Gracias, Diego.

Thoughts on the passing of a soccer legend

Diego Maradona passed away from a heart attack last November 25, 2020. I, like a lot of soccer aficionados, was saddened to hear the news, but not totally surprised, given his history of off-the-field troubles and health issues. I prefer not to dwell too much on those well-documented aspects of his life, even though they’re certainly a part of his legacy. I’ve had a little bit of time now to reflect on what he meant to me, personally, and I’ll share a few of my thoughts here.

As a child, baseball was my first love. After the sport became more challenging and less fun, I turned to American football, which I played competitively for several years. I didn’t start to take an interest in soccer until the early-1990s, when I was a high school student in suburban Milwaukee, Wisconsin. I had started to get more involved in the study of the Spanish language and Hispanic culture, most notably when I participated in a foreign exchange program in Argentina during my junior year (1993-1994). The program involved hosting a student from Argentina at our home for a time, then roles would be reversed. How could I not became aware of Diego Maradona? By then, of course, his best days were behind him. This was long after his famous “Hand of God” goal against England in the 1986 World Cup. His success playing against the best teams of Europe – for Barcelona and Napoli – had passed, too. During my trip to Argentina, my favorite souvenir (that I bought for myself) was a soccer jersey of the Argentina national team in the classic sky blue and white stripes, with number 10 on the back. I still have it, even if it doesn’t fit like it used to.

In 1994, there was hope that Diego would be back to his old form. During the World Cup in the United States that summer, Argentina was the only team I paid attention to. It started off well enough, with a 4-0 victory over Greece in which striker Gabriel Batistuta scored a hat trick, and Diego scored a classic goal with an unforgettable celebration.

The rest of that World Cup would not be so happy for Argentina, as Diego was kicked out due to a failed drug test, and the team lost to Romania in the Round of 16. Nonetheless, I had started a path to becoming a soccer fanatic, with Argentina as my favorite national team. And it wasn’t just because of Diego. I remember the squad as being very likable and stylish. I admired them, despite the imperfections of their legendary player.

I followed soccer intensely from that summer of 1994. Diego’s playing days would be over shortly thereafter. A trip to Spain a few years later influenced me to become a die-hard Real Madrid fan, which made it difficult for me continue to hold Maradona in high regard, since he spent a few years playing for Barcelona, Madrid’s arch nemesis. In Argentina, I tended to like River Plate more than their arch rival Boca Juniors, where Maradona played. Other stars from Argentina, like Fernando Redondo, a midfielder at my beloved Real Madrid, became idols for me, taking Maradona’s place. (In retrospect, the notion that a player like Redondo, as good as he was, could take the place of someone like Maradona in my list of idols seems absurd.) Unfortunately, as time went on, I started to pay less attention to the Argentina national team, mostly because of my distance from the country and my growing love for Spain and Mexico. (The fact that they’ve been led by Leo Messi, Barcelona’s star for over fifteen years, might have something to do with that, too.)

“Unfortunately, it took the death of Diego Maradona for me to realize that his art is no less meaningful to millions of people than that of any painter or writer.”

There’s an irony in life that we often don’t really appreciate someone until he or she is gone. I feel that way about Maradona as I look back at his highlights, hear stories about him from those who played alongside him, and learn more about him and what he meant to Argentina. I won’t get in to whether or not he was the best player ever, but he’s surely in that conversation. What I appreciate about him is that despite his very humble origins and other obstacles in his path, he became a world champion and brought so much joy to his country. One video that I’ve watched many times is one in which he is warming up for a game for Napoli. As he gets ready for this important match, he’s almost dancing with the ball, performing the most intricate footwork – with untied shoes! – seemingly effortlessly. He exudes joy. That’s the image of Diego I want to hold on to.

My love for Hispanic culture isn’t limited to art, literature, food, or music. It’s all encompassing. And fútbol combines with these other elements to give me a panoramic view of Hispanic culture. Unfortunately, it took the death of Diego Maradona for me to realize that his art is no less meaningful to millions of people than that of any painter or writer. And Maradona’s passion for the game (and that of his teammates and compatriots) sparked a passion in me for this important aspect of Hispanic culture, which guided me down a path to where I am today.

And for that, I say: Gracias, Diego, por tu arte. Que en paz descanses.

Maradona meant a lot to so many people. The videos below are just a small sampling of some of the reactions to the news of his death. Did you ever get to see him play? What did he mean to you? Let us know in the comments.

If you enjoyed this post, please consider sharing it on your favorite social media. ¡Gracias!

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