Diego Maradona was God’s gift to a generation of sportswriters

At first it might seem strange to note that Diego Maradona, who died in Buenos Aires this week at age 60, did not play muse to a notable cohort of writers in the way that other 20th century sporting greats were.

Where Ali had Norman Mailer, David Remnick and Mark Kram, and DiMaggio had Gay Talese and Richard Ben Cramer, there is no standout contender staking literary claim to the Argentinian hero.

One obvious explanation is that in both personality and playing style, Maradona was a figure too lurid and unbelievable for the restrained pens of respectable journalists and writers.

Also, there was his ubiquity in international football’s first era of blanket television coverage; his most outrageous moments were readily accessible and endlessly replayed, making them harder for writers to relay with any fresh new spin.

Some claim it is more a question of language barrier: the most insightful accounts of Maradona’s deeper significance simply weren’t written in English. Among those that were, old treasures remain.

How about Patrick Barclay on an 18-year-old Maradona’s evisceration of Scotland in July 1979, when the world first awakened to his genius.

“Maradona is formidable to even behold: dark, stocky and with a middleweight’s muscularity,” Barclay wrote.

“He moves so quickly that the spectator gets eye strain. You expect an Argentinian to have virtually total ball control, but few can dribble like Maradona whose brain, being capable of reading three opponents’ minds at once, can render even tackling in groups futile.

The Observer’s late, great Hugh McIlvanney seemed well matched.

During the 1982 World Cup, McIlvanney wrote: “The foul that caused Diego Maradona to be ordered from the field was so violent that it might have ended the sex life of Brazil’s Batista there and then … Maradona’s changes of direction are so devastatingly sudden and extreme that they must impose a huge strain on his lower body. Surely there has not been such a pelvis since Elvis Presley was in his prime.”

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Fans mourn Maradona in Naples, where he played in the 80s and 90s.

Two years later, McIlvanney could also see the dark side of Maradona’s fame.

“Outsiders are entitled to say that when your contract runs into the millions, even the hard times must be bearable,” he wrote.

“But a glance at Maradona’s 23-year-old face, which should still be that of a boy under the thick canopy of shining black hair, discourages such simplistic reactions. In Spain, probably to a greater extent than in any other European country, football exacts stiff payment for the cash fortunes it bestows.

“Annual salaries read like national budgets but the young men who receive the money can’t always be sure they will age just one year at a time.”

US fascination with Maradona

Of course, that celebrity was not confined to Europe.

In mid-80s America, Maradona pulled off a feat many thought impossible, commanding the cover of Sports Illustrated — a publication not known for its devotion to the world game.

One of the magazine’s legendary writers, Rick Telander, wrote of Maradona in 1990: “[He] is the best soccer player in the world, but he is also among the worst at dealing with the world.”

Telander’s Sports Illustrated colleague SL Price described Maradona’s career as “a war between a glorious body and a corrupted mind”.

Their heir, ESPN’s Wright Thompson, wrote: “Maradona is a modern-day saint, a vessel for hopes and dreams, and nothing he does can destroy the myth that millions of people want to believe.”

Yet sportswriters certainly tried to destroy the myth, or possibly just proved Thomas McGuane’s theory that the most memorable sports writing springs from avidity, not detachment; they were simply too invested in Maradona’s brilliance to accept his horrifying descent into the lifestyle that blunted it.

Argentina's Diego Maradona dribbles the ball against Italy at the 1990 FIFA World Cup.Argentina's Diego Maradona dribbles the ball against Italy at the 1990 FIFA World Cup.
Maradona faced a challenging time at the 1990 World Cup in Italy.(Reuters: Action Images)

Even McIlvanney decried his 1990 World Cup performance as “a histrionic insult to what he once was”. Never mind the constant, brutal fouling that had battered Maradona’s legs.

Even on the demise, opinions varied.

McIlvanney’s brilliant colleague Matthew Engel of The Guardian wrote of Maradona’s performance in that year’s World Cup final loss to West Germany: “His personality bestrode this match, not because of anything he did but because of what he is, has done and might have done.

“The Italians (excepting the Neapolitans) have elevated him into a hate figure of a kind not seen since they changed their mind about another domineering little man and hanged him upside-down from a lamp post.”

Maradona’s genius recognised

Naturally, the best Maradona writing of all sprang from Argentina’s successful World Cup campaign of 1986, and the acrimony that followed its quarter-final win over England.

Before it, McIlvanney had a prescient warning: “If there is an effective way of killing off the threat of Diego Maradona by marking him, it probably involves putting a white cross over his heart and tethering him to a stake in front of a firing squad.

“Even then there would be the fear that he might suddenly dip his shoulder and cause the riflemen to start shooting one another.”

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For many, Diego Maradona’s ‘Hand of God’ goal is the most memorable moment of his phenomenal career.

Rarely among his peers in the British press, McIlvanney later found it hard to condemn Maradona for his hand-ball transgression: “Considering the emotional intensity of the bond that links Maradona to the team he leads and inspires, it would not be astonishing if he preferred to risk condemnation from the rest of us rather than invite their resentment and disapproval … I hope he tears [West Germany] apart.

Novelists had a go too.

Colm Toibin once wrote a profile of Maradona for Esquire, which included lengthy digressions on the class divisions in Argentina, and the racist dismissiveness of upper crust attitudes to Maradona’s humble origins.

“His wedding was, in the words of one member of the establishment, perhaps the most vulgar occasion ever held in Argentina,” Toibin wrote.

To the Spanish novelist, journalist, poet and devout Barcelona FC supporter Manuel Vázquez Montalbán — whose fictional characters namechecked the Argentinian wizard — Maradona “epitomised the mystique of the working-class revolution: aloof and arrogant like the 1980s”.

Argentina captain, Diego Maradona, holds up the trophy after the 1986 World Cup finalArgentina captain, Diego Maradona, holds up the trophy after the 1986 World Cup final
Maradona was at the peak of his powers when he led Argentina to World Cup glory in 1986.(AP: Carlo Fumagalli, file photo)

Among historians, David Goldblatt captured Maradona’s appeal most evocatively, writing of his 1986 zenith: “It was the last World Cup where the crowd actually stormed onto the field at the end of the final.

“Maradona would be the last captain to hold the trophy aloft in not merely a scrum of FIFA bureaucrats and the global media, but with the people who came to see him. When they write his history again in future worlds, will writers be tempted to say that this was the moment of his ascent to another realm?”

‘Frighteningly brilliant’

Was Maradona or Pelé the best?

British sports writing great Richard Williams had a stab.

“Maradona bent matches to his will in the way no one had done before, and that if we were trying to decide on the very greatest, a stupid but fun thing to do, then this might be the truest measure,” Williams wrote.

In the end, it was Maradona’s opponents and teammates who produced the descriptions that will probably stand the test of time.

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Commentator Victor Hugo Morales dubbed him the Cosmic Kite after the second goal against England.

Of Maradona’s second goal in the “Hand of God” game — the goal many consider the greatest ever — England’s Gary Lineker said: “Heart-stopping, tremendous, frightening almost. Frighteningly brilliant, that is. Especially that first little pirouetting turn on halfway that set him up for the run. Your heart and mind could only erupt with applause at such a goal.”

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Yet it might have been so different if Maradona had followed through with a plan to pass the ball to teammate Jorge Valdano, who recalled the moment to the British writer David Winner.

“He told me that at that moment, he remembered a game seven years earlier at Wembley when he’d been in a similar position and had played the ball to (Peter) Shilton’s left and missed the goal,” Valdano said.

“He assessed the current situation and decided that he didn’t need me; he could solve the problem of scoring himself. In a quarter-final of the World Cup, after a 70-metre run, he was able to recall a situation from years earlier, analyse it, process the information and reach a new conclusion.

“And he did it in a fraction of a microsecond.”

Valdano later became a sportswriter himself and was well qualified to add a line employed by many colleagues before and since: “That is genius.”