What did Cervantes famously say? The road is always better than the inn? What was his intention with this use of metaphor? Interpretations vary, though I perceive the meaning to be bound up with the notion of each life as a journey plotting a unique route. When we think only of the destination we forget that the true and essential value of that journey lies not in where we want to come to rest (for that in itself signifies senescence and ultimately death), but rather in everything we missed while tear-assing between start and finish. Ask anyone who has trekked all day among the mind-blowing peaks of the Himalaya only to rest at day’s end in a teahouse whose rooms are basic at best. Did I push my body further than ever on that mountain pass only to rest my weary head on this paper-thin mattress in this frigid room? Was that what drove me on? To put it another way, don’t obsess on the future outcome only to miss the majesty crowned in the moment.
Granted, most journeys are punctuated by frequent stops along the way. A life worth remembering, for me is a life plotted well enough to be divided up into sections – stories nested in larger stories. There’s a tonne of metaphors that can be applied to this structuring of life: milestones; chapters; key stages; or epochs. Obviously, we use metaphors to package decades of life, each part a little, if distinctive, bundle of a greater whole. Of course, it’s easier to swallow the whole when you’re taking bite sizes one at a time. I say this because in Diego Maradona’s death I remembered certain monumental events of his life and how these events reverberated with important events of my own life. He is, of a fashion, an accidental yardstick with which I get a certain measure of my life. In his death I see my past life unfold.
If a human life is no more than the passage of the sun across the sky on one solitary day, then it stands to reason that a life can take a similar trajectory to another. Now no one’s saying they share the same sky with Diego for he owns the sky. What i am saying, however, is that there were times i crossed his skyway. And I’m not talking about bumping into him at an airport, but rather seeing three key moments in his life as an index of my own life.
The first was Mexico ’86. I was fourteen and head over heels in love with the beautiful game (which in those bone-crunching days on boggy fields was often anything but). Growing up in a land whose people supported any team that wasn’t England, when that quarter-final against Lineker’s men in white was aired live from the sun-drenched Azteca Stadium in Mexico City, we sat around that gogglebox absolutely transfixed. We knew all too well the flair and the cunning that was so unashamedly the nature of being an Argentina player. Maradona was everywhere except England accepted as the greatest gift to the game since Pele. In fact, in that era England was not the international footballing hub it is today. Like the spirit of Brexit, the culture of the game south of the border was insular as it was proud. While England could rightfully claim to have conceived the modern game of Association Football, by the 1980s it was the Latins, in particular the Brazilians and Argentinians that were really giving form to the modern game. England was mired in the old ways: the long ball; the crunching tackle; defensive power; the brain-damaging header. It was ungainly as it was anachronistic. Oh, and there were the chipped, concrete terraces. They were overspilling with angry young men who identified as both casualties of Britain’s industrial demise and warriors of a redefined tribe; as prone to violence in the name of their club as Thatcher was prone to the brutal euthanasia of a country riddled with industrial cancer. All in all, it was ugly on the home front. And into that melee entered the Golden Kid, el pibe de oro, a tousled-haired general from the barrios of Buenos Aires (which felt like another planet to us) who was immune to the bullshit dealt out by defenders, whose saw the game as performing art instead of the usual bloodless battlefield ethos of the English, who codified the game in the nineteenth century when games like battles were governed by gentlemen’s rules.
Maradona’s response to the humiliation of a Falklands War fought between Argentinian boys and grown English men four years earlier was to deliver national humiliation to the once indomitable power of Albion. And we fitbaw-mad laddies from north of the border could not get enough of him. Maradona as a figurehead had come to symbolize the struggle against old yet dangerous lions for all of us living in little countries. When Maradona put Burruchaga through with a deft flick from his magical feet, the World Cup was Argentina’s. That dysfunctional nation at the bottom of the world where footballers grew tall and bountiful as Pampa grass had vanquished another monolithic power, this time Germany, with their height and stature and relentlessly boring game of vorsprung durch technik. Beauty had conquered the beast. Maradona, the little master with thighs like a buffalo, against Rudy Voeller, the goal-poaching bandit with the terrible moustache. Like I already stated, Maradona’s Argentina won for all the world’s underdogs, all the little nations that stayed little in their perennial struggle against the mighty ones.
He lit the torch paper, inspiring all of us. So much so, that in the summer of ’86 we played more football than there were daylight hours. In ’86 we learned to play the game as it should be played: not with ferocity but with grace and skill on the ball. It was all about mastery of the ball, and this was his gift to every aspiring boy on Earth. While in England, dribbling was what babies did, elsewhere (and in Scotland no less) dancing the ball past midfielders and defenders was something to be lauded. That change in the whole aesthetic of the game was down to Diego. He, not Pele nor Garrincha, was the pathfinder.
Six months later, my Dad came home one day with a letter in his hand. In it was written, Dear Such and Such, Impressed by your abilities, we would like to offer you a promotion….in England. That was that. Nine months later I dragged my Maradona feet south of the border still harbouring dreams of running rings round Englishmen just as Diego had done. I joined the local club in a rural, primarily rugby-playing, area. The local boys, raised on English beef and Yorkshire puddings, were physical opponents, and they did not have much time for what the Argentinians called la gambeta (the dribble). With disdain for Maradona, the cheating bastard, each attempt at flair, of creative passing and dribbling, was ended unceremoniously. I spent half my time on the deck, as I recall, having been scythed down or slyly ankle-tapped. So physical and harmful to slender dribblers on the left wing, my skinny legs couldn’t take the punishment and within a year I had quit the county league game altogether. Not two years had passed since Maradona lifted the World Cup and my footballing dreams lay dashed on a cold, mud-clotted park alongside their owner.
Ten years after Mexico ’86 I flew to Buenos Aires for the first of what would turn out to be a few times. ’96 was a key year for both Maradona and me. While he was ending his career as an unfit Boca Juniors player, I was commencing mine as a dilettante with a taste for the sunlit bottom of the world. Within weeks I had been inculcated into the ever-widening sphere of the Boca hincha (meaning fan). My nearest and dearest furnished me with a blue & yellow Boca shirt, alongside the other million things she gifted me. From our little enclave on the Atlantic coast 400km south of Buenos Aires, I watched the Boca-River derby and could not believe I had gone twenty-fours years without realising that the game of football meant more to these people here in the south of the world than it did to those people up there in the north of the world. The atmosphere there on the TV en vivo y en directo was unbelievable. Fans clung to high fencing with one hand while swinging their camisetas with the other. Their skinny flaco cuerpos cooked in that cauldron under those floodlights. I was flabbergasted. Compared to our fairly orderly system of collective behaviour, these Boca fans you could liken to gibbons or vervet monkeys behind the cages of the zoo. And I mean that without malice. I had never witnessed passion for a club nor for the game itself. Passion, but not like that, no. The pitch of Boca’s Bombonera was claustrophobic with high fencing and near-vertical terracing. The weight of half the nation bore down on those players in a space electrified by expectations. And watching them play the short game in packed spaces was breathtaking. Whereas we in the north loved nothing more than the ball screaming into the top corner from 25 yards out, the South Americans took a whole different approach to the form that beauty would take en route to goal. They would rather walk the ball into the net, so long as they had put together a complex string of passing interplay in order to reach the goal. In that sense, for them the road was better than the inn. It didn’t matter how it went in, it was in the nature of the journey from goalkeeper through the midfield to goal that had those hinchas rocking the bars of their giant enclosure in rapture.
At the time, few Brits travelled to Argentina. English wasn’t even widely spoken. The nearest to a sentence in English was a lyric of the Beatles or the Stones (Argentina adored the Rolling Stones almost as much as another English import: the game of association football). I was immensely privileged to be there at any time, but particularly at the end of Maradona’s stellar career as a playmaker. His final games, like much of his life, frustrated his millions of acolytes. For him there was no crisis quite like a drama.
The third and final vague intersection of his life and mine would occur twenty-one years after the Argentina episode. In this subsequent chapter of life both he and I had taken a similarly nonsequitous direction, this time to the deserts of Arabia. I was stationed – though not in the military sense of stationed – on the Indian Ocean in an obscure town on the frontier of Oman and the United Arab Emirates. Diego, the journeyman, for that is what he had become in a largely wayward and bizarre coaching career, had landed a job coaching a second-tier team in the UAE called Fujairah, eponymously named in honour of the town, naturally. He was paid handsomely by the Sheikh of the Fujairah Emirate to do one thing and one thing only: earn the team promotion to the top tier. Even a man of formidable talents as Maradona could not replicate his deeds on the pitch with his discipline as a manager. He was struggling to raise his squad’s game. The legend-effect was no magic dust and by the time I took my seat in the stands of Fujairah FC’s stadium, Diego’s team were nudging toward the promotional play-offs, but not without the drama, the agony and the passion that followed him everywhere.
It was, as is the custom where hot desert meets warm ocean, like a sauna out there. The wet-bulb temperature was ludicrous. Nevertheless, we sweated it out just to catch a glimpse of Diego. And there he stood on the touchline, all five foot five of him. Trying to play down the significance of that moment, I tried not to gawp at the figure who lit up the world’s TV screens in ’86. Never in a million years did i imagine that Maradona would wind up here in Fujairah. Never in a million years did i think I would, for that matter. My gaze fell on his pitiful physique. Yes, the thunder thighs were still evident, as was the magnificent mane of salt&pepper hair, but his body had ballooned. He was bloated, washed up like a dead porpoise ready to burst on the beach. As the game got underway, this being a play-off decider, the tensions rose. Things were not going well for Diego’s Fujairah FC. They knocked the ball about like Sunday League players. Their finishing was impotent. But we hadn’t gained access to the game with the false hope that we’d be entertained tiki-taka, Barcelona-style. It was all about Maradona. It always was. He paced up and down that touchline. Me, I was seated yards away, so close I could see the sweat beading in his furrowed brow. He paced up and down like a man possessed by the ghost of a bear that lost its mind after a deranging lifetime in a zoo enclosure. The more the game went on, the more his fury rose. He could barely walk. His spine arched backwards to reveal a belly swollen by beer and bifstek. His locomotion was so stilted you’d think he had splints bandaged tightly onto his knees. But even in his fallen pomp he looked every inch the Napoleon of the football field he was born to be. He was flawed as he was magisterial. When the ball bounced out of play, landing right next to him, I took a deep breath, thinking he would do that magic trick with the ball where he booted it high into the stratosphere, go off and attend to something unrelated before returning to the same spot moments before it hit the deck only to boot it high into the air again, ad infinitum. This feat might sound easy on paper, but it is not. Instead of dancing feet, we saw a man who struggled to stop the ball with his feet. And when he kicked it back to one of his players, he was a rigid as a tin soldier. In thirty years he had gone from quicksilver to a wooden stick figure pieced together at the joints with rusting pegs.
In that failed kick of the ball I remember seeing how time makes fools of us all. I saw myself, what I could do the ball back then, and now, how sclerotic we had both become.