The hand of Diego

Diego Maradona died today. Maradona was one of the greatest soccer players ever, voted the co-winner of the FIFA Greatest Player of the Twentieth Century award in 2000 (he won the fan poll conducted on the internet, while Pelé won the survey of journalists and coaches. He was a phenom from childhood, seemingly blessed with speed and skill beyond any other young player in Argentina. He led the country’s national men’s team to four World Cups, winning it all in 1986.

Unfortunately, his career was overshadowed by one infamous on-field event and a lifetime of financial problems, drug addictions, and personal disputes. The on-field event took place in the 1986 World Cup quarterfinal match against England. Maradona scored both of Argentina’s goals, the first on what would come to be known as the “Hand of God” goal. On a play in the penalty area in front of the goal, Maradona jumped to play a ball along with England’s goalkeeper, Peter Shilton. It seemed that Maradona might have deflected the ball into the goal with his left hand, but the referees didn’t see the foul and allowed the goal. Argentina ended up winning, 2-1, and they advanced to the semi-final.

For years, despite photographic evidence that he had, in fact, touched the ball, which should have resulted in a yellow card and a disallowed goal, Maradona denied it, crediting the slight deflection to his head and to “La mano de Dios,” or the Hand of God. Due to the controversy, it’s often forgotten that the winning goal was also scored by Maradona in a magnificent display of individual skill. He took the ball in his own half and broke up the field, beating five England players and finally Shilton just four minutes after the disputed first goal. The second goal was named the “Goal of the Century” in an online poll done in 2002.

Ahora sí puedo contar lo que en aquel momento no podía, lo que en aquel momento definí como «La mano de Dios»… Qué mano de Dios, ¡fue la mano del Diego!

(Now I can say what I couldn’t at that moment, what I defined at that time as The Hand of God. What a hand of God, it was the hand of Diego!)

Diego Maradona, from his autobiography published in 2000

Maradona was a larger-than-life figure who lived a remarkable, if flawed, life. He certainly was no angel, but he seemed to have enjoyed himself quite a bit. I’m conflicted when I see someone like him. Obviously, he had incredible talent, but he was also driven to use that talent to be the best. Would he have been successful if he’d played by everyone else’s rules? I doubt it.

A few weeks ago, my son and I were having a mostly facetious argument over whether I could outplay some legendary athletes at their games – not in their prime, but today, with both of us well beyond our prime athletic years (which I never had any of in the first place). I told him I could beat Maradona at soccer today, because he had been overweight, had fought drug addictions, and was reportedly in poor health. Andy said he’d still be better at soccer than me, and I have to admit I thought that might be true. Well, I’m definitely better at soccer than Diego Maradona today, and the world is a somewhat less interesting place now that he’s gone.

In recent years, Maradona returned to the Catholic faith of his youth. Perhaps he’ll get to see the real Hand of God after all.