We hound our icons to their graves, piling on the pressure, clawing at them to somehow validate ourselves. And so Diego Maradona has died, equal parts Icarus and Joan of Arc.
That Maradona was flawed goes without saying. As a person he hurt a lot of people, family, friends, himself. Every amateur psychologist in the world will have their explanations, and none of the Argentine’s brilliance should blind us from his human frailty.
But simultaneously it’s not possible to overstate Maradona’s meaning and impact as an artist with a ball at his feet, absolutely on a par with Picasso or Baryshnikov or Borges. Those who denigrate sport as a second opiate of the masses, a frivolous entertainment, fail to appreciate the way a player like Maradona could express the essence of a culture with the movement of his body.
He was the apotheosis of football in the ’80s, and not just because he was the most skilled or most influential, but because he embodied the game at a time before it was sanitized by an audience demanding role models. He, above all others, invested the game with a childish imagination that inspired generations of kids to chase after a ball themselves.
I was one of them, sat in the stands at the Estadio Azteca in 1986 as Maradona became the most watched person on the planet. I bought the shirt and copied the moves and played the highlights over and over in my mind, aware maybe for the first time, just what was possible.