradona just died…”
The first thing to run through my mind was an article I’d written just a few weeks ago, on the occasion of Maradona’s sixtieth birthday. “The people’s love for “El Diego”,” I wrote, “may just end up killing him.”
Then I thought of an expat friend of mine here in Buenos Aires, whom I’d met for drinks on the terrace at La Biela, an elegant café near my home, the night I’d filed that article. “I don’t want Diego ever to die,” he’d said to me. “But if he does, I hope it’s when I’m in Argentina.” His blue eyes sparkled above his glass of cold beer. “Can you imagine? It’ll be locura.”
Well, che, now there was no need to imagine. And yes, it was indeed locura.
The news had hardly broken. Nothing on the international sites. Just three-word confirmations from the Argentine newspapers.
“Murió Diego Maradona.”
What to do? I stuck my head out of the window into the insufferably muggy air. A strange hush seemed to have come over the eternally chaotic city, like it was Christmas Day and it had snowed. Was I just imagining it? I decided to put some clothes on, head out for a walk, see if there was anything to soak up, do my job.
In the lobby, the concierge was busy on the phone. He waved, a jolly note in his voice. He hadn’t yet heard. I crossed the empty square and my phone rang.
“He was like a living myth,” said my Dutch friend, Sander, clearly upset. “Everybody loved him too much. They all wanted a piece of him.” He sighed, sounding like he was in pain, and I felt oddly stirred. Then his voice cracked. “Man, it’s incredible he made it to sixty… Incredible, really…”
Yes, that was it. That was what had been nagging at me. For at least twenty-five years, Maradona’s drug and alcohol abuse had left us all waiting to hear the inevitable news. Somehow, miraculously, he’d lost all the battles, but not the war. Until today. And the news we’d all been expecting still felt like a shock. What was that?
Not an assassination, nor a terrorist attack. Not JFK, not 9/11. And yet, here in Buenos Aires, something similar seemed to be stirring. A sense of the surreal. A nation now deprived of “its greatest idol”, as the sober La Nacion was calling him.
Today, Argentina is as sad as it’s maybe ever been
I looked up and down the expansive boulevard. There were surprisingly few people about, perhaps due to the weather: who knew? I counted seven in total, two of whom were crying. This seemed significant—except, you see that a lot here. People weep in public and nobody rushes to offer comfort. Why should they? Life is sad. Argentina is sad. And today, Argentina was as sad as it’s maybe ever been.
Sander was reminiscing in my ear. About the Bilbao slaughter match, back when Maradona wore a Barcelona shirt. About a masterful documentary we’d both watched on Maradona’s extraordinary stint at Napoli. About “the giant inflatable Diego Maradona tunnel at Argentinos Juniors,” the club that found and nurtured the slum-boy’s God-given genius.
“I’ll send you a picture,” Sander said. He did, along with a photograph of a mural of Maradona he’d happened to take that morning, before the news broke. In the mural, the pint-sized Maradona is portrayed as a neighbourhood fighter, his fists raised under the capitalised slogan “LAND OF GOD”.
I stared at the photo, then I looked up from my phone. Ahead of me, in the plaza, a girl in an exercise bra was taking a sexy selfie. Some things went on.
Heading home, I glanced through the window of a neighbourhood hair salon. The news was now all over the TV and an elderly, elegant-looking woman in curlers sat in a chair, staring up at it. Her shoulders danced as tears streamed down her face. In my square, a man strolled aimlessly, like he was drunk, or confused. He looked remarkably like Diego, I thought, and I started to question my sanity.
It takes a special kind of guts to ask the Pope to sell his gold ceilings and give the proceeds to the poor
He’d died of a heart attack, sharing a death day with Fidel Castro, an idol of his. Nine ambulances had rushed, uselessly, to the scene. There was mention of the alcohol dependency, and the emergency surgery to remove a clot in the brain, just a few weeks ago. The tributes flooded in—and, for once, they sounded genuine. “He is a good example of what ordinary Argentines are, so visceral,” said the President of the Republic, who’d enjoyed Maradona’s support. Such a wonderfully odd and clarifying thing to say. “You made us immensely happy,” he then added, which I admit brought a tear even to my eye.
No time was wasted decreeing three days of national mourning. Then, after some very-Argentine back-and-forth, and a number of false announcements, the government confirmed that Diego’s body will lie in state at the Casa Rosada, the palatial Government House. In 1986, on its famous balcony, “The Golden Boy” held aloft the World Cup trophy he’d almost single-handedly won to a euphoric crowd well exceeding one hundred thousand.
Back in my apartment, I watched some footage on my computer: displays of his outrageous brilliance. “He was a superhero!” announced the TV, in the background. “Which planet did he come from?” The presenters were crying, frequently unable to talk. Their guests—former teammates, international stars, politicians—were also crying. “You feel like a piece of your life is leaving!” The press huddled around a pleading doctor outside the gated community in which Maradona died. “How did this happen?” they asked, desperate to comprehend the day’s events. “Diego lives forever!”
Ping! More emails in my inbox. “An evil genius!” announced an English friend. “Fuck him and burn in Hell!” suggested an American pal, remembering what Diego said about the United States and Them the People.
For me, neither of those. I remember him as the greatest footballer I ever saw play. I remember him as the player we all most admired at school in the English home counties—because he was so clearly the greatest. I remember my friends shouting “MaraDOMa!!” whenever I managed to pull off any sort of trick with a football. And I remember them shouting it in jest whenever I fell over a ball flat onto my face.
The “Hand of God”? I never cared. And I care even less since moving to bottom of the world and understanding why he did it. His shameless act of cheating in the 1986 World Cup quarter final against England—to which he has since confessed—is admired here in Argentina: and if you don’t understand why, you’ve no hope of understanding the place at all. Besides, Bobby Robson had it right: his second “miracle” goal in that game was good enough to count for two.
And that goal is inescapable here. I see it every day: on murals, on billboards, on TV adverts. It warrants re-watching, as does so much of what Maradona did, good and bad.
Truly, there was something behind those eyes, evident even in the photographs of him as a child. A tragedy, perhaps, that was only ever going to end this way, or worse. We can none of us escape our fates, people are always reminding me down here. And Maradona was Argentina, for good and ill.
In restaurants and cafés, entire walls are shrines to Maradona
In restaurants and cafés, entire walls are shrines to Maradona. Why? I suppose because he went way beyond football, somewhere into the flawed space we all occupy, praying for flashes of genius only a few, like him, possess. Plus, he was born dirt poor and in a barn, pretty much, so you know… His passion was real—and make what you will of the tattoos of Fidel Castro and “Che” Guevara, the friendships with Hugo Chávez and Nicolás Maduro, it takes a special kind of guts to ask the Pope (on a visit to the Vatican) to sell his gold ceilings and give the proceeds to the poor.
“D10S” is what you see everywhere. Everywhere. Maradona wore the Number 10 shirt; Dios means God in Spanish, in case that needs explaining. “God has died!” a young man in a Maradona facemask said outside “La Bombanera” stadium in La Boca. And I thought, Really? You’re just going to hand that quote to me on a plate?
God has died. Or, as my mother put it in a text message from Hertfordshire: “What did he die of? I bet the country is in turmoil.”
And it was, sort of. I half-wondered whether I should keep a tennis date. Deciding this was stupid, I grabbed my gear and took the lift down to the lobby, where I found the concierge in tears. “I’m so sorry,” I said. “This is a day of great sadness. Your Diego was the best of all time.”
He nodded, “Si, si,” dabbing his red eyes with a handkerchief as he unlocked the door with a fob key, holding it open for me with a discreet bow.
I was fifteen minutes late and my tennis partner was waiting patiently outside the building, testing the string tension on a couple of his racquets. I met his singular gaze above his facemask. “Man, show some respect,” he said.
My brain turned to mush. I’d no idea what he was talking about. In Argentina, it’s considered an insult if you turn up on time. “But… I…” I said.
He pointed to my T-shirt. “Wearing white, on a day like this—I ask you!” He flexed his bicep. Not only was he wearing a black compression top, but he’d pulled a black armband over its short, cuffed sleeve.
“Ah,” I said. “You heard.”
We walked together towards the tennis court. “I suppose this is like being in England when Princess Diana died?” he suggested.
“Oh, it’s bigger than that,” I said. “Nobody thought Diana was a god.”
“Are you sure about that?”
That night, in La Paternal and La Boca, at the obelisk and in the Plaza de Mayo, multitudes lit candles, unveiled giant banners, climbed statues, set off fireworks, flares and bombs. They jumped up and down in memory of “El Diego”, chanting, “He who does not jump is English!”
Massive armed police escorts tried to transport his body across the city through swarms of humanity, who wouldn’t let the convoy pass. The fans kept chanting, the TV kept playing musical tributes, the pundits kept talking and crying and remembering, and I didn’t jump. I read the endless messages of condolence flashing up on the screen, so many hoping that Diego “finds some peace” in the arms of God. A peace he never found for one minute in the life just lost.
“They all wanted a piece of him,” Sander had said. But now, that will surely get worse. Throughout the night, replays of the extraordinary life of Diego Maradona blended on the TV with footage of chaotic, rowdy crowds flouting all the Covid-19 protocols, and my thoughts turned to something Sander used to say in his job as a tour guide. “When Diego dies,” he’d joke, “no one will want to visit the grave of Eva Peron anymore. It will be all about showing your respects to “El Diego”.”
Which is something even I, an Englishman, plan to do in the coming days.
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