“I know I’m not one to change the world but I’m not going to let anybody into my world to tell me what to do…Nobody will ever make me believe that my mistakes with drugs or in business have changed my feelings. Nothing. I am the same as always. I’m me, Maradona. I am El Diego.”
What if you hadn’t made that monumental leap with arm raised, hand outstretched, at six minutes past the hour of one on that sweltering Azteca day of the 22nd of June 1986?
What if that iconic second goal, that you so gracefully achieved by weaving your way through the massed ranks of English defence with consummate ease, had been the one that you are fondly remembered for? The only goal you scored that day. Your legions of fans and admirers never having to qualify their contentions as to you being the greatest when dismissed by naysayers as being a charlatan and a cheat.
“He should be ashamed of himself,” they say.
“But three minutes later…,” the faithful always feel the need to counter.
What if you hadn’t out-jumped a man several inches taller than your diminutive frame? Would you have left the field of play that day clasping hands with a fellow professional? As equals? Just as your natural predecessor in his famous yellow jersey had done with another lionised defender of English pride, sixteen years previously? Would you have been hailed as an ambassador for the game you played with such imperious majesty, held up as an example of the sporting ideal?
Would your goalkeeping nemesis of that day have invited you to play at his testimonial? Your famous quote, ‘How many people go to a goalkeeper’s testimonial anyway?” notwithstanding. Would Shilton’s eyes still glaze over with barely suppressed bitterness and anger whenever he mentions your name in an interview? Even when attempting to dance for the huddled masses on primetime Saturday evening television, he could not contain his righteous sense of being wronged. In the same manner as your other vanquished foe, would Terry Butcher, have still refused to offer the hand of reconciliation with you when you brought your Argentine squad over to these Isles to take on the Scots?
Would you have been more favourably looked upon if you were not born in the barrio? Would you have been more sated in your appetite for life, without the burning desire to heave yourself out of poverty, challenge the status quo and play with histrionic and extravagant flourishes? Your paranoias and vendettas not as openly vociferous and articulate. Keeping your mouth shut in order to retain sponsorship deals and plaudits from politicians and businessmen. Would you have been so vehement in your political beliefs, reluctant to sear your flesh with the image of your idol Che Guevara, unwilling to denounce perceived wrongdoers like George W Bush as ‘human garbage’? Or openly criticise the Pope by saying, “I’ve been to the Vatican and seen the gold ceilings. And then I hear the Pope saying the Church was concerned about poor kids. So? Sell the ceilings, mate! Do something!”
What if you had never fallen into the hellish cycle of drugs and organized crime? Would you have lived a healthy and wholesome existence, free of the media glare? Another bland journeyman footballer among many. Would your redemptions and recoveries be less scrutinised by the voracious appetites of the world’s press corps and less willed for by the millions who idolised you? Would you have inspired award-winning filmmakers to commit your presence to celluloid posterity or indeed five young Englishmen with astounding footballing trickery to journey and busk through South America in the hope of maybe meeting you? Would your every shrug, grimace, plea and frenzied advance towards the camera be so played over and remarked upon? Would you have been the only player in history to have been led off by a nurse for a drug test if you hadn’t been Maradona? And would we have not marvelled and delighted at your touchline stances at this year’s World Cup as we hoped for your Argentine charges, replete with the young pretender to your mantle, to provide you with the crowning glory of your career? As it transpired, success was elusive but your presence was incarnated once again when the ball struck the hand of a Uruguayan that led us all to question the morality of the game we love – your instinctive act of twenty-four years ago being used as an ambivalent symbol yet again.
What if you had elected to play for a northern Italian club over the poor relations of the south’s Napoli? Would northern dominance and superiority continue to weigh upon the downtrodden shoulders of Neapolitans as the industrial north reaps the benefits of economic wealth and power? What if you had not offered these people a brief moment of respite and escape as you dazzled on the pitch and delivered silverware to an area more infamously celebrated for its ties to organised crime and long-standing vendettas?
And what of your countrymen and women? What if you had not offered them hope and inspiration after years of dictatorships and economic failures? Would people continue to worship at the Church of Maradona or call their first-borns Diego or forgive you your wildest extravagances? Would you be the symbol of adulation still? Or continue to spellbind successive generations as they are introduced to your blessed talent through the means of the new media?
What passed through your mind’s eye in that split second as your arm came upwards? What if that goal had been disallowed? Does it matter?
Because after all, every one of these things did happen and the game of football would have been a far starker place without you. And for that, in some strange way, we thank the Hand of God.
Happy 50th Birthday, El Diego.
(Diego Maradona celebrated his half century on 30th October, 2010)
This post was first published as “A Special Day” on the excellent In Bed With Maradona – some of the most thought-provoking and passionate football writing on the web. Take a peek.
Further reading: El Presidente – World Cup Dispatch – 13th June
Matthias Sindelar and the Death of Austrian Football by Greg Theoharis on In Bed With Maradona