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Diego Maradona: Soccer’s most complex hero

His presence could part defenses and his touch could turn good players into dogshit

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1986 FIFA World Cup in Mexico Diego Armando Maradona *30.10.1960- Football player, member of the Argentine national team - Maradona kissing the World Cup trophy - 29.06.1986 Photo by Horstmüller/ullstein bild via Getty Images

When I was kid, sharing a bunkbed with my older brother, Rob, in a cramped bedroom on Irma Road, we owned two posters: Heather Locklear emerging from a blurry glass shower that hung from the back of our door so Mom couldn’t see it, and a smiling Diego Maradona hoisting the 1986 World Cup trophy above our desk.

I’d like to set the first poster aside because it’s the Maradona poster that I remember most today. Growing up as a soccer player in the late eighties-early nineties, Maradona was the only player people ever talked about. I watched one game in the ’86 World Cup at my neighbor’s house on a Saturday afternoon on ABC’s Wide World of Sports, and though my best friend wanted to play G.I. Joes, climb trees, or play fort outside, I begged him to stay so I could see the end of the Mexico-Bulgaria game. Maradona wasn’t playing that day, but it was the first soccer game I’d ever seen on TV, and soon my aspirations for becoming a soccer player focused on the only images I knew, most notably the Maradona poster hanging in my room.

AS Photo Archive l-r9 Franco Baresi and Luigi De Agostini of Italy during the FIFA World Cup 1990 match between Italy and Argentina at Stadio San Paolo on July 03, 1990 in Naples, Italy. (Photo by Alessandro Sabattini/Getty Images

My brother had an Argentina jersey, and I remember putting it on one day, wearing black shorts on top of white shorts so it looked like the trim on Maradona’s, pulling up a pair of Hanes thick white socks to my knees and parading around the house in my cleats. As my brother outgrew the jersey, soon it became mine. And over the next four years, after we moved to a new house with our own bedrooms, the Maradona poster somehow became mine as well. I wore two jerseys to middle school, a Cameroon Roger Milla and the Argentina one stretching at the seams, and I still envision the looks and hear the snickers because it wasn’t the typical Philly sports gear.

The first live game I saw of Maradona’s was in the ’90 World Cup. We still didn’t have cable, but I watched the semifinal games at my brother’s girlfriend’s house with her younger brother. Maradona didn’t get the ball much against Italy, who tried to hack him down whenever he came near it, but it was the little touches I remember, the quick bursts of pace, the instant crowding of Italian players that showed how much they feared him.

If you’re around my age, you may remember in the early nineties receiving Eurosport and Acme soccer catalogs every other month in the mail. The jerseys and cleats and stadium jackets were well outside my family’s budget range, but the VHS tapes were not. The first tape Santa brought was highlights from the last five World Cups, including Maradona’s 5 goals and 5 assists in ’86, which could represent the single greatest performance in a World Cup. Soon, I bought anything I could at soccer tournaments that had an Argentina flag: hats, t-shirts, figurines.

Diego Maradona may be one of the most complex characters in the history of sport, but his flaws are multifaceted with layers upon layers whose origins many of us may never understand. But while we all strive for perfection in a sport where the model standard is six feet plus hulking physical specimens, it’s somewhat reassuring in knowing that its greatest players do not fit that prototype. Maradona was short, stocky, even struggled with his fitness in the later years of his career as he enjoyed himself more and the rigors of stardom took its toll. But his presence could part defenses and his touch could turn good players into dogshit. That became more evident when the digital age arrived and fans could watch footage of him messing around during warm-ups and embarrassing defenders, maybe while high, maybe not, but incredible all the same.

FBL-ESP-ARG-MARADONA-OBIT Photo by LLUIS GENE/AFP via Getty Images

I’d first learned of Maradona’s drug and alcohol troubles in ’94, days after he scored a goal and set up another against Greece in the World Cup opener. This time I recorded the game on our VCR so I could watch his strike over and over again. He was the headline in the paper, the lead highlight on SportsCenter, and covered in every major news report. We were in the middle of the War on Drugs, the “Just Say No” campaign that found its way into school curriculums through the DARE program. My friends and I had heard of cocaine but not of the larger demons that inflicted the fallen star and forced his removal from the tournament and the sport. All we learned was that drugs were bad, and the people who used them were bad, which meant my favorite player was bad, an untruth I’d learn later in life.

The poster came with me to college. It survived two owners, three moves, one dorm, one apartment, and even after re-tapings and repairs, it made it all the way until my junior year when I lived with a Brazilian.

Following the news of Maradona’s death, I’ve scrolled through dozens of highlights, watched HBO’s Diego Maradona by Asif Kapadia again, read Pablo Maurer’s story of Maradona’s brief spell in Canada in The Athletic, and ravaged my bookshelf for Hand of God by Jimmy Burns.

One of my friends offered his condolences because Maradona had been a part of so many of my Halloweens. Another friend texted, I could have lived one thousand years and still not lived the life Maradona had in sixty. That comment has stuck with me ever since. In Kapadia’s documentary, Maradona said, “When you’re on the field, life goes away, the problems go away, everything goes away.” I’ve found that statement to be the closest thing that connects me with the soccer legend, and I like to remember him by the images on the field where he truly could be free.