Maradona: The heart of a champion

” I have always wanted to play football, but I didn’t know where or how I wanted to play. I had no idea. I started out as a defender. I always was and I am still seduced by playing as a libero, even now that I’m hardly allowed to touch a ball for fear of my heart exploding. As a libero you see everything from the back, the whole pitch is in front of you, you get hold of the ball and you say pim let’s go that way, pim, let’s look from another perspective. You’re the owner of the team. But back in the beginning, libero schmibero. All I wanted was to run after the ball, to get hold of it, to play. Playing football gave me a unique peace. And that same sensation has been with me always, even today: give me a ball and I’ll have fun. I’ll stand my ground, I’ll tussle. I’ll want to win and I’ll want to play well. Give me a ball and let me do what I know best, anywhere. True, people are important and people motivate you but people are not on the pitch. And that’s where the fun is; on the pitch with the ball. That’s what I have always done, whether at Wembley or the Maracana, with a hundred thousand watching. And that’s what we did in Fiorito.”
Thus, Maradona’s autobiography begins. It is an extraordinary account of the best soccer player the world has known and may possibly know. The language he speaks is so unguarded and brutally frank that there appears to be a megaphone between his heart and his lips. Maradona seems to relive every minute of it and he takes us on that compelling journey. And just like the way he played soccer, it is entertaining, it is infectious, it is mesmerizing.
Marcela Mora Y Araujo, whose exemplary translation preserves the cadence of Maradona’s unique tongue and ear for language, explains this gift comes from the use of lunfardo, a patois which fuses the language of Italian immigrants with words of peasant origin and native terminology.
She refers to Bronca, a word that Maradona uses frequently in the book, is at the core of his emotions.
“It is an Argentinian word that denotes anger, fury, hatred, resentment, bitter discontent….. For Maradona it is his most familiar emotion, and he constantly refers to it as his motivator, his fuel, his driving force.”
Maradona’s comments on fellow soccer players (a hundred of them) gives an insight into how he valued passion, a rebellious spirit, a commitment to beautiful soccer, and to the game beyond the pitch. He detests prevarication and politesse. His best friends are the players who reminded him of him and forged a deep and long lasting friendship on and off the pitch through his darkest days. He reserves his respect for players who fought for the rights of players to be treated as humans, not commodities. Of course, in this day and age of ridiculously inflated wages it is hard to fathom a time when soccer players had to scrape by.
The rebels:
On Kevin Keegan: He was my idol for a long time. I loved to watch him play. He was short and stocky like me. He orchestrated matches on his own.
On Eric Cantona: A partner, a friend. Also, more importantly, crazy and a rebel just like me. They suspended him for being honest. And his game wreaked havoc. Ask the Manchester fans: they always chose him as number one.
On Bernd Schuster: They tried to pass the German off as mad to kick him out of football. He was crazy, just like me: he was my partner in the struggle against Nunez and an extraordinary player all over the pitch.
His nemesis:
On Daniel Passarella: The best defender I ever saw in my life, too. The best at heading the ball, and at both ends, something that Argentine soccer is missing these days. What goes on between us off the pitch has nothing to do with what I think of him as a footballer.
His rival for the greatest title:
On Pele: As a player he was the best, but he didn’t use his talent to glorify football. He thought politically. He thought he could be the president of Brazil. And I don’t believe that a footballer, or an ex-footballer, should think about being president of a country. I would have liked him to propose that he preside over an organization which defended players’ rights like I did. I would have liked him to look after Garrincha instead of letting him die broke. I would have liked him to fight against the powers that be which were damaging for us players. I’ve never compared myself to him, I’ve always maintained that, and I’ll say it again here. And when I say that I don’t compare myself to him, I’m not just talking about footballing matters. I’ve had the opportunity to meet him many times. The first, in 1979, was when El Grafico took me to meet him. Later, we met in testimonial matches, that kind of thing. The last time we saw each other was in ’95, when we had the opportunity to go into business together. We just never clicked, we always rubbed each other up the wrong way; we would see each other and sparks would fly.
The French strike out:
On Michel Platini: Great skill, a phenomenon. In Italy, he won everything, but it always seemed to be that he didn’t have fun playing football. He was cold, too cold.
On Zinedine Zidane: I want to defend him, because he has such extraordinary vision, but he looks to me as if he feels less like playing every day that goes by. He’s just like Platini; he doesn’t have fun. They both lack joy when they play.
Platini’s testimonial to Maradona was anything but cold:
“People talk about how great Zidane is, but Maradona could do what Zidane does with an orange. That’s how great Maradona was.”
On David Beckham:
Another one too pretty to go out on the pitch. Although he worries too much about his Spice Girl, now and again he finds the time to play and he can play well, really well – he’s got a great touch. He won everything with Manchester United. And he had eat the hen hat El Cholo Simeone sold him in France ’98. But he paid us back.
Beckham however fared better than Milan’s legend, Paolo Maldini:
Another great player who chose the wrong profession. He should have been an actor; he’s too pretty to play football.
On Peter Shilton who was on the receiving end of that unforgettable match:
The thermos head got cross because of my hand goal. What about the other one, Shilton, didn’t you see that one? He didn’t invite me to his testimonial….. oh, my heart bleeds! How many people go to a goalkeeper’s testimonial anyway? A goalkeeper’s!
You might disagree with Maradona on a lot of his opinions but they are disarming in their candour. He bears grudges. He carries his scars, his warts and all, wearing them proudly like a badge. The emperor wears no clothes in El Diego’s court. This is the player that got under the skin of Sepp Blatter with his demands for labour rights for players. Blatter, a suit, dismissed Maradona by saying “The last star from Argentina was Di Stefano.”
The Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano, a keen and passionate purveyor of the game said it best.
“When Maradona was finally thrown out of the ’94 World Cup, soccer lost its most strident rebel. And also a fantastic player. Maradona is uncontrollable when he speaks but much more so when he plays; no one can predict the devilish tricks this inventor of surprises will dream up for the simple joy of throwing the computers off track, tricks he never repeats. He’s not quick, more like a short legged bull, but he carries the ball sown to his feet and he’s got eyes all over his body. His acrobatics light up the field. He can win a match with a thundering blast when his back is to the goal, or with an impossible pass from far off when he’s corralled by thousands of enemy legs. And no one can stop him when he decides to dribble upfield.”
Maradona: The Autobiography of Soccer’s Greatest and Most Controversial Star is an amazing book and a thoroughly enjoyable read.

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