Diego: a personal obituary

How do you process news like this? How do you deal with this kind of knowledge? Not just any death, but the passing of the supreme idol of your childhood and teenage years?

Short answer is, you don’t. You simply go back in time and replay the memory reel on a loop, over and over and over. Every once in a while you break down – which would be embarrassing in a grown man, if not for the fact that millions of other grown men are breaking down all around the world, just like you have done repeatedly in the last 12 hours.

*

My very first memory of sports is Maradona. Picture a tinshed house, a semi-rural part of town, a duck pond outside, inside a father and his sons sitting in front of a grainy black and white TV. On screen, a young lad with curly hair and fat legs – you know his name, you know the name of his team and you know they are playing against another team called Brazil. But you don’t know why they keep kicking him and kicking him and kicking him, how this can be allowed, your child’s sense of injustice is painfully provoked by this sorry scene. And then you see the lad lash back, kick out, you see him plant his boot firmly in the tummy of his tormentor – and he gets a red card, gets kicked straight out of the game. 1982, Spain.

 

You see him slowly leaving the pitch and you are so angry and and you are so upset and you are totally 100% for the lad, from that moment on. What you don’t know is that decades later, you will be sitting in a sofa halfway round the world, trying to deal with the death of that lad who became the man who shot up to the highest of peaks then fell to the lowest of depths, always making sure to bring you along for an emotional roller-coaster ride like no other.

Four years later, 1986, you catch up with him again. There is no cable, no internet, no YouTube highlight reels or celebrity Insta accounts. There is absolutely fucking nothing, and the only way you can feed your almost psychotically obsessed sports mania is through the newspaper in the morning and the TV news in the evening. That is it. That is all the diet you are allowed to feed your slavering hunger.

So 1986 it is – and you are aware that Mexico is hosting again because the first choice Colombia had a massive earthquake a few months earlier. Jai Jai Din prepares an amazing World Cup special, with photos and team profiles and everything, and you read that thing front to back and back to front until you have almost memorised the entire magazine. The games begin, you follow the first round in the papers – until BTV decides to broadcast EVERY SINGLE MATCH IN THE KNOCKOUT ROUNDS! You are basically transported to heaven – curled up in the wee hours on the sofa, in the dark living room (a pukka building by now), watching the blazing Mexican midday sun on a grainy black and white screen (the same one). The lights are out, almost everyone else is asleep, but you are up night after night after night, just drinking in the games. Second round vs Uruguay? No problem, Pasculli scores, 1-0. QF? Brazil vs France is the one everyone is going mad about – oh Zico, oh Platini! But over there in Aztec Stadium, your hero just burnt up the ground with the single most celebrated performance in the history of football. The papers next morning have that picture of the arm, the ball, the poor goalkeeper (Shilton). You cut out the picture and put it in your collection, besides hundreds of other pictures of your sporting heroes and enemies. You have bought the viewcards from the stationery shops next to the rail lines – the old guy sitting at the Chhatro Bondhu bookstore is such a bastard because you never have enough money to buy the books and he always gives you attitude – but you do have the dough for a viewcard of your man (and also for Viv, for Kapil, for Martina and McEnroe).

SF vs Belgium and 2-0 again, two scintillating goals again from your man, the second one nearly as delicious as the epic goal in the previous game. And so the final, your brother is for Germany, you are for Argentina – after 85 mins things are all square until, until, until your guy slips that fabled through-ball to Burruchaga who is galloping away like a wild horse on some spectacular seashore, he’s running away, he’s running away with the ball and slipping it past Schumacher.. and that right there is possibly the most joyous moment of your entire life, you don’t know it yet but nothing before or since will come close to matching the pure, giddy, drunken happiness of that night.

And it was your man, your hero who took you to this promised land, and for that, you are now bound to him forever, eternally, in a lifelong emotional attachment that transcends any kind of rational understanding, except for likewise fanatical sports fans. They are the only ones who can know what this feels like.

*

The rest is not like that dreamy Mexican summer. Nothing like it, in fact. You watch through your fingers in 1990, poor performance after poor performance, your team losing against Cameroon, setting the scene for a monthlong festival of almost unendurable agony. Every match you are sitting at the back of the bed, praying silently, muttering madly, more often than not averting your eyes from the game, your stomach turning into gravity-less gravy again and again, a horrible sick-making feeling that you will luckily never know again when you are done growing up. (Such are the dubious bargains we make to become adults.) Your team barely scrapes through to the final via a series of highly improbable penalty shootouts and they then proceed to lose the match vs Germany 1-0. Klinsmann flying through the air so high he might have been auditioning for Superman. The ref Codesal Mendez gets the hilarious nickname Kodal Shah. You don’t win. You will never win it again. But you don’t know that yet.

In the middle of all this, your man delivers maybe the second-most memorable moment of your sporting life. Deep into an utterly abject match against Brazil, he somehow breaks away, stumbles through with the ball, and feeds Caniggia for a miracle goal – against all the odds, 1-0! You start screaming. You scream and you scream and you scream and you scream and you pause and then you scream and you scream and you scream some more because you simply can’t stop screaming out of sheer vindictive thrill and deep body-transforming relief. You have woken all the dead people in Nakhalpara and possibly for a few more miles beyond – and you have also screamed the longest and hardest you’ll ever scream in life.

It goes downhill from that day on. Your man keeps getting in trouble now, drugs and whatnot, and 1994 is but a terrible memory. He is banned by the powers, he is fat and unfit and some of his pictures of extreme obesity on the internet (yes the internet!) positively scare you. The years roll by, you’ve rolled on too – a decade later and you are sitting in a tiny room in Glasgow when you read the news that he may be dying. The ground suddenly drops away from under you. A cold fear clutches your insides. Your entire being denies this news. This cannot be. This BETTER not be. This simply must NOT BE. It is not to be. He gets saved – this time at least.

*

You have lived with some back-of-the-mind fear ever since. MJ hit you hard, you didn’t see that coming at all. Whitney and Kobe too, you didn’t see those coming either. But this one, you knew you’d live to see this day, some day and possibly sooner rather than later. You lived with that fearful anticipation. When he turned 60 last month, you were surprised more than anything else – since you had resigned yourself to reading his obit some 15 years back. Imagine. Him living to 60. He did it, he made it. Not by much, but he did it all the same. Who’d have thought?

You get ID papers with different colours, and the first far-off flight you book is for nowhere else but Mexico City. Is it a conscious choice? Or is it a subconscious attempt to reach that locus of unutterable childhood bliss? Who knows? What does it matter? It was inevitable is all. What you do know is that the morning after landing, you step out of the hostel, walk up to the taxi rank and tell the first guy that you want to go to Aztec Stadium. When you reach that giant bowl in the southern suburbs of that endless city, it’s a weekday morning and you book a place on the next tour of the grounds. There’s his image spread liberally throughout the stadium. This was his supreme achievement after all. Aztec gloried in him as much as the other way around. When you walk through the concrete corridors out into the grassy pitch, it is some indescribable emotion grappling inside you. The plastic seats soar away, emptily. And yet 28 years ago, they reverberated with noise and colour and they witnessed the Herculean feats of a giant. You step on that grass, you walk under that post. You see Shilton leaping, a hand that is higher than his head, and six sprawled Englishmen on the ground. You see Burruchaga running running running forever.

You make halting attempts to learn his language. One of the things you pick up is that stretch of commentary by Victor Hugo Morales which itself has become an iconic moment in the Hispanic world. “Barrilete cosmico, de que planeta viniste?” … “Cosmic kite, from which planet did you descend to leave so many Englishmen sprawling on the ground?” From then on, you will only watch that clip in Spanish because only that delirious commentary can match the raw emotion of that moment.

You have never seen him in person – though once you were in the same building, a tennis arena in 2010, you scanned the crowds again and again but you never did spot him that night. You have never been to Naples or Buenos Aires. But you know that you will. Eventually you will. Because simply speaking, you must. Because some part of you is residing there too.

*

And you have stayed up this night, this long, eternal night, unable to sleep, thinking of the past that was, the child that was, the hero that was and is no more. And above all else, you are grateful that you lived in his time, you shared this earth, and you saw with your own eyes what a human body with superhuman will and skills is capable of. To this day, Mexico 1986 remains the ultimate example of a player imposing his will on the football world, of bending it to his pleasure, of taking a bunch of no-namers to the highest Nirvana. There will never be anything like it again – and for being able to share in that feat, you are profoundly and permanently grateful.

*

And so you have stayed up, pouring out words in a vain attempt to exorcise your deepest emotions. You loved him first because he was a boy in pain, unfairly beaten up by bigger boys. And then you loved him because he brought magic to your eyes and to your heart. Everything else was forgivable and forgiven, even the self-destruction. Who else had to deal with so much intrusion from the press off the pitch, so much brutality from the defenders on it? It was a different age with no protections; today the ref would be flashing 20 red cards in 90 minutes. And yet he played through it all, drugs, addiction, the lot. The demon inside him was inseparable from the genius – take away one and very likely you kill the other too. He could never have been an antiseptic star like today’s semi-robotic goal machines. He had to be human, so very human, even when winning – but especially when losing. Deep down, you believe that if he had become a serial WC winner, some of that charm would even be lost – in a way it’s fitting, entirely appropriate even that he got red carded out of one World Cup, got drug tested out of one World Cup, lost the final of one World Cup. It’s like a man is present in that list, not a robot. But then he also transcends the boundaries of the possible in Mexico and that more than anything else elevates him to godlike status.

*

So here you are trying to process the ruins of time and memory and loss. Saving dozens of pictures and video clips because you don’t know how else to deal, because through those, you are trying to stop him from going, you are trying to save some last little piece of him. And some last fragment of you too, the 7-year old you and the 11-year old you who fell in love with Diego Armando Maradona and never knew how to fall out of love again.

Adios, Diego.
Tuyo, para siempre.

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