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.
"Among the things that have long fascinated people about Jesus and explain his enduring appeal is his method of dialogue and teaching. "He asked a lot of questions and told a lot of stories in the form of parables. In fact, parables form about a third of Jesus’ recorded teachings. The Gospels were written decades after he died, so his questions and parables clearly left a deep impression on those who bore testimony to him....
"Some of Jesus’ questions were rhetorical; others were meant to challenge or even provoke. In some cases, Jesus used questions to parry attacks by religious authorities who set traps for him. In others, he used questions to enter more fully into the lives of others and to help people look at the state of their hearts. He asked people about their fears and their faith. Jesus used questions to free a woman caught in adultery from condemnation and to inquire whether people considered him to be the Messiah. He probed deeply into questions not many had asked before him, like “For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?”
---(Peter Wehner, long-time White House consultant and writer, in the NYT last week about Jesus Christ’s method of teaching by asking questions.)
"Would that I could mention all the illuminating details in this biography, for example, why Wells praised Black Americans so highly, saying, 'I took a mighty liking to these gentle, human, dark-skinned people,' and 'Whatever America has to show in heroic living today, I doubt if she can show anything finer than the quality of the resolve, the steadfast efforts hundreds of black and colored men are making today to live blamelessly, honorably and patiently, getting by themselves what scraps of refinement, beauty and learning they may, keeping their hold on a civilization they are grudged and denied.''
-- "How H.G. Wells Predicted the 20th Century," Charles Johnson, NYT Book Review, Nov. 19, 2021. ***".
...the monsters arrive."
"They come in a deafening, surging swarm, blasting from lawn to lawn and filling the air with the stench of gasoline and death. I would call them mechanical locusts, descending upon every patch of gold in the neighborhood the way the grasshoppers of old would arrive, in numbers so great they darkened the sky, to lay bare a cornfield in minutes. But that comparison is unfair to locusts.
"Grasshoppers belong here. Gasoline-powered leaf blowers are invaders, the most maddening of all the maddening, environment-destroying tools of the American lawn-care industry."
---The great Margaret Renkl, from Nashville, one of my favorite NYT bylines, Oct. 26, 2021.
(She describes our Long Island enclave to every decibel, every stink.)