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Thank you, El Diego, and goodbye

Rahul Batra | Updated on December 05, 2020 Published on December 05, 2020

Full marks: Maradona was nicknamed “D10S” in tribute to his playing jersey number 10   -  REUTERS/ RICARDO MORAES

A Maradona admirer pays tribute to his hero — by playing a football match

* For most of my childhood, Maradona was another word for football. Though I started following the game after he’d retired as a player, he was always in the midst of it — often in the news, not always for the right reason

* I wasn’t going to sleep in peace until I’d sweated, run and kicked the last bit out of my mourning self, in his tribute and shirt (under my team jersey!)

* As his 1986 winning team-mate Jorge Valdano wrote the day after football died: “Maradona the footballer had no flaws; Maradona the man was a victim”

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It was midnight when I read about Diego Maradona’s death. Stunned and saddened to silence, I went and dug out a prized possession — a replica t-shirt of his playing legacy that I’d got in 2014.

For most of my childhood, Maradona was another word for football. Though I started following the game after he’d retired as a player, he was always in the midst of it — often in the news, not always for the right reason. For the last 20 years or so, I have played, watched, discussed, and read about football as a hobby. Such a deep and long-standing interest in the game meant I was certain to go digging into the past about its heroes. And that is when I began to understand why Maradona’s legacy remains debated, but never disputed.

I shared my sorrow about his death on social media, with friends I have played and talked football with over the years. The two days after his death were laced with videos and articles on his playing days. I delved into the incredible spirit, zeroing in on the incident when he was accused of touching the ball — and his famous retort that it was the “hand of god”, a pun on his own name — in a goal against England in the 1986 World Cup quarter-finals.

I went back to the match he won in the World Cup as the captain of Argentina, his goals for Barcelona and Boca Juniors, the talismanic years he spent in Italy taking Napoli to unprecedented heights. And I went into his many falls from grace — a red card that he’d been given in the 1982 World Cup, allegations of doping, his subsequent ouster from the 1994 World Cup, and the many vices he showed in his lifestyle.

It wasn’t enough, though. I knew I had to let it out on a football pitch. I needed to get into my boots and jersey, feel the ball and the intensity of the game and have my team-mates around me in Bangkok. A Saturday evening friendly session against teams from Thailand and Japan was on. It was to mark the end of the three-day mourning over Maradona’s death in Argentina, too.

We had a great pitch, with artificial grass, under floodlights and a roof, in an international-grade facility at the Italian super-club Juventus’ Academy, which runs their Soccer Schools programme for the youth there, to celebrate this moment. I wasn’t going to sleep in peace until I’d sweated, run and kicked the last bit out of my mourning self, in his tribute and shirt (under my team jersey!). It’s what gave him the most joy. It’s what he gave back to the world best.

My weekend football team (of recreational players over 35) was the topic in our chat group, of course. Most of them are from England and were divided about his life and death. They carried the bitter taste of that 1986 quarter-final defeat of England in Mexico. Football is more than a sport at such times. It was so for all of Argentina and Maradona in 1986, too — the match came on the back of a bitter defeat for their nation to England in the Falklands War. Football was their revenge.

And Maradona sure rubbed salt into that wound via the most controversial and incredible goals in World Cup history, within a space of four minutes. Some of my team-mates labelled him “a lying cheat”. And I have come to understand the dynamics of the game over time. If Maradona’s (dubious) first goal had been ruled out for a hand-ball, he might not have been so pumped up and the English players might not have been so demoralised, allowing him to rip through the opposition from 40 yards to score an astounding second goal, which put the game beyond England. The final score was 2-1 to Argentina — and the rest as they say was history. Maradona scored two more crackers against Belgium in the semis and played the genius pass for the winning goal in the finals against Germany. My mother said on our call the next day: “...they say everything is fair in love and war, after all.”

As his 1986 winning team-mate Jorge Valdano wrote the day after football died: “Maradona the footballer had no flaws; Maradona the man was a victim”. A victim to his background and era, his talent and personality, his passion and ambition, and eventually to his success and popularity.

The most apt and beautiful words in tribute to him and his legacy, however, came from Maradona himself. In his speech after his farewell game, in 2001 at the Boca Juniors stadium, a reflective and apologetic Maradona finished with: “Football is the most beautiful sport in the world. If you make a mistake, football does not have to pay. I was wrong and paid — but the ball doesn’t stain.”

In Spanish, the word “dios” means God. Maradona was nicknamed “D10S” in tribute to his playing jersey number 10.

Ad10s, then, legend.

Rahul Batra is an Indian citizen, a former Google employee, and a digital entrepreneur with a keen interest in societal trends

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Published on December 05, 2020
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