My first memory of Maradona was his absence. It was the 1998 World Cup, and he wasn’t in the lineup.
Those days, as now, Italian collectibles company Panini and FIFA published every country’s line-up on the pages of a sticker album. Kids like me scraped together coins and small bills to buy packs of stickers with players’ faces on them and complete the set. Of course, you hoped to complete your own country’s first. In my sticker album, I looked at the faces of the Argentine players — Verón, Simeone, Crespo, Zanetti, Batistuta — and I knew, just knew, that this team, and therefore my album, just wouldn’t be as good as it could’ve been, once. There was a missing gleam.
Growing up in Argentina in the 1990s meant constantly teetering on the edge of a precipice you couldn’t really see but were absolutely sure was there. There was the glory of the uno a uno, the handful of years when the Currency Board pegged the Argentine Peso to the American Dollar in an attempt to stabilize inflation and make it easier to participate in the foreign exchange market. This was a strange and specific source of pride for some middle- and working-class Argentines, constantly seeking a strong sense of identity through comparison: if our money was worth as much as theirs, then we were as good as them.
There was the influx of American culture, particularly for upwardly-mobile Argentines, that came with that particular monetary policy: McDonald’s, trips to Disneyland, GAP sweatshirts, dyed blonde hair, VISA, plastic, lines of personal credit. Everything was just within arm’s reach, ready for the taking. And then, in 2001, the economic crash, the overnight plummet, the cry of que se vayan todos in the streets as people lost everything they had saved, as Argentina cycled through five presidents in eleven days, as banks burned.
If that was one of the backdrops to my childhood in Argentina, another was Maradona. He, and the things people said about him — that he was the best soccer player in the world, undisputed; that he had lost control; that he was surrounded by vultures; that he was arrogant; that he was un pobre tipo being taken advantage of; that he was lucky to have his wife Claudia by his side — held down some corner of the canvass of my life and the life of a whole country.
We didn’t exactly need him to remind us that the height you reach is the distance you could fall, but he did. He brought a country’s soul back to life after years of a brutal military dictatorship, defeated the English on the pitch four years after Britain defeated Argentina in Las Malvinas, a criminal war in which eighteen-year-olds were sent to die to save face for Argentine president Leopoldo Galtieri’s right-wing regime. He also shamed us a mere eight years later, testing positive for ephedrine in a random doping screening during the 1994 World Cup. Without him on the pitch, we lost to Romania and came home after the first knockout round.
Maradona was everything we were, for better and for worse, and everything we hoped to be. Exuberant, full of feeling, cunning, ruthless, excessive, successful, joyous, wrecked. He was our hero, el Diez, el D10S, and he was also el Diego, like a cousin or a neighbor. I was born too late to see his glory-days play, too late to see him play at all and remember it. But I knew and felt that glory.
I knew other things, too. He was the same age as my mother. His two daughters were about my age. Claudia, his wife, reminded me of my aunt Gabi. A few years after the crash, my family, like many Argentine families, left Argentina. The company my dad had worked for his whole life had left the country, and we had no choice but to follow. We came to the U.S. In the small, rural Tennessee town where we ended up, people’s sidelong glances at me and their unwillingness to learn my name let me know I had nothing in common with my new neighbors.
No one I met knew anything about where I came from — except sometimes, someone would know Maradona. And they’d know he was good, maybe even the best. If he and I came from the same place, I thought to myself, maybe I wasn’t so bad, after all.
I thought of him and his family in parallel to myself and mine, because he gave himself to his public in a grandiosely intimate way. He had always been there, plain for everyone to see, every mistake and every consequence just as clear as every victory. You can’t be loved that much, by that many people, and not bare your soul. Did the baring happen first, to elicit the love? Or did the love undress Maradona?
Either way, he made every error and every recovery in the public eye, and he kept going, because throwing himself at life was the only thing he knew how to do. He was reborn on the pitch and off. He never let himself fully get away with it — glories and mistakes both. In post-match interviews, you can see him celebrating himself as many times as you can see him criticizing himself.
In 1996, playing again at Boca Juniors, he missed a penalty and scored an incredible one-touch, crossed goal off a lobbed ball in the same game. In the interview that followed the match, his assessment of himself is ruthless: “I understand that anyone can make a mistake, but two missed penalties in a row — I don’t forgive that. I don’t forgive myself for that. Even if I also scored a nice goal, I don’t forgive myself for that.” But it’s never self-flagellation. It’s looking the truth straight in the eye and saying, I will learn from you.
Of course, Diego also told lies. He didn’t recognize his first child, Diego Armando Junior, until 2016. He hid — at first well, and then poorly, and then not at all — a dangerous cocaine addiction until it all came crashing down on his head. He was tried in Naples for possessing cocaine with an intent to distribute (he frequently gave cocaine to the sex workers he hired), pled guilty, and dodged what could’ve been a twenty-year prison sentence. Almost two decades later, he would finally tell the truth about his cocaine addiction, even though it had never been a secret.
On live television, he’d cry and lose his words describing how his family tried to help him battle his addiction, how they just wanted to see him well. It wasn’t feigned emotion; it was just him. How could you not love him? How could you not feel for that man who at fifteen started carrying on his shoulders the burden of an entire country’s identity — Buenos Aires legislator from the Partido Obrero Gabriel Solano said in a tribute that Maradona often did for Argentines what their own government refused to do — and never stopped?
And at the same time, how could you not hate him? Hate him for that 1994 World Cup. Hate him for marring his own legacy by scoring with his hand. Hate him for being the stereotypical macho, using and abusing women. Hate him for not giving us a clean, simple idol to worship, but a Greek-god version of a hero instead, full of human faults and supernatural talents in equal measure.
He was everything. A genius and a cheater, gregarious and despairing, a liar and an open book. Argentinians loved him as we loved ourselves (so much, not at all), and we hated him as you can only hate someone you truly love, someone who’s brought you so much joy, so many times, and then ripped it away.
And now, finally, he’s really taken it away. His absence is here to stay. His legacy is one of relentlessness; of falling and getting back up, literally and figuratively (on the pitch, his falling technique was flawless); of a violently energetic rebelliousness that brought as many losses as it did victories. He was an icon not just for Argentinians, but for anyone who can recognize themselves in that working-class kid, and for all of us looking for the courage to face up to the truth: that the beauty of victory means a lifetime of struggle.