One of the greatest soccer players of all time, Argentine Diego Armando Maradona, reaches his 50th birthday, marked by unique achievements on the field and embarrassing mistakes off of it.
His playing ability and skills remain unmatched and it’s his arguably the most beautiful goal ever scored in a World Cup, against England in 1986, Mexico, in the second title won by Argentina.
It’s also his one of his country’s most vexing moments, in the 1994 cup when Maradona failed a drug test and was banned from the competition. Since that quick exit, Argentina’s still to win another trophy.
His volatile personality, a magnet to controversy, threatened at times to obscure his achievements as a player. It also doesn’t help that to most he plays second fiddle to Brazil’s Pelé, who won two more tournaments than him, and far outscores everyone else in the game, almost 40 years after retiring.
In fact, Maradona’s public feud with Pelé is now part of the lore of the world’s most popular sport and a polarizing issue for its fans. Even his biggest victories seem to be multiplied by those of Pelé, except in what run-ins with the law and fan devotion verging on the bizarre are concerned.
His trials with illegal drugs and personal drama were often played out in public, and yet Argentines of all stripes would gladly light up candles for him anytime. Some went as far as to create the Church of Maradona, founded in 1998, and that counts 2010 as the year 50 D.D., Después de Diego (After Diego).
Still, to soccer lovers the world over, it’s more than simply coincidence that its two greatest idols were born exactly 20 years and a week apart, in two countries known for their petty but intense rivalry.
Thus, Maradona would be the Dionysius to Pelé’s Apollo, the dark, younger, unbound tango god and the sunny, wiser, hedonistic king of samba. Such over-the-top characterization, though, always gets in the way of a fully appreciation of such a complex and vulnerable public figure represented by the one once known as ‘Dieguito.’
But it seems appropriate that unlike Pelé’s 70th birthday celebrations last week, Maradona’s will be considerably more subdued because of the national mourning in Argentina for the sudden death of its former President Nestor Kirchner.
Once again, for a freak of destiny, his long-anticipated coronation will be somewhat shortchanged, and he won’t be able to completely rule the headlines in his own birthday, sharing them instead, with the commentary and reflective news on the death of another powerful populist figure.
Or it may all be a bit of payback from that infamous ‘Hand of God.‘ Whereas it once graced Maradona with an illegal and crucial goal, now it may be reminding him of its moody, counterbalancing whims. For if anyone’s greatness or disgrace would be close enough to be touched by the powers that be themselves, that would clearly be El Pibe de Oro.
(*) Originally published on Oct. 30, 2010.