Forever the magician, forever the enfant terrible
Here lies Sa'adat Hasan Manto and with him lie buried all the secrets and mysteries of short-story writing. Under tons of earth he lies, still wondering who between the two is a greater short-story writer, God or he.
Manto, arguably the greatest short-story writer of the Indian subcontinent, wrote this epitaph for himself a few days before he died in Lahore, Pakistan, in 1955. At the ripe young age of 42.
For millions, Diego Armando Maradona is to soccer what Manto for me is to short stories. You could replace Manto with Jorge Luis Borges, Lu Xun or Maxim Gorky－albeit for short-story writing. But dare not do so with Maradona for soccer.
The beautiful game has seen giants and legends, magicians and tricksters, stars and comets, greats and GOATs (greatest of all times). But it has seen only one Maradona, for he was all these and more rolled into one.
In this age of information overdrive, professionalism and consistency override eccentric brilliance－that piece of pure magic. Big data and analytics have turned soccer from a quest where individual excellence was valued as much as the cohesiveness of a team, where one individual at times, or often, carried a team on his shoulders, into a board game planned on computer screens and executed by remote-controlled soldiers on the field.
Hard data, such as ball possession, numbers of passes, kicks at goal, fouls committed and suffered, yellow cards, red cards, offsides, et al. have transformed the spectator experience from one of sheer passion and joy into one of mathematical confusion.
Fan opinions are no longer shaped by narratives, in the moment experience－without any slow motion replays－or by simple rhetoric and social and cultural contexts.
Thankfully, Diego played the game before this calamity befell soccer. Thankfully, he mesmerized soccer aficionados with his legs, his head, his shoulder, his chest, and on one fateful occasion with his left hand－not with tomes of statistics.
It's a pity, though, Il Diego's "Hand of God" goal is mentioned in the same breath as his "goal of the century" in that same fateful game against England in the quarterfinals of the 1986 Football World Cup.
Soccer is about unalloyed joy, about divine and not-so divine skills, artistry and speed, swerves and feigns, of knowing when to shoot and when to pass. It's a celebration of life, the mercurial over the mechanical, the magical over the mathematical. Discourse comes later, amazement first. It's a story of struggle, of moments of absolute genius and torturous failure, of meteoric rise and humiliating fall. Maradona alone ticks all those boxes.
This is not to deny there have been others as brilliant as the Argentine wizard. For one, Johann Cruyff was poetry in motion. But Maradona was free verse in poetic animation to Cruyff's metered poesy in locomotion. There was George Best, who could dribble past half the opponents only to dribble back to the half line－without scoring－all this in a professional match. Yet, Best, as he was, didn't carry a team from the brink of relegation to a Serie A title nor to World Cup victory.
And who else could turn half the population of the then soccer crazy city of Calcutta from supporters of one country (Brazil) into loyal fans of another (Argentina) almost overnight in 1986?
Maradona's game was for the romantics, who, despite accepting the realities of the capitalist world and struggling to keep afloat in a world being taken over by big corporations, saw hope in life, in the ball that stuck to Diego's left foot like a piece of iron drawn to a magnet on the move.
Like Borges did with stories, Diego turned a real game into one of magic realism. Like Lu Xun in a different context, he stood up for the rag-tag Argentine national team as much as he did for club Napoli. And like Gorky, he spoke truth to power.
With Che Guevara tattooed on his right bicep and Fidel Castro on his left shin, he wore his heart on his sleeves, although his lifestyle was anything but left. Yet the rebel that he was, he never apologized for any of his actions, neither his substance abuse nor his alcoholism nor his "Hand of God" goal.
Not for him the pragmatism and astuteness of Messi or Ronaldo, their outstanding talent notwithstanding. Not for him the politically correct PR of later generation soccer stars. Perhaps, and that's a big perhaps, the only player who came even close to his wayward, rebellious but haloed aura was Ronaldinho.
But soccer is content with only one enfant terrible. The only true rebel. And it is this rebelliousness that makes Diego human among the gods of soccer, and the god among the other humans who ever played the game.
The author is a senior editor with China Daily.