For many Irish people, one single mystic word triggers images of an entire era. The name Maradona carries echoes of our defining moments in the 80s and 90s, the way that John F. Kennedy lights up the sixties. But if Kennedy was defined by death, Maradona was life – as much a part of people’s lives in Belfast or Irish border towns, as in Buenos Aires and Naples. With his untimely death, it feels like we’ve lost a friend. Nothing about this seems like death from a distance. It’s a real death, a spooky death too in this spooky year of omens, when the passing of his fire falls on the very same day as George Best 15 years before. It’s close to home, close to life, close to the memory of being young enough to dream that one day we’d be a Maradona in our chosen fields too.
Diego Armando Maradona was the mischievous boy we’d known for a lifetime. We’ve followed his progress since he was a fresh faced youth playing friendlies in Dublin and Glasgow, then moving to Barcelona. Through being from Argentina, a land that has so much in common with Ireland, we loved and accepted him as one of our own. We’ve known and loved him from a time long before the English media reduced his celebrity to a single act, the fisting of a football past Peter Shilton.
That moment did not define Diego Maradona. But it was a defining moment in other ways, unforgettable to those like the Argentineans or the Irish who’d been on the receiving end of England’s fist historically. Relations have changed dramatically in the thirty four years since that night of June 22nd 1986. To put it simply, Ireland was as packed with Argentineans that day as the Estadio Azteca in Mexico City. Scotland too I guess, but our reasons felt more personal and immediate. Growing up, most of those Argentinean players and supporters had been in the grip of a military dictatorship. To some extent, we had echoes of the same on the streets of Northern Ireland, on the blind side of the British media.
That day, most of us wanted Argentina to win – for cultural, not personal reasons against the majority of players who we very much liked. To us and to themselves, the Argentineans were the underdog. That was as much to do with The Falklands as with football. We too understood the anger of displacement at the hands of superior weaponry and brutality. We knew what would be in the hearts and minds of the Argentineans, even though the English wouldn’t give Las Malvinas a second thought. Sport and politics don’t mix they’d assure us. In fact, in polite society, there’s a disdain for any public talk of history and politics. And that I suppose is easy to do when you’ve been the winners of war so often.
Maybe that evening in the Azteca we just wanted the English media, especially the gun-toting tabloids, to get a taste of what it means to lose. Fired up, one man delivered. In one unforgettable moment he gave his own people and others everything they desired with a blatant act of cheating that paradoxically was the perfect goal in such a situation. Historically, there’d been no niceties observed when the British ransacked Buenos Aires twice in the 1800s or sent their soldiers far from home to blast the Belgrano out of the waters. If there was ever to be a goal that captured a sense of just desserts, this was the one. Literally underhand. Symbolic of how an Empire had been built, Maradona showed exactly what it was to do something so nasty and then mythologize it.
The Hand of God was a moment of karma, an act of poetry wrapped up as neatly in symbolism as a Seamus Heaney stanza at his very best. In the weeks and years that followed, the uproar over foreigners usurping Britain’s sense of fair play would almost become a parody of world history. Then, just a few minutes later, as if to rub salt in the wounds the Tyrion Lannister of football’s throne, wisecracked his way back into focus. For his second stanza, the poet Maradona composed a verse so crisp, so pure and so perfect he might as well have been threading a needle through an explosive right under the eyes of a military junta’s foot patrol. This time, he showed the world how you win things in a fair way, in a fair world. Sometimes that’s described as the other side of Maradona, the part that was genius – but it’s often the first he’s remembered for.
Probably, just as everybody a little bit older knows where they were on November 22nd 1963, it’s the first goal that’s etched in our memories. Even if it was José Luis Brown who had the Irish heritage in Argentina’s 1986 World Cup squad, it was Diego Armando Maradona who was the admiral of our hearts and minds. That day, in a time of conflict, he gave England a little taste of what it felt like to be the cheated one, the bullied one. But that was then and this is now and our two islands have long since moved on. England can win every World Cup from now to the first on Mars and most people in Ireland except maybe Stephen Kenny couldn’t care less.
But it’s not just about The Hand of God and a puerile sense of historical justice. The Irish get Maradona in a way that few others ever can. From that day he first played in Dublin, we got a sense of the poor boy made good. That resonated with a nation still struggling to make good in the world too, having only attained independence over half a century before. Maradona was the incarnation of so many qualities we recognised in ourselves, our histories and our sporting stars.
He had echoes of a George Best playing for a team that had a chance of winning something but sticking around to see things through and help that team rise above its limits. He was the Alex Higgins of his game too, the temperamental genius prone to self-destruction, tragic and beautiful at the same time. Part Michael Collins even and the partly Irish, Argentine Che Guevara, a guerrilla of the football field who followed the sniff of victory down any possible road, by fair wind or foul. And yet at the same time, he had qualities that even Jackie Charlton could have admired in a playmaker – the ability to work hard and perfect his game. After all, it wasn’t just his hand that had beaten England. It was his head too.
Though we Irish might claim just about anyone with an O in their name somewhere along the way, from John F Kennedy to Joe Biden, Maradona was one of our own in a different way. He didn’t have any great grannies from villages long forgotten even in their own counties. There were no Maradona ancestors that left Castlebar or Killarney in the 1840s. He didn’t need any of that for a generation to embrace him in all his flawed genius. Some of us even named our pets after him. In my case, it was a calf on the family farm. That’s how far the global influence of Maradona reached – from Buenos Aires and Barcelona to the back roads of Fermanagh.
We mourned the passing of the young and glorious Maradona too. Latterly his career ended in crazy-eyed stares down the camera and a descent into poor health, a comic figure as far removed from his former self as Jake La Motta staring into the mirror at the end of Raging Bull. A stand-up comedian who knew the last laugh was on himself as he watched his life slide away into living proof of the Neil Young lyric that sometimes it is indeed better to burn out than to fade away – to be Collins not De Valera, to be Che not Castro, Kurt Cobain, James Dean and John Joe O’Reilly. But even in those darkest moments he always remained the grinning imp who left Peter Shilton on his ass in The Azteca.
Partly I can understand why some in England hate him. They’d a very good team that might well have gone on to win the World Cup, just as they might have won in 1990 and 2018. Just the same, the Irish might have won in 1798 or 1921 and the Argentineans in the 1800s or the early 1980s. Being the winner or loser is often decided as much by luck as by destiny. Maradona’s ‘Hand of God’ was as much of a fist to the establishment of that era as it was to anything else. This wasn’t a particularly nice time in history, less than half a decade after the Irish Hunger Strikes, the Miners’ Strike and the Falklands War. It was an era too with derogatory tabloid headlines about black players in England shirts when they lined them up and listed their ratio to white players in shock-jock fashion. It was a point in history that makes Marcus Rashford’s recent treatment seem benign.
Back when black, Argentinean or Irish lives didn’t matter so much, Maradona’s Hand of God felt like one small fist in the face of that establishment. That helped his casting in the role of tabloid villain. He was never a good Argentinean – more Ricky Villa or James McClean than inoffensive Ossie Ardiles or Sergio Aguero. Maradona, in another echo of the Irish was forever questioning, forever political, bringing up the thorny issue of Las Malvinas, supporting Chavez and criticising America. He was not the kind who bent the knee to contradiction. I’m not sure he’d have survived as a player in this age where even those such as Luis Suarez struggle and Aguero’s acceptance is utterly dependent on the wearing of a certain flower that has forgotten its own purpose of remembrance. Anyone who puts their head above the parapet is in trouble, whether fighting for school dinners or just revelling in their own irreverence.
Diego Armando Maradona was very much a man of his time and a man who defined that time in so many ways. He was a flawed man whose reckless lifestyle helped send him to an early grave. But at the same time he touched immortality, a Dedalus whose wings touched the sun and burned. Those not lucky enough to live through his prime won’t quite know what they missed – the thrill of the moment that he brought to all of our televisions. Love him or hate him, he’s gone but unforgotten.
By Paul Breen @CharltonMen on Twitter