I don’t really follow international club football, Manchester United or Liverpool or Barcelona or Bayern, I could care less for any of them. Come World Cup though, I regain my love for football, and then when the final whistle blows, so does my ardour, back into cold storage for another four years.
The reason is simple. Without knowing it, I am still looking for the 86 World Cup, and of course Maradona.
Maradona ruined football for me. He was my first football hero, and the problem is, I could never find anyone who could follow him. For my other childhood sports heroes, there was a line of succession–Kapil led to Azhar led to Sachin led to Sehwag led to Kohli, but in the case of football, the first one just destroyed the rest. People will say Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo are greater or as great, and since my prism has always been the World Cup, I have never really understood what’s so great about either of them, they don’t find any space in my memories of the game, not even the slices that Zico, Platini, Milla, Baggio, Rincon, Valderama, Ronaldo Nazario, Bergkamp, and many others have. Maybe the fault is mine, I also don’t understand the greatness of Lily Singh and Dhruv Rathee.
It was once said about Rabindranath Tagore that his sun shone so brightly that it blotted out all the other stars, and that, to an extent, he destroyed Bengali literature thoroughly, because no one could be expected to match up to him. Maradona did something similar to me in terms of football, nothing I ever saw could be that exhilarating, the speed, the dribble, the balance, the precision, the lunge, and yes, the hand. Maradona was drama in motion, elemental emotion both on and off the field, the only difference being that while on field he would trip over a challenge but still keep his balance and ball control, in real life, he mostly lost possession. But here is what you separate the man and the legend–the man may be no longer with us, but legends, by their very nature are immortal.
Most people will remember his goal against Belgium, or his goal against England, with hand and then foot, but for me the real moments of brilliance were when he didn’t score himself, but passed, precision passes cutting through lines of defenders to a Burruchaga or a Caniggia, a body feint that send the man-markers one way as he passes the other, this was pure magic without the props. Who won, who lost? Who cares?Football, I have always felt, is the most elemental of all games, which perhaps explains why it is by far the most popular sport in the world.
There is something about a goal, people and circumstances preventing you from attaining the goal, and you, in control, guiding the ball into the goal, or not being able to, that is so obviously a metaphor for life that it does not need explaining. And that’s why there was something transcendental about watching Maradona cut through defenses with dribbling. Here is what we aspire to be, out in flesh and bone, a metaphor for all metaphors, and that is perhaps why his excellence affected us, or at least me, in a way no other footballer ever did after that, that what makes the legend is not the goal, but how he dazzles while attempting to get there.
There will never be another Maradona. There might be other great players but never Maradona. No one, in all these years, has been able to measure up. And I don’t think anyone ever will.