Life is life. There are no words that could ever describe it better, because it’s full of contradictions. Because it has incomprehensible and convoluted twists and turns that are impossible to find any sense in until the very last one, tying all up in a perfect line and then, everything seems to have been written all along.
Thousands of words and phrases are given to that stubborn way that life develops. Some call it “the red thread”. Others, an act of god. Others call it destiny, karma, luck, the power of will. Whatever the phrase or word is, that unpredictable force is what pushes people to their own decisions, to coincidences, to moments that leave a mark forever.
And it is that force that decided that on October 30th, 1960 in Lanús, a boy would be born within a humble family, a kid that dreamt of playing football for his country’s national team. And that force again was there when that boy would grow up to become the greatest player the world had ever seen.
I’ve seen movies and TV shows. Plays at the theatre, too. I’ve read books and biographies. I’ve heard hundreds of stories. No script, either real or fiction, that has ever been written has the narrative richness that the life of Diego Armando Maradona has. It’s a story of overcoming, determination, love, resilience, conquest, collapse, decay, revival and triumph. It returns time after time to start again, with impossible escapes and heroic deeds in between.
It’s a life story pushed by that mystical force that led him to achieve his dream on June 29th, 1986 in Mexico. That day, the kid from Villa Fiorito lifted the most valuable trophy in football and touched the sky with his bare hands. And it was that very same force that decided that, almost exactly a year later in Rosario, another boy would be born within a humble family, another kid that dreamt of playing football for his country’s national team.
While that kid grew up on the other side of the world, Maradona kept winning back in Italy. But with the sweet taste of success, it was easy to fall into excesses and addiction. Life is life, and becoming a god has a price. And the force decided that Diego would have to mortgage his body and soul to pay for it, because the debt would be collected all at once. It led to a painful defeat in his second world final and a fifteen-month suspension after his first positive doping.
When football was trying to survive without Diego on the pitch, that little boy in Rosario was barely starting to understand what passion was. The forging of a bond that only us who possess it really know what it is about: to share with a parent the sacred ritual that is attending a football match, to melt in a hug when your team scores, to scream and celebrate together and go back home talking about the game.
While that kid was starting to know the paradise that is football, Diego descended into the underworld. A home invasion by the police at his home in Caballito would find him in possession of drugs, which led the number ten to be condemned to prison and isolated in a rehabilitation clinic.
Life is so whimsical that when it seemed like Maradona’s dark days were behind him when he signed for Bilardo’s Sevilla in 1992, he would keep taking hits. Fights with the board, reoccuring injuries that were thought to healed and, a painful period in Diego’s personal life characterised by a conflict with the manager that held his hand during the glorious summer of ‘86.
Just like that, impulsively but amidst a bad time, Diego decided it was time to go back to his home country. It was the will of that unpredictable force of life, that got him drunk with bitter drinks and sunk him into loneliness.
But life is life.
Mischievous, erratic, unforeseeable.
That is why, going back and forth in negotiations with Argentinos and San Lorenzo, Diego ended up, for some inexplicable reason, signing for Newell’s Old Boys from Rosario. A club that seduced him, perhaps because of the love it showed him from the very first moment or perhaps because of what his friends from football had told him.
Or perhaps, just perhaps, it was because of that red thread that ties up all that is destined to cross paths in this vast universe.
That red thread also made the number ten put on the rojinegro for the first time in a game at Newell’s’ home ground on October 7th, 1993. That very same red thread that led that other kid, of only six years of age, to be there that day with his father. That red thread that, for the first time of many, tied together the paths of Diego Armando Maradona and Lionel Messi.
Maradona’s stay at Newell’s was fleeting, but that doesn’t mean it was any less memorable. Ask that kid, that chased his dream just like Diego did.
And then a few years later, life’s twists and turns gave him a growth problem that brought him to Barcelona, tying up another knot in the thread.
One year after Maradona signed for Newell’s came arguably the toughest moment in his football life. His second positive doping test at the 1994 USA World Cup was probably the hardest hit he had to shake, both for him and for every Argentinian.
Years went by and, after some adventures as a coach and a return to play for Boca, Diego hung up the boots. On that last final leg of his journey he took every single blow life can give to a person, all while Lionel was growing in leaps and bounds, starting to appear on everyone’s lips. As that kid became a man and then “the heir”, life’s turns would tie another knot between them both: the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.
Once again, life is life, and because of those whims it has, it wanted both of them to come back from that cup with empty hands. From there on, each one would follow his own path. The critiques and comparisons of others would create an aura of confrontation between them, one that was never never real but seemed like it was.
Today, because of those twists and turns, Diego is gone. Football knows it and feels it. The void he left is so big that every homage paid to him still couldn’t fill the earth. The thing is, that kid from Villa Fiorito, from a humble family, that dreamt of playing football for his country’s national team left a mark.
He left a mark on all of us, but in particular on that other kid from Rosario, from a humble family, that because of those very same twists and turns was there on October 7th, 1993 at El Coloso del Parque. That very same kid that tore off the skin of a world-class star, of a multi-millionaire, of a life of luxury and fame; to show the whole world that he still is that six year-old kid who, that day, had the luck to watch a god be reborn.
Lionel offered Diego the prettiest of tributes, the most sincere. The most authentic. He didn’t honour the super-star Maradona, known by everyone in each and every single corner of the planet, because Leo knows well what that is about, and he knows that the important stuff is something else: it’s the mark we leave in others, the legacy that inspires people to overcome themselves, to become better at what they do and to reach for their dreams.
That Maradona is the one Messi bowed to.
Not the one that appeared on TV or in newspapers, but the Maradona that he carried within him for almost thirty years. That’s why he didn’t choose Barcelona’s jersey. That’s why he didn’t choose Argentina’s. Because to Leo, the most valuable one is the one Diego put on that day at the Coloso, when just ninety minutes were enough to fill the heart of a six year-old kid with joy and hope. Ninety minutes that instilled another dream about growing up to be the greatest player of them all.
Life is life.