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Maradona was from another time but still defines the sporting experience

Diego Maradona was a great many things.
He was complex. He was a national treasure. He was a rascal. He was a countercultural icon; something close, in some places, to a religious idol.
He was maybe the finest ever player of the world’s favourite game – if not that, then the most compelling. How do you discuss someone like that as a force in sport in the last 40 years? To put it another way, how do you not?
Something strange happens now in the wake of a celebrated passing. On social media, in the early rush to share a treasured personal memory, it can be like a child has emptied a handbag on the floor, and you have to make sense of a life out of all of these scattered artefacts. Then once the obituaries arrive from reputable outlets, smartly sorting through the familiar bits and pieces, it can somehow fail to satisfy.
It’s as though having seen so much, even out of order, you can’t now tell the story with just the driver’s licence and the keys and the compact, and without the random ticket stub and the receipts and the half-finished pack of gum. But you can’t get it all back together, either.
There is not much hope of making sense of a life like Maradona’s in the details. Not the public life, anyway. The scope and the sweep of it, the improbability of its events. You can lean on the established pillars: humble beginnings, otherworldly gifts, those improbable Serie A titles with Napoli, the concentrated brilliance of that Fifa World Cup win in Mexico in 1986. Or the cocaine and the chaos and the contrarian charisma. What has been striking, instead, is how many have tried to explain just how Maradona made them feel.
Among the first videos shared after the news broke was one many reach for when they want to communicate why this guy was different. You probably know it. It is a few minutes of warm-up footage, shot before a Uefa Cup semi-final between Napoli and Bayern Munich in the spring of 1989.
Maradona, laces undone, is wriggling and shimmying, and diverting a football around with the nearest available surface of his body, all as he seems to bop along to the joyous, gibberish pop anthem Live is Life by Austrian pop group Opus. It turns out, for the record, that the clip was stitched together afterwards with the music overlaid. But there is something about it that fuses Maradona to that moment in time.
A postscript, for those who need it: six months later the Berlin Wall came down. The year after, Argentina fell just short of retaining their world title against a West Germany side that would soon cease to exist. By now, another English-language single from a German-language band was setting sales records across Europe: Scorpions’ Winds of Change.
You get the picture. The sense of Diego as set between eras can be palpable. The images of him are all in colour, with the branding and the trappings that separate a commercial modern soccer from what might be seen as its Corinthian past. Still, on the pitch, the Maradona trademark was not a stepover or flick but a hurdle, springing off scruffy turf over some advancing burst of flashing studs, kept safe by that toughened core and faultless balance from one more act of violence. The game was moving on, but not that fast.
Map the path of his playing days and you get a similar idea. Wherever he sits in the pantheon, Maradona was the absolute best among his peers. Yet he picked up a relative handful of major titles, he was a national club champion three times and never won a top-tier continental championship. Compare the material residue of his years in competition – in silverware, as well as gold – with the leading lights who followed.
Follow it up through Zidane and Ronaldo and Thierry Henry and look at the returns, today, of Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi. There is an exponential curve in rewards, a pattern of machine-tooled careers. For all that, is there anything on those CVs to match the romance of what Maradona did in Naples? Will there ever be again?
There is a generation for whom Diego is a founding element in their footballing imaginations – some of them write about sport now and several have done so beautifully in these past few hours – but this correspondent was a little late on the scene for that. I have no recollection of that frantic, sanctified peak. In my defence, I was very, very small. My own first experiences of sport, of soccer – of anything that didn’t involve colouring in or crying, really – began just as those days in Italy were ending.

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