The death of Diego Maradona provided another reminder that life is seldom simple for the sporting superstar. Maradona was obviously a footballing genius, whose later life was, by all accounts, chaotic. In 1986, at the age of 25, the brilliance of his feet, his vision and his deception led to Argentina winning the World Cup. It doesn’t get any better than that. And that surely is the problem.
It is not a common problem since it applies only to geniuses. Where do you go after scaling the highest peaks? This came to mind when I was chatting to Ian Botham recently. How could he ever hope to surpass what he achieved in the second half of the summer of 1981 at the age of 25? Geoff Hurst was never going to score another hat-trick in a World Cup final after 1966. How can Ben Stokes ever play a better innings than the one at Headingley in 2019? In the same way, how could Maradona top what he did in Mexico in 1986? I suppose one could also speculate whether Elton John was haunted by the thought that he might never produce a better track than Your Song, which was released in 1970. If so, it did not stop him trying.
Most of us do not have to deal with the problem of peaking early, with two-thirds of our lives still ahead, and fortunately the geniuses do not seem to waste much time fretting about this. Perhaps this is left to us constipated also-rans to mull over. Even so, it must be a dilemma for the truly great sportsperson to move on, to escape from the past. It would not surprise me if Botham would like “Winemaker Supreme” on his gravestone.
It must be tough for the superstars to forge a new life anywhere near as rewarding as the old one. In cricket and football the most obvious pathway often involves coaching/managing teams and/or the media. However, it is well established that the best players rarely make the best managers. No doubt Jürgen Klopp, Arsène Wenger, Alex Ferguson and José Mourinho were good footballers, but they weren’t great ones. In rugby I imagine that Eddie Jones was a combative and cunning hooker, who made himself good enough to play against the best occasionally, but he wasn’t one of them.
The pattern is similar in cricket. Trevor Bayliss (no Tests for Australia) and – let me just look this up – Gary Stead (five Tests for New Zealand) were the two head coaches when England and New Zealand were in the World Cup final in 2019. Duncan Fletcher, for whom there was no Test cricket when he played for Zimbabwe, was in charge of England in one of the greatest series of all time, in 2005. Chris Silverwood (six Tests and seven ODIs) holds the reins now and is doing a perfectly good job.
There are at least two good reasons for this pattern. Being in charge of a team can be a hard slog. The fixture list never ends, nor does the travelling. The superstar, who may have become used to a more comfortable existence, understandably thinks twice about taking on such gruelling major posts (in cricket it is much easier to have a little gig in the Hundred). Moreover the truly great sportsperson may not have thought long and hard about how he/she achieved their greatness.
It would have been a waste of time to employ a sports psychologist to enhance the careers of Botham or Viv Richards. Both were the most natural sportsmen and just knew how to compete; it was in their DNA and they did not need to analyse how they did it. That was more likely to be a hindrance. Nor did they spend much time worrying about their techniques. As Kevin Pietersen often explained, the secret was to watch the ball and then hit it. So it makes sense that the best coaches often come from a lower tier, from players who had to sit down and think and analyse and then to strain to get better. This experience put them in a better position to enhance others.
Then there is the well-worn path into the media, which may be the easier option even if it is unlikely to be so fulfilling as playing the game. A few transcend their playing days. I remember being taken aback when I was required to explain that Richie Benaud, the consummate broadcaster who understood the power of silence rather better than so many of his successors, had once upon a time been a cricketer himself and a charismatic one too, who had captained Australia with great distinction.
Recently a couple of Lancastrians have done well. In years to come there may well be those who gasp upon learning that Mike Atherton had actually opened the batting for England for years before becoming a much-respected, long-serving cricket correspondent. There could be thousands out there who know Freddie Flintoff as the presenter of Top Gear and are surprised to learn that he was once a brilliant all-rounder.
Likewise the number of fans who think of Gary Lineker as an instinctive goalscorer in short shorts rather than a crisp-eating TV presenter diminishes by the year. All seem to have moved on very successfully; they are no longer defined by what they achieved in their 20s. However they all have a way to go to surpass Imran Khan, once captain of Pakistan and now his country’s prime minister.
Those above may be the exceptions. There is a natural tendency for us mortals to envy the superstars for their talent, their riches and their lifestyle. But the extreme case of Maradona suggests that they can be deserving of sympathy as well.
• This article was amended on 1 December 2020. Diego Maradona was 25, not 26, when Argentina won the World Cup in 1986.