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Rory Smith On Soccer

Part of Diego Maradona’s enduring appeal is testament to his genius. But part of it, too, speaks to a sense of nostalgia for what he represented.

Diego Maradona basked in the spotlight, even when it revealed his flaws. Diego Maradona basked in the spotlight, even when it revealed his flaws.Credit…Sergio Perez/Reuters Rory Smith

  • Nov. 27, 2020

There was a commotion over in the corner of the Krestovsky Stadium in St. Petersburg. A whole section of fans seemed to have turned its eyes away from the field and trained them instead on a glass-fronted suite. They stood on their seats and craned their necks and peered over shoulders to try to get a better view.

The game itself was compelling sport: Lionel Messi and the rest of his Argentina teammates were toiling against Nigeria, when anything but a victory would have been enough to send them home in ignominy, eliminated from the 2018 World Cup in the group stage. Even that, though, could not compete with the show playing out in the suite.

Diego Maradona always had that ability, to draw the eye and to capture the attention. There were times when he resented it, when his magnetism seemed more a burden than a charm, when all he dreamed of was to be left alone, to be free of the adulation that had stalked him since he was 16.

This was not one of those times. Clad in a bright blue T-shirt, Maradona was playing to the crowd, toying with it, basking in his offstage spotlight. His every emotion, his every sensation, seemed heightened, exaggerated, performed. He rose from agony to ecstasy and all the way back. He raised his arms to the heavens, and sank in his seat. He unfurled a giant banner of himself. At one point he fell asleep. He cheered and groaned and then, later, he collapsed.

On his flight back to Moscow later that night, Maradona would send a WhatsApp voice note to a handful of Argentine journalists, blaming his state — and his display — on having drunk rather too much wine.

By then, though, darker theories were circulating. Smudges on the glass front of the executive box were taken to be evidence of cocaine. Social media examined just how often Maradona had rubbed his nose. An image taken a few days earlier, of Maradona seated on a private jet, with what appeared to be a bag of white powder next to him, circulated online.

Little of the comment expressed sympathy for a man who had struggled with drug addiction for much of his adult life. If anything, the abiding reaction was one of admiration: Here was Maradona living up to his image as a rock star, an unrepentant bad boy, the man who gave us the Hand of God proving that only the devil may care.

That, after all, is who Maradona was to vast swaths of the public. At the time of that game — and at the time of his death — the better part of two generations would have no real memory of having seen him play; at a rough estimate, nobody much under the age of 40, outside South America, would be able to draw upon recollection of what he was like at his peak.

ImageFour years after lifting the World Cup trophy in Mexico, Maradona carried Argentina back to the final in Italy. Four years after lifting the World Cup trophy in Mexico, Maradona carried Argentina back to the final in Italy.Credit…Daniel Garcia/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

That is not to say they would have been ignorant of what Maradona meant. They would have heard the stories and seen the videos of his goals and the photos of his brilliance. That, after all, is how legends work: They become lore, passed from one generation to another.

But they are still memories at one remove. Millions came to the Maradona story in his chaotic retirement years. For them, his brilliance on the field was the background. What they experienced, firsthand, were the drugs and the scandals. He became, in effect, the star of his own reality television show, a celebrity rather than an athlete: Maradona, rather than Diego. Just as Keith Richards is now more readily thought of for his hedonism than his music, to many Maradona was first and foremost an outlaw, not a player.

VideoVideo player loading Tens of thousands of people stood in line on Thursday, including Vice President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner of Argentina, to bid farewell to the soccer legend Diego Armando Maradona, as his body lay in repose in the presidential palace.

And rather than hampering his legend, it expanded it. There are those, among soccer’s greats, who almost single-handedly transformed the game, who heralded a shift between eras, who left the sport changed from when they found it. Johan Cruyff’s ideas and his ideals fundamentally altered our perception of how soccer should be played, our reckoning of beauty. Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo have shifted the parameters of greatness, the window of what might be possible, our definitions of positions.

It is not to quarrel with his greatness to suggest that Maradona’s impact was different. He did not hint at the next step the game would take. He bent individual games to his will. He shaped whole teams and entire tournaments by his own hand, lifting the otherwise ordinary to greatness. He changed history, but he was no harbinger of the future.

He was, instead, the exact opposite. Maradona was the apotheosis of the game as it used to be. Almost everything in his story is redolent of a lost age, and barely any of it would have been possible even a few years after his retirement. He stayed at his first club, Argentinos Juniors, for five years. Despite a couple of attempts, unlike almost any Argentine teenage sensation of the last 20 years, he was not spirited away to Europe at the first opportunity.

Maradona won a title at Boca Juniors in 1981. The following summer, he joined Barcelona for a world-record fee.Credit…Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

When he did leave, it was for Boca Juniors, because at that stage South American clubs could still attract high-caliber talent. When Maradona did finally arrive in Europe, first at Barcelona and then at Napoli, neither club did all it might have to protect their prized asset, to help him cope with all that confronted him. The best years of his career came in Naples, not at one of the world’s established superpowers but at an underperforming club in a chaotic, downtrodden city.

Most of all, though, the way he played would soon become all but extinct. Maradona was the embodiment of Argentina’s pibe ideal — as Jonathan Wilson described him in The Guardian, he was the fulfillment of a prophecy written three decades before — a free spirit, a creature of pure imagination.

He was an autodidact, rather than a product of intense coaching. He was allowed to interpret the game as he wished — albeit in the face of a level of brutality that is also no longer feasible — rather than constrained by a defined role in a regimented tactical scheme. He was, in that sense, the last of the great individuals. That only magnifies his status. Maradona was not a bridge between eras. He was the zenith, the climax, the end.

All of that is bound up in the way he was viewed long after his retirement, as the memories of what he could do on the field started to fade, as successive generations came to him through well-worn stories and grainy YouTube footage.

Interest in Maradona has, if anything, only grown the more time has passed. Emir Kusturica released a documentary on him in 2008, and Asif Kapadia a decade later. Manu Chao and Calle 13 reference him in song. The archive of books that tell his story will only continue to grow. Like Cruyff and George Best, soccer’s other great rebels, Maradona cuts a far more compelling figure to those who never saw him than does Pelé or Franz Beckenbauer or Eusebio.

Part of that, of course, is testament to his genius. But part of it, too, speaks to a sense of nostalgia for what he represented. The outlaw figure that Maradona became turned him into an embodiment of that lost age, one in which soccer was less militarized and less predictable and less corporate and less clean-cut, one in which the individual was not necessarily subsumed into the collective, one in which heroes could be flawed and troubled and human in a way they can no longer be. His memory is entwined with a nostalgia for all that, all that has been lost.

For many fans, Maradona’s years at Napoli exist only in highlight clips and stories of the goals he scored, the fouls he endured and the hard living that only enhanced his legend.Credit…Massimo Sambucetti/Associated Press

Maradona, though he did not know it, served as midwife to that change. In 1987, at the height of his fame, his Napoli team was drawn to face Real Madrid in the first round of the European Cup. It was a mouthwatering matchup: the champion of Italy against the champion of Spain, the Neapolitan forward line of Maradona, Bruno Giordano and Careca — the Ma-Gi-Ca — against the Real of Emilio Butragueño and his Quinta del Buitre.

Silvio Berlusconi, the owner of A.C. Milan, greeted the draw with horror. Why on earth would soccer allow this to happen, he thought: the game of the year tossed away in the first round of a competition, when it might make a suitable final, a showpiece around which to build the season.

Berlusconi tasked Alex Fynn, then working with the advertising agency Saatchi & Saatchi, to work on a concept for what he called the European Television League, in which games like this would not only be more common, but saved until the later rounds. It would prove to be the idea that resulted, five years later, in the formation of the Champions League, and the dawn of the new soccer.

That soccer, as it turned out, would not only not have space for Maradona the player, it would not be able to accommodate Maradona the idea. The concentration of power in the hands of a few superclubs and the rush of money into the sport would set off an arms race in tactics and coaching and recruitment. Within a few years, it would rid the game of its wildness and its improvisation and its renegade streak.

Maradona, and all that he represented, would be consigned to the past. He would, in his later years, come to be an avatar for soccer as it once was, to inspire a nostalgia for all that we have lost. He meant so much to so many — even those who had no memory of him — because he stood as a symbol of the culmination, the apex, of what it used to be.

Fans lined the streets on Thursday to catch a glimpse of the hearse carrying Maradona’s body to the cemetery where he was buried in front of a small group of family and friends.Credit…Mario De Fina/Associated Press

This season, as it happens, is doing a pretty good job of fulfilling Berlusconi’s image of precisely what a European Television League would look like. Four games into the Champions League group stage, and the domination of the major leagues and the superpowers has all but stripped the competition of drama.

The group stages are often — unfairly, in most cases — held up as a caution against the idea of a European Super League. They prove, the theory goes, how dull and processional this tournament would become if it were the basis of the season, rather than an addition to the regular rhythm of the domestic campaign.

This year is the opposite. If anything is likely to persuade the continent’s elite that they should strike out on their own, it is the disinterest that will infect the remaining two rounds of matches before Christmas. Six teams — Bayern Munich, Manchester City, Chelsea, Sevilla, Barcelona and Juventus — are already through to the knockout rounds, and next week’s games will confirm the tickets of a few more heavyweights.

Chelsea and five other clubs have claimed places in the Champions League knockout rounds.Credit…Damien Meyer/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Only a handful of groups offer any lingering suspense at all, in fact, and in most cases it is a bit of a stretch. Liverpool needs a win against either Ajax or FC Midtjylland to secure passage. Manchester United needs a point against either Paris St.-Germain or RB Leipzig. Group B — where Inter Milan almost certainly will be eliminated, and Real Madrid is still in some mild jeopardy — is the honorable exception. This is what Berlusconi wanted. Whether it works for the rest of us is a different matter.

That’s all for this week. All sorts of correspondence, and particularly that about Maradona, is welcome at askrory@nytimes.com, or you can simply send me an anonymous message from your burner account on Twitter. This week’s Set Piece Menu barely touches on dentistry at all, which was an enormous relief to me. And, as you know by now, you really should be recommending this newsletter to everyone you know.

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