The Two Sides of Diego Maradona

The lifelong story of Maradona is that the more broken and ugly something is when it enters his sphere of influence, the more beautiful and joyous that thing tends to become. The opposite is also very often true.

1. Almost No Visible Chain Saws

God had knee surgery on July 24, and He was still limping six weeks later, on September 8, when He walked out of the giant inflatable wolf’s head onto the soccer pitch at the Estadio Juan Carmelo Zerillo, in the Argentine city of La Plata. God wore a navy Le Coq Sportif hoodie with His initials (D.M.) on the chest, a white snapback cap, two glittering earrings, and track pants. God had not shaved, though He was not exactly sporting a full beard, either—it was more of a divine scruff situation—and He looked tiny, plush, and fragile. At 58, God was technically only three years older than Brad Pitt, but he did not call to mind Brad Pitt’s older brother so much as a small gnome in Brad Pitt’s older brother’s garden. With His billowing neck, heavy features, and dramatic mouth, God looked like a toad that was about to make a scene in a nice restaurant.

God was being unveiled as the new manager of El Lobo, the Club de Gimnasia y Esgrima La Plata, also known as Gimnasia, or GELP. Many thousands of people had come to see Him unveiled. The people sang and shrieked His name. God gazed up at the people, in the manner foretold in 2 Chronicles: “For the eyes of the LORD run to and fro throughout the whole earth, to shew himself strong in the behalf of them whose heart is perfect toward him.” The people shrieked even louder. For their hearts were perfect toward Him, and they wished dearly to shew Him this, and they shewed him using all the means at their disposal, mostly by shaking blue balloons, and by jumping.

The frenzy of their greeting brought a tear to God’s eye. He blew kisses to the people. Then some men came out and put Him in a golf cart.

“Diego!” the crowd thundered. “Maradoooo!” As a player, of course, Maradona had been, well, God—winner of the ’86 World Cup, scorer of legendary goals, on any short list of the biggest stars ever. As a coach—well, he had been a really incredible player. 

Diego Maradona—for such was God’s name—rode out toward the middle of the pitch. His body language was uncharacteristically restrained, even timid. He seemed overwhelmed by the magnitude of the moment. Maradona’s arrival at Gimnasia marked his return to working in his home country. As a player, of course, Maradona had been, well, God—winner of the ’86 World Cup, scorer of legendary goals, on any short list of the biggest stars ever. As a coach—well, he had been a really incredible player. When he managed Argentina’s national team during the 2010 World Cup, he was perhaps most famous for telling a journalist to “suck it and go on sucking it” after the team narrowly squeaked into the tournament. Since then, he had stints coaching in the United Arab Emirates. Most recently, he had been the manager of the Mexican club Dorados de Sinaloa, a fact that many people on the internet had remarked upon with mischief, for verily is Sinaloa a stronghold of drug cartels, and well had Maradona been known to sample the odd cartel product every now and then, in moderation. He left that job in June, however, before the knee surgery. Now he was here.

He got out of the golf cart. Smoke from several fiery explosions that had coincided with his arrival drifted over the flags that were waving and the banners that were being held aloft. His managerial record might have been mediocre—he’d never spent longer with a club than his 22-game stretch with the Cheetahs of Al-Wasl in 2011 and 2012—but the Gimnasia fans saw him as their savior. El Lobo had taken only one point from five matches and were flirting with relegation, but it was all right. Diego was here. In the stands, a man with freshly shaved hair was showing photographers the new Maradona tattoo he had gotten on his scalp. Outside the stadium, where fans were celebrating in the streets, a man commemorated God’s arrival by waving a chain saw over his head. This was not apparent from inside the stadium, where there were few to no visible chain saws.

He began to address the crowd, still moving timidly. As he spoke, people kept leaping onto the pitch to try to get close to him. One man sprinted toward him with a giant umbrella that had Maradona’s face on it, seemingly wanting nothing more—from the moment, possibly from life—than to stand near Maradona and hold the Maradona’s-head umbrella over Maradona’s head.

Watching the pitch invaders, listening to the roar of the singing, Maradona finally seemed to thaw. He started dancing a little. He got sassy with the crowd. It was as if a certain threshold of chaos had to be reached, and then the City of Misrule that builds itself around him everywhere he goes could begin flying together, brick by haphazard brick. When the City of Misrule appears, normal rules are suspended. Jesters become kings. The order of things turns on its head. In the City of Misrule, he knows how to carry himself.

He shouted. He sobbed. He marched around the pitch with members of his new team in a formation that was partly “impromptu military phalanx” and partly “floor-level camera panning backward in a smoky ’90s music video while a boy band struts forward to get you back, girl.” He led the crowd in the classic Argentine soccer chant, “If you don’t jump, you’re an Englishman.” He was the smallest living creature in the stadium—in his tousled younger days, perhaps the uppermost curl of his pouf brushed 5 feet, 5—yet his aura towered. He seemed healed, renewed by mayhem. Every so often he’d look up with his eyes brimming, soaking it all in, as if the past and the future were catching up to him at the same time.

2. A River Is Also a Machine

The Maradonas came from a town called Esquina, in the Corrientes province of northeastern Argentina. Diego himself wasn’t born there—by 1960, when he arrived, the family had relocated to Buenos Aires, 400 miles to the south—but his parents, at least, never stopped thinking of it as home. It was the place they always went back to. Later, when Diego was famous, Esquina was where he’d withdraw to retreat from the pressures of stardom. (In his case, this often meant flying in sympathetic journalists to listen to him rail against the conspiracies one motherfucker or another was perpetrating against him, but by his standards, this constituted a quiet, nay pastoral, existence.) It was in Esquina, beside a campfire one night in 1982, that he said to the writer Guillermo Blanco maybe the most tragic sentence he ever uttered: “What the people have to understand is that Maradona is not a machine for making them happy.”

It’s a river town. Esquina—the word means “corner”—sits on the eastern bank of the Río Corrientes, where it flows into the much larger Río Paraná, South America’s second-longest river. The confluence of the two waterways creates a green delta of many channels. In the 1940s and ’50s, barges floated down the river carrying goods (fruit, cotton, rice) from the interior to the port of Buenos Aires. Maradona’s father worked as a porter, loading crates and bales onto the barges.

His name, the father’s, was also Diego Maradona. He and Maradona’s mother, Dalma Salvadora Franco, who was called Tota, grew up 200 yards from each other on the riverbank. They lived in huts made from clay and manure. Maradona’s English biographer, Jimmy Burns, calls the conditions of their lives “pre-industrial.” We’re not talking about struggling to pay the electric bill, in other words; we’re talking about dirt floors. Roofs made of reeds. The bosses at the transport company where Diego Sr. worked paid him when they felt like it. When there was no money, he and his brother, Cirilo, would take a wooden canoe out on the river and fish for pike using the traditional traps of the indigenous Guaraní people. They knew all the branches and inlets. “My father was a boat man,” his son would later say with pride. They had a wealthier neighbor, Don Lupo. He owned cows, and sometimes the brothers found work rowing the cows out in a little boat, to graze on an island in the delta.

The image of his father on the river would eventually inspire one of the few lovely moments in Maradona’s autobiography—also one of the few that seems true, in the sense that it brushes against Maradona’s own inner life rather than merely enacting the agenda he laid out for whoever actually wrote the book. In the early ’80s, while Maradona was playing for Barcelona, he had an audience with Juan Carlos, the king of Spain. They talked about boats—Juan Carlos loved to sail—and Maradona says: “I imagined the King of Spain on the rivers of Corrientes.”

Though they grew up in the same place, the same patch of ground, even, Maradona’s parents came from different backgrounds. Diego Sr.’s people were Guaraní. Tota’s were descended from some of the millions of Italian immigrants who settled in Argentina in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, significantly reshaping the language and culture of the country. But they both belonged to the ranks of the descamisados, the shirtless ones, as the extreme poor were and still are known.

In 1946, the Perón government was inaugurated, with its claim to power resting on the support of the impoverished. The Maradonas were ardent in their Perónism. It was money from the Eva Perón Foundation, a sort of state instrument for using sport to suppress political dissent, that paid for Diego Sr.’s amateur soccer team (he was a stolid, unspectacular right winger; the teams showed up after their Sunday barbecues, often at least half drunk). It was the Peróns’ promise of economic opportunity in Buenos Aires that lured Tota, first, to the capital, where she briefly found work as a housemaid, and then Diego Sr., who got a job as a crusher in a bonemeal factory.

Their son’s life is often explained in terms of his upbringing in Villa Fiorito, the squatters’ shantytown south of Buenos Aires where he was born in 1960. In Fiorito, Diego Sr. built the family a shack made from scrap metal and cardboard. There was no running water. In bad weather, the rain poured in through the roof. The bathroom was an open cesspit. One side of the neighborhood was bordered by the Riachuelo, a stinking brown canal poisoned by runoff from the pulp factories. Dieguito spent his childhood in these slums, playing soccer in the wastelands outside them, running through shoes so fast his father would beat him when he needed new ones. He learned the villa’s lessons of loyalty, ruthlessness, and cunning. He learned to put his family over everything. He clutched his ball close to his chest while he slept.

But Fiorito was never only Fiorito. It was also the memory of Esquina. Just behind him, in all the family’s stories, there was this leafy green space. He grew up in the shantytown, hearing stories about eucalyptus trees and birdsong. Islands of floating hyacinth. Glades where you could sit and watch the small deer come and go. In Buenos Aires, the family faced harrowing poverty. In Esquina, they’d existed almost outside the economy of money, and that difference, the sense of something lost and just out of frame, must have shaped him, goaded him. That sense of a paradise just over his shoulder that vanished whenever he turned to look. 

It’s tempting to see Esquina as the symbol of a kind of prelapsarian innocence; one the younger Diego arrived too late to know. In Buenos Aires, the family faced harrowing poverty. In Esquina, they’d existed almost outside the economy of money, and that difference, the sense of something lost and just out of frame, must have shaped him, goaded him. That sense of a paradise just over his shoulder that vanished whenever he turned to look.

It’s truer, though, to say that Esquina meant something harder and more complex. After all, the Maradonas had known cruel exploitation there, as well. The shipping company treated its employees as serfs. My internet-ruined brain sees pretty birds and thinks “Eden,” but life was insecure and dangerous in ways I can barely fathom. The family left for a reason, and seem never to have seriously considered moving back (while always missing what they’d left behind).

It’s not hell following paradise, in other words. Hell was in paradise. The one thing enfolded the other from the start. Corruption wasn’t distinct from innocence; they contained each other. Were even in some way the same thing. That was the story that Diego acted out again and again during every phase of his life, as he remade the game of soccer in his image. That the thing you were trying to get back to already included the thing you were trying to escape.

3. So Much Frankincense, So Little Myrrh

What his mother cried at the instant Diego was born, according to the legend that has hardened around his nativity and been passed on by most of his biographers: “Gooooooooool!”

What the infant Diego was doing as he came into the world, per the same legend: Kicking.

What the doctor said, per legend, to Tota and Diego Sr. as he held up the baby: “Congratulations, you have a healthy son, and he is pure ass.”

What the hospital was called, i.e., maybe the one fact about the entire birth that hasn’t been retconned by angelic choirs and divine shafts of light, etc.: Polyclinicó Evita de Lanus.

Meaning the hospital where Diego entered life was named after: Eva Perón.

4. Cyterszpiler

In Buenos Aires in the early 1970s, there was a boy named Jorge Cyterszpiler. If you’d lived there and been a hardcore fan of the Argentinos Juniors soccer club in the La Paternal district, you’d have known him. By sight, at least. His brother, 10 years older, played for the club. Cyterszpiler stood behind the goal during home games. The team adopted him as a sort of mascot or good-luck charm. He was a big, soft, heavy kid who stood on crutches (he’d had polio). When Juan Eduardo, his brother, was playing, he’d get excited and let the crutches fall to the ground. The sight of little Cyterszpiler, with his bushy fern of curls, cheering the team on in unsteady exhilaration was a memorable feature of Argentinos matches.

Then, when he was 12, he quit going. What happened was that Juan Eduardo got kicked in the groin during a match, and—bizarre, freak accident—developed a hemorrhage and died. Cyterszpiler worshipped his brother. Watching soccer became unbearably painful for him. Grieving, he shut himself up in his parents’ apartment in La Paternal, barely going outside, hardly speaking to anyone.

Some friends came to visit, bearing urgent news. They told him about a new player on Los Cebollitas—“the Little Onions,” an Argentinos youth team—who could do things with a soccer ball that no one had ever seen. No, listen, Jorge, he’s magic, you have to come see for yourself. So Cyterszpiler, not without reluctance, ventured back out into the light, to assess the wonderchild. He was puny and odd-looking, a spindly shantytown kid, not yet the plug of compacted muscle he became. He wasn’t fast. He couldn’t jump. But the way he moved with the ball, the control he had with his left foot, left people gasping. 

There are geniuses in this world whose fate is not to be recognized at once, whose talents need time before they can be fully appreciated. This was not the case with Diego Maradona. By the time he was 9 years old, there was no mistaking what he was. If you saw him play, you knew. He was puny and odd-looking, a spindly shantytown kid, not yet the plug of compacted muscle he became. He wasn’t fast. He couldn’t jump. But the way he moved with the ball, the control he had with his left foot, left people gasping. Hardened soccer pros, narrow-eyed pragmatists who’d worked with enough youth talent to be cynical about the whole business of early promise, had to sit down and tell themselves to breathe. He’d go barreling at full speed into a swarm of bigger, faster boys, his chin tucked down and his little chest upthrust, and when they’d recovered their balance and turned around, the ball would be in the net.

Here’s how good he was. In age-bounded youth leagues, the classic scam is to sneak in older players, right? You take a teenager, falsify his birthdate, and make paste out of the tweens you play him against. With Diego—who, again, was smaller and slower than most of the kids his own age—coaches ran the opposite scam. They’d enter him at 11 or 12 into tournaments for 15-year-olds, under fake names because his was already starting to be whispered about in soccer circles. “You bastard,” said opposing coaches, when their teams of boys who were already shaving had been left in ruins by a 12-year-old who looked 9, “did you just play Maradona against me?” Some of them weren’t even angry, just grateful for the chance to have seen him.

Cyterszpiler got it immediately. Of course he did. He was only 12, two years older than Diego, but he truly loved football and had been watching it his whole life. He saw that this frail-looking street kid had gifts that couldn’t be taught. The kid was fearless and had phenomenal natural touch, plus that hard-to-define thing, that innate knack for micro-hesitations and subtle shifts of rhythm that in the greatest footballers can manifest to spectators as a wizard-like power over time. The lifelong story of Diego Maradona is that the more broken, ugly, and unsalvageable something is when it enters his sphere of influence, the more beautiful and joyous that thing tends to become. That’s what happened now with Cyterszpiler. This lost, sorrowing child saw Dieguito kicking a soccer ball and found his way back to the game, and back to life.

The boys became friends. Cyterszpiler’s parents were Jewish refugees from Poland. The family was affluent and cosmopolitan beyond anything Diego had experienced. They opened their home to him. It was as if he filled the space their dead child had left behind. There are touching, tender stories about Cyterszpiler taking Diego out to a pizzeria, paying for his slice. Buying him Cokes after practice. They’d have sleepovers and play Monopoly half the night before falling asleep in the same bed.

Diego dropped out of school to concentrate on football. (His education had already been intermittent, to use the most polite imaginable word for it. When the head of his school complained about all the classes he missed, his youth coach, who thought Maradona was going to make him rich, invited the man to see him play; after that, nothing more was said about his attendance.) Cyterszpiler started studying economics. In 1976, at the age of 15, Diego made his first appearance for Argentinos Juniors. He was the youngest player in the history of the league. In 1977, when Diego had become the hottest ticket in Argentina, a player the old men who ran the sport could scarcely look at without feeling their wallets fattening, he formally asked Cyterszpiler to represent him. Neither boy had yet turned 20.

It’s not an exaggeration to say that as Maradona’s first agent, Cyterszpiler helped to transform the global business of soccer. It was the decade when a thousand shady business interests—enabled and encouraged by João Havelange, the lavishly corrupt president of FIFA—woke up to how much money could be extracted from the game. Cyterszpiler helped turn the flow of this new money toward his client. He consolidated Maradona’s business interests in a separate corporation, Maradona Productions, registered in Liechtenstein to dodge taxes. He made sure Diego controlled his own image rights. He exploited sponsorships, recognizing the enormous value of Maradona’s endorsement at a time when global companies still saw footballers as cheap labor, especially if their skin was not Johan Cruyff–white and they came from the wrong side of the equator. Cyterszpiler got Maradona deals hawking Puma, Coca-Cola, toothbrushes, soap. He got him his own line of dolls. About the only products Diego refused to put his name on were cigarettes and wine, because he—Diego Maradona: the road of life is full of swerves—did not approve of drug-taking. He wanted to be the slum kid who never forgot his roots, but he also wanted the marble birdbath and the Lamborghini. 

So much of this is so commonplace now that it barely registers; at the time, the fully commercialized version of soccer stardom that Diego represented was novel enough that it enraged people. For a certain subset of fans, you might worship a soccer star, but you didn’t expect him to move into a mansion and put on airs. Diego pointed the way to the corporatized future, but his roots were in the older, more populist game that he himself was helping to overwrite. In that tension lay much future heartache. He wanted to be the slum kid who never forgot his roots, but he also wanted the marble birdbath and the Lamborghini. For a while in the 1970s, a significant number of Argentine fans turned on him for doing stuff like “taking a vacation to Las Vegas and being photographed in a swimming pool.” It wasn’t always easy being the golden child.

Cyterszpiler kept the wheels turning. He masterminded the then-world-record, $8 million transfer that took Maradona from Boca Juniors to FC Barcelona in 1982. He negotiated the move to Napoli when things at Barcelona went bad (i.e., with head-spinning quickness and fury). The Europeans with whom he dealt initially saw him as a rube, and there’s a tone of condescension in the way he’s depicted throughout this period: the International Herald Tribune pilloried him as Maradona’s “fat, inseparable companion” in 1981 and sniffily wrote off his negotiating style as “bespeaking naïveté and greed.” In fact, he was playing a type of hardball that the European clubs hadn’t caught up to yet. He spent years setting up the Barcelona deal, playing greedy Argentine club owners off supercilious Catalan lawyers. He planted fake stories in the press to manipulate the talks. All in the service of changing the idea of what a superstar footballer could be worth. The lifelong story of Diego Maradona is that the more broken, ugly, and unsalvageable something is when it enters his sphere of influence, the more beautiful and joyous that thing tends to become. 

By the early 1980s, Maradona’s fame, and the pressure it brought with it, had become almost literally unimaginable. By “unimaginable,” I don’t mean “people mobbing him at airports.” I mean, “the military junta that governs Argentina has diverted national funds to stop him from transferring to Barcelona because he is seen as a natural resource.” I mean, “the military might physically stop him from leaving the country.” He started getting paranoid, not unjustifiably. He’d scored well over 100 league goals for Argentinos Juniors and Boca by the time he was 21, and now people hated him because he moved his family out of the slums? Hated him, but wouldn’t let him leave? This was the period when the escapes to Esquina started. The persecution complex. “What the people have to understand is that Maradona is not a machine for making them happy.”

In Europe, he discovered cocaine.

Around the same time, Cyterszpiler was overextending himself on the business front. He spent $1 million having camera crews follow his player around, then couldn’t figure out what to do with the footage. He made some bad investments, tied up money in “Paraguayan bingo halls and the like,” as one writer put it. Diego was making a fortune, but he was somehow spending an even larger fortune, spending three or four fortunes. He needed money; there was no money. When they got to Naples, Cyterszpiler found that unlicensed Maradona merchandise was being sold all over the city. He tried to assert Diego’s image rights. The Camorra, the Neapolitan mafia, took him aside and said, Hey, relax. We’ll take care of merchandizing for you.

In ’85, Diego fired him. He did it when Cyterszpiler was out of the country, negotiating a TV rights deal for Diego in Mexico. Cyterszpiler had been caught in the catastrophic 1985 Mexico City earthquake, which hit 8.0 on the Richter scale and killed 5,000 people. He was unhurt, but the experience was beyond terrifying. City in flames, no power, no water, days of violent aftershocks. When the phones came back on, Cyterszpiler got a call from a friend. Diego doesn’t want you back, the friend said.

It is the lifelong story of Diego Maradona that the more joyous and beautiful something is when it enters his sphere of influence, the more broken, ugly, and unsalvageable that thing tends to become. Barely a decade ago, these young men had been playing Scrabble and having sleepovers. Together they’d changed world soccer. Diego fired his friend without speaking to him.

5. Intrusos en el Espectáculo

Monday in the City of Misrule. Today’s venue for Maradona chaos is: The TV talk-show circuit. Today’s topic is: An old standby—how many children does Diego Maradona really have? Today’s time frame is: Two days since the weeping and the fireballs and the chain saws at his Gimnasia unveiling. Not even 48 hours, but then again, the last time the City was quiet for 48 consecutive hours was probably, like, October 1972.

So: On September 10, 2019, a handsome, heavy-browed 18-year-old named Santiago Lara went on Argentine TV to announce that Diego Maradona was his padre biológico. Picture him on the Intrusos en ll Espectáculo talk-show set: Suit jacket over white Tommy Hilfiger T-shirt; bedroom eyes; phenomenally huge earring in left ear (it’s seriously Christmas-ornament-sized, and shaped like a sporty swirl, or like the lowercase italic e in old e-commerce brand logos); hair slicked oceanically back on top and buzzed lightsaber-close on the sides. Ultra-confident sexy smirk. Could easily be Maradona’s son; could also easily be the result of a sorcerer trying to reincarnate “Freedom! ’90”–era George Michael. Animated behind him on the Intrusos set’s video-screen backdrop: blue sky with puffy white Microsoft clouds. The sky animation, however, is frequently replaced by: slowly gliding photos of Maradona to which heavy grain and shadow effects have been added. The Intrusos talk-show panel—let me apologize here for not remembering names; there are simply so many people on the stage: there’s Aging Dandy in Lavender Tie and Round Caramel Glasses, Bearded Cool Dad in Suit With No Tie, Woman in Sensible Pants Who Obviously Puts Up With a Lot, and so forth—the Intrusos panel takes turns opining and asking questions. The music is ominous and heavy on doom-laden synth strings, but by English-language talk-show standards, everyone seems eminently calm and reasonable. (I say “seems” because I am able to make out—though this is also true of most English-language talk shows I’ve watched—only around 4 percent of the conversation.)

Lara says he didn’t know anything about his true paternity until a few years ago. He was out buying a newspaper for his grandmother when he saw his own face looking up at him from the cover of a magazine called ProntoIs this Diego Maradona’s son from La Plata? Baffled, he convened his surviving family members (his mother, the person best positioned to clear matters up for him, died of lung cancer when he was a toddler) and learned the truth. Initially, he didn’t want to do anything with it, he says. The man who raised him, who loved him, will always be his father. Now, however, he has decided to come forward and share his story with the 39 members of the Intrusos en el Espectáculo panel. Photographs glide across the backdrop depicting a time when Lara put on a shaggy Maradona wig to prove that he looked like Maradona. In these photographs, he kind of does look like Maradona, and also kind of does not look like him.

The next day, as the story began to break internationally, the U.K. tabloid The Sun picked it up under the headline: SON OF GOD.

6. Oranges of El Campín

The legendary French striker and disgraced UEFA administrator Michel Platini has said, “What Zidane can do with a football, Maradona could do with an orange.” This is precisely true. When he was a little boy, around the age when he first met Cyterszpiler, Diego would be brought out at halftime during Argentinos Juniors games, where he entertained the crowd by doing tricks with a ball. The stuff he’d do—you imagine that after the match, when the spectators went home and told their friends what they’d seen, their friends would think they were lying. He was like a wispy, small-boned Harlem Globetrotter who didn’t use his hands. When Americans express bewilderment that Maradona is still so beloved in Argentina after the years of absurdity and scandal, what they’re missing is not just the significance of 1986; they’re also unaware of just how long the Argentine public has known him, how much love and hope they’ve invested in him. 

In a small way, he became famous for this. Crowds would protest when halftime ended. Someone put him on TV, this time juggling not only a ball, but bizarre and hard-to-control objects—a bottle, an orange. When Americans express bewilderment that Maradona is still so beloved in Argentina after the years of absurdity and scandal, what they’re missing is not just the significance of 1986; they’re also unaware of just how long the Argentine public has known him, how much love and hope they’ve invested in him. He grew up in front of them. The image of the fey urchin with magical gifts hovers over all the later images, in ways the rest of us can’t easily see. And this in a country repeatedly torn apart by class conflict, a country where the figure of the pibe, the dirty-faced boy trickster who survives on charm and guile, has iconic cultural importance.

“Maradona offered to the Argentines a way out of their collective frustration,” Jorge Valdano, his former Argentina teammate, has said. “That’s why people love him. He is a divine figure.”

On June 2, 1985, less than three months before Diego fired Cyterszpiler, Argentina played a World Cup qualifying match against Colombia. The divine figure was 24. By then, he was probably the most famous soccer player in the world. No one who saw him play could doubt the magnitude of his talent. At the same time, there was beginning to be a sense that something had gone wrong for him, that his career was shaping up to be a disappointment. Argentina had won the World Cup in ’78, but he was 17 then and hadn’t been called up to the squad, a slight that left him seething for years. In ’82, when he was called up, the team had been underwhelming, dropping out during the second group stage. There were explicable reasons for the letdown; Argentina was fighting the Falklands War against England, and the players, whose only perspective on the conflict came via state propaganda, were stunned when they flew to Spain and learned from the TV that their country was not about to win the glorious victory they’d been led to think was imminent. Still, it was a letdown.

At the club level, well, he’d won one Primera División title with Boca. After all the hype surrounding his record transfer to Barcelona, though, his time in Spain had been nasty and short. He missed matches with hepatitis. He fought with club executives. He sat out three months after a hideous tackle by Andoni Goikoetxea—the so-called Butcher of Bilbao—shattered his ankle. In his next game against Bilbao, with the king of Spain in attendance and more than half the country watching on TV, he started a brawl that escalated into a near-riot, leaving 60 people injured. The whole move to Spain had been a disaster. (A disaster in which he scored 22 league goals in 36 games, true, including one so staggering—he stopped on a pin at the last possible second, causing his defender to fly past him and crash into the post—that Real Madrid fans gave him an ovation in the Bernabéu, something no Barcelona player had ever received. But a run that would cement any other player’s stardom could still be a disaster for him; standards have always been a little crazed where Diego is concerned.)

Even after that, his transfer to Napoli set another world record—more than $10 million this time—and in Naples, he was worshipped. Across that city of steep alleys and crumbling churches, with the shocking blue disc of its bay, his image was ubiquitous, hanging over balconies, pinned up in windows, hung on the walls beside saints. As a club, though, Napoli was an afterthought, no place for a true star. You were never going to win a scudetto at Napoli. Naples was a place to party in Camorra nightclubs, take drugs, and womanize, all of which, according to persistent rumors, he was doing at rockstar-crackup levels. It was a place to squander your talent.

Pelé had written this about him: “My main doubt is whether he has sufficient greatness as a person to justify being honored by a worldwide audience.”

The point is, in the summer of ’85 Diego was in some trouble. Argentina was playing in a World Cup qualifier against Colombia in Bogotá, at the Estadio El Campín. Big, raucous, hostile crowd. Before the match, the Argentine players were down on the pitch in their baby-blue-and-whites, doing their little warm-up trots and toe touches. The full 1980s-soccer-stadium wrath of the crowd poured down on them. Absolutely thunderous wrath. Air a tissue of angry song. Then the Colombia fans started throwing things at the players. Cans, bottles, who knows what came swan-diving down around the Albiceleste. To be in the eye of this kind of fury would inspire apocalyptic panic in most of us; in the world of high-level ’80s footballers, it was another workday. But Diego had always been unusually sensitive to crowds. Some players didn’t get nervous before matches; he did. “It’s unbelievable the fear the crowd can make you feel sometimes,” he said.

Someone threw an orange at him. It’s hard to piece together the exact sequence of what happened because the stories vary so widely; there are books that say the orange was thrown when he was about to take a corner kick, and that he caught it on his foot, right out of the air. Then there are people who say none of this happened at all, because that sure sounds like a folktale, and nothing approximating a circus orange-catch happens on the surviving video of the match. (You can confirm this yourself; it’s on YouTube.) To my mind the likeliest version of the story, the one that best accords with the accounts of people who were there, is that it happened before the match started—hence its absence from the video record—and that the orange missed him and rolled to a stop a few feet away. He had a rare power to take malice and violence and transform them utterly, to change them, if only for a moment, into wonder. Into laughing delight. 

He didn’t catch it out of the air, in other words. But he went over to it. He scooped it up on his left foot. The way I picture it, he gave it a couple of trial bounces on his toe. Then he started juggling it. The crowd fell quiet. Suddenly he was back in one of those childhood halftimes, and the Colombian crowd, which had hated him 10 seconds before and would hate him again in a few minutes, was transformed into an audience of awestruck Argentinos fans. Actually, they were experiencing something even deeper. They loved football. They loved watching what a player could do with a ball. They’d come to the match full of tribal passion. Then the clouds parted—Maradona made them part, doing something as silly as bouncing an orange—and they were put unexpectedly into contact with that original love. There are countless moments during any soccer match when that might happen, but most of the time, in fact, almost all of the time, the crowd resists it. Watching Diego, they didn’t.

Toe-knee-toe-knee. Forehead-heel–shoulder blades. I can’t think about the feeling spreading over the stadium without remembering a line from James Merrill, from a poem that has nothing to do with soccer:

Young storm, this house is yours.

Every good thing he touched, he perverted. After Boca, he never again left a club on friendly terms. He ended his time in Naples as hated as he’d once been adored. He couldn’t even find peace in Seville, where oranges come from. All this is true. It’s also true that he had a rare power to take malice and violence and transform them utterly, to change them, if only for a moment, into wonder. Into laughing delight. A trick played on a large enough scale becomes a miracle. Whatever else you remember about him, remember that.

7. Sell Your Ceilings

What Maradona said after his audience with Pope John Paul II: “I was in the Vatican and I saw all these golden ceilings and afterwards I heard the Pope say the Church was worried about the welfare of poor kids. Sell your ceiling then, amigo, do something!”

How Maradona describes his role in world politics: “I am the voice of the voiceless, the representative of the people. … I am El Diego.”

To what extent this statement is an unwitting echo of Proverbs 31:8: 100 percent? “Speak out on behalf of the voiceless, and for the rights of all who are vulnerable.” Though I’d argue that tacking on “I am El Diego” would significantly improve the Bible verse.

What gifts Maradona has acknowledged receiving from the Camorra during his time in Naples (a partial list): “Gold Rolexes, cars. They gave me the first Volvo 900 to come into Italy.”

How much he spent on long-distance phone bills, monthly, at the height of his career in Europe: $15,000.

Who he was calling: His mother.

8. A Lot of Maradonas

He is always trying to get back to his family. Back to Argentina. Back to Fiorito. Back to Esquina, before his own birth. In the autobiography, this is the insistent theme. You never forget where you come from. You remember who your people are. “The most important thing Maradona can have,” he writes, is “my whole family with me.” And: “My whole family was there.” “The whole family settled down to watch.” “I don’t owe anybody anything except my family.” “I took my whole family.” “All my family.”

And yet: His family is also the thing he is always trying to escape. Long before Santiago Lara made his bombshell Intrusos appearance, the true number of his children was a subject of fascination and debate in Argentina. As recently as 2018, the number seemed fixed at five. There were the two daughters, Dalma and Giannina, whom he had with his ex-wife, Claudia Villafañe. For years they were the only offspring he’d admit to. The relationship has undergone massive strain—in 2017 he called for Giannina to be jailed after accusing her of plotting with her mother to steal millions from him, a feud that built several new skyscrapers in the City of Misrule—but he always acknowledged them. Then there were also the son and daughter, Diego and Jana, born to two different women during his marriage, whom he refused to acknowledge until he lost to their mothers in court. His relationship with Diego, who was born in Naples, generated years of gossip in Italy. (At one point, the boy snuck onto a golf course to confront him.) Finally, there was the son, Diego (again), who is now 6, whom he had with his former girlfriend Veronica Ojeda. That was the official tally.

In 2018, his lawyer told a TV interviewer that Diego had “misbehaved” at rehab in Cuba, and that he might have an unknown number of secret love children hidden on the island, which he visited as a guest of the Castros in the early 2000s, emerging with a tattoo of Fidel on his leg. The conversation went like this:

INTERVIEWER: Will more Diego Maradona children surface?

LAWYER: I’m worried about Cuba.

INTERVIEWER: A Cuban boy?

LAWYER: Hopefully just one.

This past March, he agreed to acknowledge not one but three Cuban children, all teenagers. “My whole family.” What would he say about Santiago Lara? The news shows waited for his response, and for his first match in charge at Gimnasia. And the City of Misrule tumbled down and piled up, as usual.

9. The Cosmic Kite and the Wind That Blew It

The two most famous goals in the history of soccer were scored in the same match, by the same player, within four minutes of one another. For all the ink that’s been spilled over Argentina’s win versus England in the ’86 World Cup, the unlikelihood of that, the outrageous and even supernatural-seeming WTF of it, could, if anything, stand to be mentioned more regularly. Has anything more improbable ever happened in sports?

Think about it: the most popular and widely played game in the history of the world, a game with records going back more than a century, a game that’s been chronicled on film almost since film has existed, a game that’s recorded untold millions—billions—of goals. Even if you look only at World Cups, the number of goals is still over 2,500, scored by the best attacking players in the world over 88 years and 21 tournaments. And the two most legendary were scored by one person in the amount of time it takes to stream “I’d Like to Know” by Supergrass? Defies reason, right? And when you add that the goals were stylistic and even moral opposites of one another—that they defined a whole range of possibilities for what soccer can be—and that they occurred in the superheated political context of the countries’ recent war, you only add to the overall unhingedness with which we ought to be freaking out about what Diego did in that match. I’m sorry; we ought to appoint a fixed hour every day to drop everything we’re doing and just freak out for three minutes. It’s true that externally, they fall at opposing ends of many of the conceptual spectra through which soccer is normally interpreted. One was an act of deceit; one was an act of skill. One was cheating; one was legitimate. 

The thing that’s always said about the “Hand of God” goal and the unnamed otherworldly wondergoal that followed it (you know, the one that caused the Argentine commentator to cry, “Little cosmic kite, which planet did you come from, to leave so many Englishmen behind?”—that one) is that they contradict each other. I disagree. It’s true that externally, they fall at opposing ends of many of the conceptual spectra through which soccer is normally interpreted. One was an act of deceit; one was an act of skill. One was cheating; one was legitimate. And so forth. Have you ever really looked at them, though? Watch them without listening to the received voice-over about good vs. evil and Maradona’s tragic dark side or whatever, and in your bones, I do not think you will feel a conflict between them. I don’t feel one. It’s what I find so preposterously compelling about them. They should be incompatible, but what you sense instead is that they come from the same deep place. They’re unified by something, and the question of what that thing is, where it leads, is fascinating.

He’s weaving through midfield, in the blue shirt Argentina wore that day. English defenders converge, and he starts doing incalculable things with his legs; he churns his feet as if he’s running forward while he’s actually swerving delicately to his right; he swings his foot back as if he means to pass the ball, then dribbles it forward gently; he stutter-steps, looking off-balance while he’s actually in perfect control. The brilliance of this run, which set up the handball, is seldom talked about. He lays the ball off to Jorge Valdano at the edge of the penalty area and keeps charging forward. Steve Hodge, Valdano’s defender, clears the ball bloopsily back toward the England goalkeeper, Peter Shilton; it comes down between Maradona and Shilton just as they’re about to collide. Diego has no play on it with his head—he’s not a jumper—but he can get to it with his hand, and he does it, he cheats; he’s not thinking, it’s raw, furious instinct. He celebrates shamelessly as the ball hits the net.

Four minutes later, he’s weaving through midfield again. Héctor Enrique, who has just rolled the ball to him on the wrong side of the halfway line, would joke about his role in what followed for years afterward: “After a pass like that …” He takes the ball not only on Argentina’s side of the pitch but facing the wrong way, with his back to England’s goal. The first thing he has to do is turn around, but there are two England defenders on him, one in front and one behind. He skips forward a step—that is, in the wrong direction, away from where he wants to go—to throw off the first defender. He does a slow, complex twirl to beat the second. In the thousand-page science-fiction novel about this goal that I carry in my mind, the slow twirl represents a pause of activation, as he allows his flesh to be flooded by astral light. Now he’s in open space, running in that strange, hurtling way he had as if he were hauling himself forward by the elbows. England defenders come at him one by one, to be beaten and left for dead in a series of miniature, exquisite scenes. Little cosmic kite, which planet did you come from? He covers 60 yards in 10 seconds and beats five players. He leaves two players, including Shilton, the goalkeeper, sprawled full-length in the area. Again there’s no thought involved; it’s pure, flawless improvisation. It’s a triumph of pitiless instinct.

Analysts sometimes explain the first goal, the handball, with reference to the Latin American (and specifically Buenos Aires) concept of viveza. This refers to a kind of legitimized dishonesty, a contempt for rules and responsibility. It’s an anti-ethic that’s often criticized as a source of corruption, though it’s probably best understood as a response to it. When you can’t trust the rules, when every institution exists to cheat you and fuck you over, then the only way to win is to outwit them. To cheat them first. You lie because you’re on to the fact that the ultimate scam is honesty. Seen in that light, it’s a descamisado survival tactic. When Cyterszpiler and Diego would lie to the press to squeeze more out of Coca-Cola, that was viveza at work. By any definition of normal human conduct, this is a bad trade-off to permit yourself to make, because it means seeing yourself as above the rest of humanity, beyond the limitations that govern them. It means seeing yourself as godlike. On the other hand: the video of that second goal. 

The “Hand of God,” I think, is something else. Viveza was part of it, maybe. Maradona has never been fussy about the truth where his own benefit is concerned. His statements through the years constitute perhaps the most sustainedly dishonest public record not to originate in an American presidential administration. But I think the real explanation of the first goal is the second goal. This is why they’re more fascinating together than apart. When your instinct, operating at that speed, at that pitch of intensity, is capable of such greatness, then you will not naturally be inclined to temper the force and velocity of instinct by submitting it to the authority of laws. You will want to stay in the world of instinct, to assert its supremacy over that other, ordered world, so that you can act on it with as little hindrance as possible. Instinct told Maradona to commit the handball. Instinct led him to score the second goal. By any definition of normal human conduct, this is a bad trade-off to permit yourself to make, because it means seeing yourself as above the rest of humanity, beyond the limitations that govern them. It means seeing yourself as godlike. On the other hand: the video of that second goal.

Or look at it this way. For most of his playing career, he traveled with photographs of his family and a photograph of himself meeting Juan Perón. He’d never met Juan Perón, who died when he was 13; the photo was a fake. Wherever he went, he put it on his nightstand and slept beside it.

Or this way. What’s the most innocent aspect of human character, the one least adulterated by civilization? Instinct, right? Now: What’s the most corrupt aspect of human character, the one most innately greedy, self-absorbed, amoral, and violent?

Exactly.

10. Lead Us Not

This is one version of the Lord’s Prayer of the Church of Maradona, founded in Rosario, Argentina, in 1998, sort of as a joke and also sort of not:

Our Diego, who is on the pitch, hallowed be thy left foot. May your magic come to us, may your goals be remembered on earth as in heaven. Give us this day our happiness, and forgive those journalists, as we have forgiven the Neapolitan mafia. Don’t let yourself get caught offside and free us from Havelange.

Diego

11. The City of Misrule

The map rearranges itself. Streets are here one day, gone the next. The cathedral is upside down. The cathedral is beautiful. The cathedral is floating in the sea. It had been a trying week. First, there was the media frenzy in Argentina over his new job and his possible new son, and now, internationally, there was a frenzy because of a new film about him. The film was a documentary by the acclaimed director Asif Kapadia. It had premiered at Cannes in the spring. Now it was about to debut in the United States. It was sympathetic to him, but complexly sympathetic, critically sympathetic. It focused on his time in Naples and his relationship with the Camorra. Everywhere it played, it had drawn rave reviews. “I found myself gripped by a universally accessible tale of a divided soul,” one critic had written.

Now, true to form, the divided soul was trying to get back to the thing he had been trying to get away from. That same week, his lawyer announced that Maradona would voluntarily submit to a DNA test to determine whether he was Santiago Lara’s father. “Diego recognizes he has made mistakes in the past,” he said. “Next week, I have an important meeting regarding a case that is very similar to this one. I will not mention the person’s name, as they have asked me not to.”

12. The Wandering Sign

On September 15, a week after his unveiling, Diego managed his first game with Gimnasia. He pulled a tough draw for his debut: Racing, the defending Argentine champions. His side played decently but lost, 2-1. They’d scored an equalizer seven minutes after halftime, and Diego had leaped off the bench, hurled himself into his assistants’ arms—the world’s most euphoric three-inch vertical leap—and celebrated like it was 1986 again. Two minutes later, Racing scored what turned out to be the winning goal. When the final whistle blew, the life went out of him.

He did his post-match interview down on the pitch. In soccer’s commercial era, whenever you give an interview anywhere, you’re almost always required to stand in front of a backdrop covered with sponsors’ brand logos. Some men came out and set up this backdrop for him. These boards are always a precisely identical shade of deep blue, a blue not just corporate but somehow profoundly corporate, a blue that expresses the essence of corporateness; if it were a swimming pool, sentient Visa cards would be doing the breaststroke through it, working their little M&M-guy arms. Diego stood in front of the board and started talking. He was visibly wounded. The loss hurt his soul, he said. After answering a question or two, he decided he wanted to move, so—apparently having forgotten his obligation to the board—he walked away from it. The interviewer followed him. The board dropped almost out of view.

Well, that’s Diego, you’re thinking, refusing to be governed by the laws of mortal men. But the law is stronger than it looks, because after a moment, the board got up and started walking after him. Human hands appeared on either side of the board. Human feet appeared beneath it. Every so often, as the board staggered along behind Diego, trying to keep up with all his twists and turns, a human head would peek out from behind the board and look to see where he was going. As Diego praised the Racing players while insisting his team had played well enough to win, the blue board’s quest to keep up with him unfolded silently behind him on the screen. The board would fall behind and look defeated, and then make an unexpected recovery and almost catch up. It was hard to listen to anything Maradona was saying as you watched this strange, slow-motion chase. Diego walked without looking back. The way he walked seemed to say, “It hurts, but at least I’m free,” to which the board, creeping up slowly behind him, seemed to answer, “It’s hilarious, but you’ll never get away.”

All Rights Reserved for Brian Phillips

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