Diego Maradona never found balance in life

Do geniuses deserve what Orwell called the “benefit of the clergy”? Does genius forgive all sins? Maradona discovered that it didn’t, and spent most of the second half of his life a shadow of the hero he once was.

“Football is a game of deceit,” Diego Armando Maradona says in Asif Kapadia’s superb documentary of the player. Perhaps he thought life was too.   -  H. Vibhu

“He was overwhelmed by the weight of his own personality,” wrote Eduardo Galeano, that great Uruguayan writer of Diego Maradona, that great Argentinian footballer. “It did not take him long to realise it was impossible to live with the responsibility of being a god on the field, but from the beginning he knew that stopping was out of the question.”

When news of his passing came, I turned to Asif Kapadia’s superb documentary of the player who had become a part of the family in the manner great sportsmen do when they appear in our living rooms for days and weeks and years. “Maradona” was among the first names my then infant son articulated, while watching the 1990 World Cup.

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It was four years after the Hand of God goal, which four minutes later had been followed by one of the greatest goals of all time. Maradona contained within himself both beauty and the beast; we loved him for the former but recoiled from the latter. “Football is a game of deceit,” he says in Kapadia’s film. Perhaps he thought life was too.

When he first came to Napoli, the club was intent merely on staving off relegation. Maradona inspired two Serie A and a UEFA titles. He was no longer a footballer, he was anointed a god, with his own temple. After that first title, a sign at a Neapolitan cemetery said: “You don’t know what you missed.”

Taking a route through excess, wild parties, cocaine addiction — all encouraged, or at least covered up by his club and a mafia family he had got close to — Maradona soon became the most hated man in Naples. Adding to the feeling was his exhorting fans to support Argentina against Italy in the World Cup. Former fans seemed to take a special pleasure in demolishing their idol.

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The many lessons in all this is too obvious to bear repeating here.

Galeano has written how Maradona “spoke truth to power and paid a price for that”, while giving the machinery of power out to get him a tendency to “serve himself up on a platter.” Childish irresponsibility made him “step in every trap laid in his path.” He was a rebel who asked uncomfortable questions and directed attention to uncomfortable truths, but all that was lost in that overwhelming irresponsibility.

When he first came to Italy, Maradona says in the film, he had to find the balance between speed and control on the field. You focused on one to the diminishment of the other. He never did find that balance in life.

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The saddest line is spoken as he leaves Italy in disgrace: “When I arrived in Naples, there were 85,000 people to greet me. But when I left, I left alone.”

Do geniuses deserve what Orwell called the “benefit of the clergy”? Does genius forgive all sins? Maradona discovered that it didn’t, and spent most of the second half of his life a shadow of the hero he once was.