Diego Armando Maradona died Wednesday at the age of 60.
Many of us have tales to tell about his genius, about his flaws, about his legendary burst through England’s defenses in the 1986 World Cup, and his other goal that day, a cynical punch of the ball: “The Hand of God.”
My friend John McDermott, long-time soccer insider (and player in a tough San Francisco league), an American now living in northeast Italy, often visits Napoli, the raffish city settled by Greeks long ago, known for its symbol, the scugnizzi, the street boys.
Playing for SSC Napoli, Maradona from Argentina found his spiritual home. The city of the scugnizzi understood him best.
John McDermott often visits Napoli, for subject matter, to teach photography, to enjoy the city.
On Wednesday, when word came of Maradona’s death, John send me some photos and he also wrote:
“Diego in his finest hour...the 1986 World Cup Final...RIP, Campeon. I first covered him in 1979 for Sports Illustrated, games against Holland in Bern and against Italy in Rome. He was a kid among men but was already acknowledged as an arriving superstar. There were to be many more occasions after that where I witnessed his brilliance first-hand.
“In his book ‘The Simplest Game,’ the distinguished soccer journalist Paul Gardner wrote, 'No player in the history of the World Cup had ever dominated in the way Maradona ruled over Mexico-86.'”
Of Maradona's legendary solo goal against England in that tournament Gardner described the run as “10 seconds of pure, unimaginable soccer skill to score one of the greatest goals in the history of the World Cup.” Such was his importance to Argentina that the country has just declared three days of national mourning. But he also belonged to Napoli and the southern Italian city is also in mourning. An ironic note, Diego died on the same day as George Best, fifteen years ago. If Maradona and Pelé were the greatest players of all time, Best was not very far behind them.” Photo © John McDermott.
You ask if I ever met Maradona. Sort of. To prepare for the 1990 World Cup in Italy, the NYT Magazine asked me to write a profile of the stubby wizard who had hijacked the 1986 World Cup. I started doing my homework, as I wrote in my book, “Eight World Cups,” Henry Holt, 2014.
Somebody slipped me Maradona’s home phone number in Naples. I dialed the number and in my very modest Italian I explained my mission. A male voice at the other end immediately switched to a form of Spanish. All right. I switched to my limited Spanish. The man at the other end shifted back to Italian. He seemed to understand my message – I was a New York Times reporter, looking to interview Maradona – and he professed to take my number, and promised to pass it along. I did not get a call back.
In the spring of 1990, I went to Naples and with the help of Cristina, the very able NYT bureau translator/guide, I saw Maradona play, meshing perfectly with Careca, a Brazilian forward, the two of them as smooth and swift as a Lamborghini
Afterward, Napoli held a press conference in a room near the locker room. To my delight, Maradona himself materialized, his thick curls showing a touch of gray, an earring glittering from his left lobe.
After they lowered the microphone for him – geez, he was short – Maradona began answering questions.
That voice sounded familiar.
Son of a bitch. That was the voice on the other end of the phone, the guy who kept switching languages on me. Cristina said his guttural Italian, with an Argentine accent, was not bad at all.
The obits will tell the sad and probably even sordid tale of a genius who fell apart before our eyes, banished from the 1994 World Cup for having a “cocktail” of drugs in his system.
His legacy is contained in the video of one screaming South American broadcaster, witnessing the romp of Diego Armando through the English defense. Never mind the Hand of God scam. This goal was human soccer brilliance, genius on the fly.