Argentine soccer legend Diego Armando Maradona died in 2020, at that time still the last man to lead his nation’s team to a World Cup championship. On Sunday, in some sense Maradona passed away again, as Lionel Messi lifted the golden trophy and his own legacy as not only the greatest Argentine player of all time, but possibly the greatest to ever lace up boots in the world.
Tuesday has been declared a national bank holiday in the South American nation, not that anyone there has stopped partying since the famous win on Sunday. The heroes’ welcome will be for this band of players, especially Messi, who snapped the thirty-six-year World Cup drought. But make no mistake, the image of Maradona will also be on display far and wide.
Messi had no greater idol and no greater fan than Maradona, who was his coach for a brief time. Diego could always be seen in the stands, waving Messi’s jersey, whipping the crowd into a frenzy. He would have been ecstatic to see La Albiceleste add a third star to its iconic jersey with a win over France in arguably the greatest soccer game ever played. But that was not to be.
Perhaps in a way it never could have been. It truly did feel that so long as he lived, Maradona could never be overtaken; the universe simply would not allow it. So long as he paced the earth the way he had patiently paced the pitch, always ready to pounce, he was the star, the main attraction, flowing dark locks and attitude to spare.
Maradona, unlike the shy and reserved Messi, was a wild man, not shy about his voracious appetite for cocaine and beautiful women. He was a kind of figure the media can’t get behind today, even as the mischievous villain. If Pele was the twentieth century’s great statesman of the game, Maradona was its gifted class clown. And it was pretty obvious who would be more fun to party with.
Those with a mystical bent might believe that Maradona had something to do with himself being deposed as the greatest of all time. It turns out that Messi uttered a little prayer to Diego as Gonzalo Montiel was about to net the cup winning penalty kick: “Come on Diego give it to him.” Argentina is a deeply Catholic country and we Catholics call this an intercession — generally speaking, intercessions are asked of saints.
If Maradona is a saint now, as opposed to the one true God of Argentine soccer, then maybe he is the patron saint of narcotics and hand balls — but he wouldn’t be the first sinner to attain such heights. Perhaps this second death of Maradona will move him to Mount Olympus, place him in a pantheon of soccer gods. Nobody can be the greatest forever, but one can be forever one of the greats.
Diego Maradona’s funeral two years ago was a small affair of family and friends, not the national blowout that you would expect and that Pele is destined to receive in Brazil. And that may have been fitting: after all, Maradona liked to celebrate victory, not defeat. In a sense this week’s frenetic celebrations in Buenos Aires, and Rosario, down the coast to Patagonia, are not just the coronation of Leo Messi as the new king of Argentine soccer, but also, finally a proper funeral for the man who defined the sky blue and white jersey and the number 10 for a generation, starting long before Leo was born.
Those of us who got to watch both of them should count ourselves lucky. Even though Messi is now top dog, they are an odd couple that will linger in the imagination. God grant rest now to King Diego of Argentina — and long live King Leo.