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Diego Maradona and the passing of a global icon

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It’s been more than a week since the death of Argentine soccer legend Diego Maradona, but the wave of grief triggered by his passing is still cresting around the planet. In his native country, where he lay in state before a chaotic funeral, lamentation gave way to recrimination. Authorities raided the homes and offices first of his doctor and then his psychiatrist as investigations into Maradona’s complex medical history have picked up steam.

Maradona died at 60 after a lifetime of notorious excess, overindulging in cocaine, booze and pizza. He had mental breakdowns, emergency surgeries and even a stomach-stapling operation. Yet still, to so many who idolized him, including yours truly, it’s hard to accept that he’s gone — the improbability of an immortal fading from the scene before the telling of his myth has finished.

Such is the global power of both soccer and Maradona’s legend that his death wasn’t just an Argentine tragedy. Memorials and murals to the irrepressible attacker — arguably the greatest player in the sport’s history — sprang up on almost every continent. In his adopted city of Naples, where figurines of Maradona often sit alongside those of Christ in seasonal Nativity displays, countless fans converged on the cavernous stadium that bore witness to perhaps his greatest triumph. In the Indian state of Kerala, thousands of miles away from the sites of Maradona’s celebrated exploits, the local government declared two days of official mourning.

From a sporting perspective, Maradona sits atop soccer’s pantheon, with perhaps only the Brazilian Pelé for company. In years to come, they’ll likely be joined by the Portuguese Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, another Argentine, both players whose lists of personal accolades surpass those of the older pair.

But the extent of Maradona’s celebrity — and the fervor of his admirers — may never be seen again. When he cemented his fame by leading Argentina to victory in the 1986 World Cup, he did so at a time when World Cups mattered more. The surfeit of soccer on show now and the ubiquitousness of its stars on social media have demystified the game from the days when many fans would have to wait four years to get a real glimpse of its heroes. Moreover, neither Ronaldo nor Messi seems to possess the same powers of transcendence that coursed through Maradona’s career and life.

“In this age of hyper-marketing and commercial packaging, these immense footballers seem like alien creatures cut from steel, polished with hair gel,” wrote my twin Kanishk Tharoor in a 2014 essay for the Times of India. “One gets the sense that at the end of the day, Messi and Ronaldo return to their spaceship-like mansions to power off, to sleep a dreamless robotic sleep. Maradona, on the other hand, offered the illusion that no barrier separated the field of his renown from the world beyond. Both on and off the pitch, he was the scrappy child of the slums, snarling exuberance and desire.”

Maradona was a true populist. He grew up in a shantytown on the outskirts of Buenos Aires and would be defined by his determination to both escape and yet still represent his origins. He absorbed the pejoratives of his place — both the “negrito,” the little “Black” boy with Indigenous blood looked down upon by more well-to-do (and White) Argentines, and the “pibe,” the cunning rascal of the streets.

It was the impudent “pibe” who scored the infamous “hand of God” goal against England in the 1986 World Cup, where he knocked in the ball with a clenched fist. He followed up that act of cheating with one of genius, a slaloming run through the English team that ended with the ball in the net and a weeping commentator for Argentina thanking God mid-broadcast “for football, for Maradona, for these tears.” Four years after the humiliation of the Falklands War, Maradona “gave us the best (and probably the only) payback we could get as a nation,” wrote Argentine journalist Juan Manuel Rótulo. “One hero to mend the open wound of millions.”

And it was the “negrito” who captured the hearts of Naples. Maradona arrived in one of Europe’s poorest cities and took its middling team, Napoli, to unprecedented glory. He internalized the widespread bigotry that northern Italians voiced against Neapolitans and channeled it into an almost moral mission on the pitch. In footage of those matches, you don’t see Maradona just wearing his heart on his sleeve. In the ferocious churn of his elbows, the surge of his stocky frame, you can almost hear that heart beating.

“It had been more than half a century since this city, condemned to suffer the furies of Vesuvius and eternal defeat on the soccer field, had last won a [major trophy], and thanks to Maradona the dark south finally managed to humiliate the white north that scorned it,” wrote the late Uruguayan author Eduardo Galeano. “In the stadiums of Italy and all Europe, Napoli kept on winning, cup after cup, and each goal constituted a desecration of the established order and a revenge against history.”

Maradona perhaps took the mantle of champion of the global South too far. Much to his critics’ ire, he embraced leftist Latin American strongmen such as Fidel Castro and Hugo Chávez. In his own life, he was no moral exemplar, leaving behind a trail of lavish waste, mafia ties, unpaid taxes, allegedly abused women and neglected children. At his death, it seemed there was no closure to his endless struggle with addiction.

“He was a perfect embodiment of the human ability to be contradictory, to do and convey ugly and beautiful at once, good and evil in the same stroke,” wrote Marcela Mora y Araujo, a Buenos Aires-based journalist who translated Maradona’s autobiography into English. “His celebrity was not separate from his private self — he was achingly human in every way, yet a superstar at all times.”

As Galeano put it, Maradona was “the most human of the gods.” He also may be one of the last.

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