Diego Armando Maradona was loved by millions of people. The global outpouring of grief that followed his death in November made this clear even to those who had never paid him, or his sport, much attention. The Argentine soccer legend—who died at age sixty, from heart failure—was of course adored in his homeland. He was loved in Naples, whose team he led to its first-ever national championships, in the teeth of scorn from the southern city’s wealthier northern rivals. (During matches, fans from the other team would taunt the napoletani with banners reading “WASH YOURSELVES” and “CHOLERA SUFFERERS.” Maradona, who was born in Villa Fiorito, a slum near Buenos Aires, found it easy to side with the underdogs from Naples.) Maradona was also loved by anyone who loves the game, even by South Americans from other countries who might root against Argentina—such as my normally talkative seventy-year-old uncle, who clammed up, unable to express his awe, when conversation took us back to Maradona’s triumph in the 1986 World Cup, a performance that had to be seen to be believed.
Maradona’s fans had a slogan: Not for what you did with your life, but what you did with ours. He made many mistakes with his life. There are reports of sordid incidents involving drugs and prostitutes. He was accused twice of domestic abuse. He delayed admitting to the paternity of several of his children. But his fans focused on his achievements. Those are what made people call Maradona a hero, even a genius. His greatest goal, scored in the 1986 World Cup, produced a memorable call from the announcer: “Genio, genio, genio, ta-ta-ta, goooool!”
Asif Kapadia’s 2019 documentary, Diego Maradona, which focuses on the player’s time at SSC Napoli, includes a fascinating scene in which Maradona describes his gift. The transition to the Italian league from the Argentine and Spanish leagues where he had played before posed new challenges for the young Maradona. “Italian football was played at a different rhythm and the football was rougher. I had to adapt and learn to play at a different speed. I sped up my timing in order to get into [the] play. If I went one way abandoning my technique, so that I could run faster, I would’ve been useless. And if I went top-speed…my technique wouldn’t have worked. I had to find a balance, which wasn’t easy.” More than any physical advantage, this athletic intelligence was essential to Maradona’s talent. As Dutch legend Johan Cruyff once said, “Football is a game you play with your brain.”
Under Maradona’s leadership, SSC Napoli won two national championships and a European title. He was captain of a strong Argentine national squad in the 1986 World Cup, where he scored five goals and made five assists as he led the team to victory against Germany in the final. Two of those goals—against England in the quarterfinals and Belgium in the semifinals—are considered among the most beautiful in the history of the sport. Four years later, while still recovering from an ankle injury, he led Argentina to another World Cup final, which they lost to Germany. But Maradona’s legacy was secure. Moreover, he achieved all this in a time when star players routinely suffered from kicks, scrapes, and other dirty play, before referees became more attentive and well before instant replay became a regular part of the sport. “Genius,” Wittgenstein wrote, “is talent exercised with courage.” Maradona was, in this sense at least, a genius.