An Argentine win or loss can leave fans in Bengal as jubilant or teary eyed as those in Buenos Aires. Behind this wonderful common feeling is the hand of Maradona (Published in Times of India, 8 June, 2014)
Football began for me, as I’m sure it did for many others my age, with Diego Maradona. In 1986, the Argentinian captain powered his country to victory at the World Cup in an unrivalled display of will and prowess. I was too young – barely two – to watch that tournament live, but I made up for it in spades subsequently. Scarcely a day went by in my toddlerhood that I failed to relive Maradona’s exploits. My twin brother and I watched and rewound and watched and rewound our video of “Hero,” the official film of the 1986 World Cup (and one of the most artful football documentaries ever made). We memorized every frame of Maradona’s triumph.
There are lots of iconic Maradona moments from the tournament, including his righteous goals against England in the quarterfinal. But the images that remain seared in my mind are of him refusing to go to ground. Under the hacks and thrusts of defenders, Maradona would press on, his thighs pumping, his body arched, clawing his way over the earth with his hands like a four-legged animal. Even back then, he seemed to me emblematic of all that was heroic in football. There it was in grainy Technicolor: talent and tenacity, perseverance in the face of thuggery, and more than anything else, unvarnished passion. After my bath, I would imitate the scenes of Maradona celebrating in his locker room, waving my towel like a flag and chanting, “Argentina! Argentina! Argentina!”
I’m not Argentinian. I’ve never been to Argentina. Were I to go there, I would look and feel patently out of place. While I admire a good deal of Argentinian literature and have a passing fondness for their wines, my vegetarianism leaves me at a great remove from Argentinians, who are among the most red-blooded, carnivorous people on the planet.
But thanks to my memories of Maradona, when the World Cup rolls around every four years, I can’t help but feel a tremendous affection for the blue-and-white stripes of the Albiceleste. It’s a curious emotion, something akin to longing but short of belonging. It’s a feeling I share with many Indians and people from countries that never reach the glowing theatre of the tournament. We habitual outsiders to the World Cup, perennially on the edges of the footballing world, are used to reposing our desires in others.
The streets of Kolkata this month will be dutifully festooned with the flags of Brazil and Argentina, the favourite World Cup teams of the football-loving city. The joy and sorrow that will greet their victories and defeats will be no less genuine than that in Buenos Aires or Rio de Janeiro. This wonderful international common feeling is in at least small part attributable to the outsize legacy of Maradona.
It is the strange thing about football – a sport more than any other predicated on multitudes: the collective organism of the team, the massed ranks of supporters, the expectant nation – that we almost always fall in love with it through individuals. In his pomp, Maradona was the greatest player in the world and arguably the greatest ever. For me, he will always be wrapped in the amber of 1986 and in the soft focus of the film “Hero,” which endowed even the motions of his stretching with an otherworldly grace. His career ended in ignominy, in drug-scandals and the sad dissolution of his being, but he remains the closest thing to an idol I’ve ever kept.
Maradona came to Kolkata in 2008. Overweight and ruddy-faced, he did a few kick-ups for the masses in Salt Lake Stadium, pumped his fist, and enjoyed the adulation of the public. The visit had a surreal quality. Escorted by CPM handlers, he offered jovial salaams to various Communist party higher-ups and was gifted a sketch of Che Guevara. His happy demagoguery seemed to belong to another era, a time gone by.
I was in Salt Lake Stadium in 2011 when Lionel Messi – the presumptive heir to Maradona’s legacy – arrived with Argentina to play an international friendly. The crowd thrilled and shivered at his every touch of the ball, chanting his name throughout. Messi won the game with his efficient brilliance. There was no emotion, only a very modern competence.
I can’t help but feel a little sorry for those growing up now with superstars like Messi, a little genius entirely devoid of personality, and Cristiano Ronaldo, an accumulation of muscles and manicured eyebrows. In this age of hyper-marketing and commercial packaging, these immense footballers seem like alien creatures cut from steel, polished with hair gel. One gets the sense that at the end of the day, Messi and Ronaldo return to their spaceship-like mansions to power off, to sleep a dreamless robotic sleep. Maradona, on the other hand, offered the illusion that no barrier separated the field of his renown from the world beyond. Both on and off the pitch, he was the scrappy child of the slums, snarling exuberance and desire.
I was six when Maradona’s divine aura began to recede. My brother and I stayed up late in Kolkata to watch Argentina’s first match of the 1990 World Cup. All the bundled expectation of our few years had brought us to that moment. We had never seen Argentina play in real time before, and so we marvelled at Maradona’s bustling form through the static of the TV. Sadly, we were given our first lesson in the cruelty of football. In what amounted to one of the biggest upsets in World Cup history, Cameroon beat Argentina 1-0. My brother and I did what any genuine football fan would do: we cried.