What is greatness? If it is ability, Diego Maradona, who died Wednesday of a heart attack aged 60, had it in abundance. He had extraordinary technical ability, a majestic left foot, supreme balance and tactical awareness. He was a player who elevated others alongside him. But greatness is also narrative. Lionel Messi is probably as talented as Maradona, and he will, over the course of his career, have won more titles, scored more goals and produced more consistently at the highest level. But he has never stirred the Argentinian heart as Maradona did. Narrative demands dark to go with the light, and with Maradona there was plenty of that as well.
Where to start? Perhaps his story begins in 1928, when Borocoto, the editor of El Grafico, wrote his famous editorial outlining what a statue that depicted the soul of the Argentinian game would look like. It would be, he wrote:
“A pibe [urchin] with a dirty face, a mane of hair rebelling against the comb; with intelligent, roving, trickster and persuasive eyes and a sparkling gaze that seem to hint at a picaresque laugh that does not quite manage to form on his mouth, full of small teeth that might be worn down through eating yesterday’s bread.
“His trousers are a few roughly sewn patches; his vest with Argentinian stripes, with a very low neck and with many holes eaten out by the invisible mice of use … His knees covered with the scabs of wounds disinfected by fate; barefoot or with shoes whose holes in the toes suggest they have been made through too much shooting. His stance must be characteristic; it must seem as if he is dribbling with a rag ball.”
Half a century before the fact, he outlined Maradona.
When he was born, Maradona arrived with the force of prophecy. He was small, impoverished and malnourished, so they gave him supplements and injections to build him up. He was temperamental, so they indulged him. Maradona got used to taking drugs, and he got used to getting his own way.
Boca Juniors was almost bankrupted by signing him from Argentinos Juniors, paying in dollars just as the peso was devalued. So they flogged him through friendly after friendly to raise funds and eventually sold him for a world-record fee to Barcelona. He never settled there but, really, how could he be expected to, this kid from a villa miseria? He brought his family over, but his mother was so uncomfortable in the new environment that she suffered panic attacks.
Maradona faced brutal defending. He began taking cocaine. He caught hepatitis. Barcelona cut its losses and sold him for another world-record fee, this time to Napoli. In the six years that followed, he inspired the club to two scudetti—league titles—the only two it has ever won.
In 1986, he led Argentina to the World Cup title. It was not quite, as some have claimed, a one-man triumph, but his brilliant goal against England in the quarterfinal and his two against Belgium in the semis, then his pass for the winner in the final against West Germany, meant he had a more direct influence on the winning of the trophy than any single player in the past 50 years.
It cemented his legend in Argentina: He had delivered on the prophecy. He became a messianic figure, and so in their hour of need, Argentinians turned to him. The first time was after a 5–0 humiliation against Colombia had left it in danger of failing to reach the 1994 World Cup. He had left Napoli after failing a drug test and was facing drugs charges in Buenos Aires. But he returned. He got himself fit, got his country through a World Cup qualifying playoff against Australia and then scored at the 1994 World Cup. And then he failed another drug test, upon which Argentina fell into a public mourning like nothing seen since the death of Juan Perón, exactly 20 years earlier.
But the nation turned to him again in 2009, this time as manager, as World Cup qualifying was again going astray. He had no managerial record to speak of. His reign was chaos. And yet, in two vital games, against Peru and Uruguay, Argentina found late winners. Somehow the idea of Maradona had prevailed—at least until it met Germany in the quarterfinals in South Africa.
He was always battling his demons, and they were always there. He was a genius, but he was a tortured one. He suffered for his greatness. In Naples he inspired devotion; at home in Argentina he inspired faith. For a player of his talent, three league titles, two domestic cups, a UEFA Cup and a World Cup doesn’t sound like much. But greatness lies in something beyond silverware.