We had grown used to Diego Maradona overcoming health issues throughout his latter years, a remnant of a hard-lived life. When he was released from the hospital in mid-November following surgery, it was just another crisis averted, adding to his indestructible aura. He’d come back as he always did: a television appearance somewhere shortly afterward, with his trademark relentlessness on display (he was still the manager of Gimnasia when he passed). The news of his death due to a heart attack seemed impossible considering how he appeared to move through the world outside the bounds of mortality. And this will be the first time for many soccer supporters that the game will exist without Maradona.
With his playing ability, charisma, and post-career antics, Maradona provided many hooks for us to join the journey. But those high jinks were only distractions. We know more of Maradona than about Maradona. Even the Maradona documentary from last summer served to add to his mythos rather than unravel the enigma into something more human and relatable. The opening scene featured Maradona driving through Naples with uptempo music soundtracking the background. This was not a soccer player nor human: this was a transcendent star. The deeper we dug, the more layered and opaque he became.
In the end, we never got to hear his definitive story from his perspective. There were no long-form reflections; his voiceovers in Maradona seemed more of an everyday chore than a grand pronouncement of one’s life story.
His lack of first person storytelling gives a new angle to the types of documentaries like The Last Dance that sit somewhere between nonfiction and self-promotion. The Last Dance was criticized for giving Michael Jordan the final cut, but isn’t that what we all wanted? Not just a document that abided by stringent journalistic standards, but Jordan’s first person stories, told in his voice, how he wanted us to see him? The series allowed Jordan to cross that invisible boundary from untouchable superhero to everyday meme. No longer a basketball legend, he became usable in our day-to-day conversations, a friendly tool to express emotions in a uniquely modern way. It was his way to join the world in 2020.
In contrast, there was always a distance, an invisible glass, that could never be breached with Maradona. We were below, and he stood above as we never intersected on the same plane. Though without a definitive, first-person account, the legend of Maradona is preserved. It is up to us to shape and mold the stories how we see fit. And the more contradictions from these third person accounts, the better. We’ll have to continue to experience Maradona through entire sequences, whether his “Goal of the Century” against England or his pre-game juggling routine. We have to consider it all without the availability of easy screenshots.
There is a childhood story that doubles as a metaphor for life point of view, when he fell into a cesspit as a youth and was told to keep his head “above the shit” to survive. But even those stories of rural life add to his distance with today’s ambitions to bring the world online. Our current problems are that we are too connected, too online, with technology innovating too quickly.
That Maradona not only spans a pre-social media world, but also a pre-modern economic world, only adds to his mythical otherness. He is one of the last pop culture figures with folkloric stories from undocumented nights that could never be proven true or false. Our athletes today build their brands from a young age as part of keeping up with the moment. We know their stories. Maradona was firmly of an analog age, where anything seemed possible.
Maradona was also a storyteller. His naming of the “Hand of God” goal brought in a fatalistic perspective to his play. He couldn’t help it: even when video replays should have added objectivity, the goal became more subjective with the passage of time. It stopped being about the handball, but about the cunning, about outsmarting the system and getting away with it. It was about genius, about rules, and how power dynamics can influence the behavior of its parties. It turned a controversial goal in a World Cup into a moment still debated over thirty years later, just by the context that Maradona provided.
We can never predict how the next generation views the great players of the past. Those who watched him live surely understood his historical place in the moment. Then, there was the generation just after, who still heard first-hand accounts of Maradona’s greatness. We have enough distance now where a generation may only know of Maradona through his antics at World Cups (similar to only seeing Jordan as a sneaker company). Is there a way to get across the impact of a player for future generations, especially when style and philosophies change within a matter of short years? Or maybe the social media outpouring is a way of Maradona transcending into a new era: after all, what is more significant than making someone a part of your timeline?
In explaining his country’s obsession with Maradona, Jorge Valdano said that “he offered to Argentinians a way out of their collective frustration and that’s why people love him.” And while it’s impossible to grasp its nuances from the outside, we can relate to the idea of elevating public figures to represent our nation’s founding myths, how people come to represent the positives and negatives of the people we most aspire to be. That deal is great for us – we get a place to release our energies and anxieties - in lieu of that individual ceasing to become a real person. Now, all of their actions must represent something more, must tell us something about ourselves.
So without our cultural artifacts, what objects can we impart our collective meaning onto?
Napoli took steps to rename its Sao Paulo Stadium after Maradona. Whether in the physicality of monuments or architecture, the informality of supporter memories, from YouTube videos or inspiring future players, Maradona’s influence will find its way back. There is the oft-quoted William Faulkner line of how “the past is never dead,” combined with the concept that the internet never forgets. For as much as Maradona existed in a pre-digital age, modern technology ensures his legacy lives on.
Yet the contemporary space Maradona left behind feels impossible to fill. Matching his on-field accomplishments is daunting enough, but even more so when also taking in the personality and attraction of it all – the meaning and the responsibility of embodying an entire country’s collective meaning. And again, we must add the context of a bifurcated, long-tail world of social media making it even more difficult to gather around one idea.
The gaze and influence of Maradona seemed to only pick up momentum the further he was from his playing career. When Maradona managed Argentina in the 2010 World Cup, we knew it wasn’t a matter of tactical insight, but for giving his symbolic approval of that generation of players. Even during his time as Gimnasia manager, we continued to watch him as he watched the field. He was a kingmaker and observer until the end. He knew how to navigate that underlying world of gestures and emotions, a place beyond words and everyday logic, just by being. Now, we can no longer look to Maradona for his acceptance. We’re alone in our journey to find meaning.