Maradona: The cheat who competed with the genius and became a hero

Maradona was not Dr Jekyll by the day and Mr Hyde by the night; he was both at the same time. If we saw the brilliant Maradona emerge first, the uglier side would follow immediately, like an envious competitor stomping out with hubris to claim its place alongside.

,Maradona
Maradona captivated fans over a two-decade career with a bewitching style of play that was all his own. Photo: PTI File

Diego Maradona was blessed with the greatest pair of legs on the football field and the ugliest mind on and off it. If somebody were to dissect him through the middle, one part would have been pure genius and the other an incorrigible cheat. It is a miracle that the twain actually happened to meet in one body.

This tragic-comic phenomenon is important to understand. Maradona was not Dr Jekyll by the day and Mr Hyde by the night; he was both at the same time. If, for instance, we saw the brilliant Maradona emerge first, the uglier side would follow immediately, like an envious competitor stomping out with hubris to claim its place alongside. And Maradona’s entire life was an engrossing ballet of this dichotomy.

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At almost every moment in Maradona’s life, the demigod and the devil danced together. In the 1986 World Cup quarter-final at the Azteca, after passing the ball gently around the England box, Maradona suddenly darted through the defence. As the ball was lobbed at him, England goalie Peter Shilton rushed to meet it. But, Maradona punched the ball that was drifting away from his head and into the hands of the England goalkeeper. On cue, within minutes of being upstaged by the cheat, the genius emerged to dribble past the England team from the half-line and score the greatest goal in World Cup history.

Again, in 1994, after serving a cocaine ban, Maradona scored one of the finest goals of the World Cup in the opening encounter against Greece. Taking possession of the ball in the left corner of the box, he curled it past two defenders and the diving goalkeeper. His eyes bulging, face contorted, Maradona broke into a wild celebration. Nine days later, he was thrown out of the World Cup for testing positive for a banned drug. The genius and the cheat were at it again.

Off the field, Maradona lived up to the potential of his persona. He dabbled in drugs, swallowed his own vomit after cocaine-fuelled orgies to end up in intensive care, and openly flirted with the Argentine mafia. His home was also a stage for the dance of the paradox — in public, he remained committed to his only wife, cultivating the image of an ideal family man, but in private he had a string of affairs, and fathered at least three children out of wedlock, proving the adage that fealty is not for a celebrity.

The funny thing about Maradona is that he alternated between hypocrisy and honesty, too. He never apologised for the ‘hand of god’ goal but accepted it was scored illegally, lived up his love for cocaine, and when dejected, like in the 1990 World Cup final against Italy, shed copious amounts of tears in public without shame. But, when caught for using ephedrine in the 1994 World Cup, he spun outrageous excuses for cheating, including the claim that he was allowed by FIFA to use the banned substance to sex up the celebrity value of the marquee event.

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A drug addict, a cheat, a complex person divorced from morality would have been an anathema in any other country, in some other era. But the lucky Maradona remained a hero and an idol for Argentina throughout his life. His country unapologetically celebrated the ‘hand of god’ as a stroke of genius, and later even appointed him as the national side’s coach for the World Cup. For a while, every youngster wanted to be a Maradona, not just with the felicity with football but also with morals. Ironically, his widely-proclaimed successor, Ariel Ortega — called El Burito (the Little Donkey) for the fascinating similarity between a certain part of his anatomies with the animal’s —was cut in the Maradona mould, almost to the pint size. He could dribble like Maradona, score from impossible positions, and blow it all up exactly like his idol, as he did in the 1998 World Cup when he head-butted a Netherland’s player and got red-carded, taking the team down with him.

So, why did Maradona remain a demigod inspite of the devil in him? One, of course, he was a magician who achieved the unthinkable for Argentina — winning them one World Cup and taking them to the finals of another. Some believe he would have won them the 1994 edition had he not been busted for using banned drugs. All his achievements, like those of Zinadine Zidane later, were primarily because of his own genius.

Two, the Argentines always believed that cheating the English wasn’t a big deal; in fact, it was poetic justice. The 1986 World Cup match was played in the backdrop of the Falkland Island war between the two countries. The Argentines were eager to kick the English side out of the World Cup for the defeat in the war. That Maradona helped them avenge the humiliation made him a hero.

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Finally, the war between morality and pragmatism has always been lopsided. Humans love virtues in public but prefer self-interest, winning-at-all-cost in private. Maradona wasn’t nice, but he knew how to win. Compare this with the fate of Lionel Messi, the quintessential nice guy who never seems to win anything for Argentina and you’d know why Maradona would always be the greatest-ever pair of legs for his country in spite of the ugly mind. For, in sports, love and war, winning is everything.

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