It’s a tribute, but there’s more to it than that. It’s a shirt, but there’s more to it than that, too. For a fleeting moment, as Lionel Messi stands at the Camp Nou in 2020 wearing the No 10 jersey that Diego Maradona wore for Newell’s Old Boys in 1993, past and present are aligned. Messi isn’t just paying homage to Maradona; in that moment he is Maradona, two as one. Then, as if re-entering the earthly plane, he slips his Barcelona jersey back on and dutifully collects his yellow card.
So yes, here we are: another paean to Maradona, this time – usefully! – from someone who never actually saw him play. I have a few vague, pointless memories of the 1994 World Cup, a tournament at which I later learned Maradona was not – pharmaceutically speaking – at his purest vintage. But this isn’t a personal history, or any sort of history, or really very much about Maradona at all. It’s about football now; about magic and where you find it; about joy, and how you pass it on.
I’m writing this on a Monday morning. The death of one of the world’s greatest footballers was announced on Wednesday evening. And yet already his name has disappeared from most of this country’s leading sports pages, save for some icky-clicky stories about his personal doctor. Day five of the sun going out of the sky, and already newsrooms have decided this is no longer relevant.
You, find me a criminal angle. Police suspect foul play in sun disappearance. You, write me a culture war take. Did woke leftists cancel the sun? I mean, can we at least dwell on this a little? Do we ever actually mourn any more? Or do we merely consume, excrete, move on?
Perhaps the most peculiar and dissonant strain of Maradona tribute has been the sort that sees in his passing the disappearance of something larger and more important, that masks in an affection for the past a distaste for the present. We hear that today’s game is too sterile, too corporate, too technocratic, too ubiquitous. We hear that Maradona represented an era of the game that is now gone for ever: an era of boggy pitches, thrilling lawlessness and unimaginable freedom. We are informed, with appropriate tutting, that both Maradona’s goals against England in 1986 would have been ruled out by VAR.
Let me tell you how all this sounds to a younger ear. We will never see another Diego Maradona! (This also applies, by the way, to everyone who has ever died.) The greatest! You can’t possibly imagine the joy and the romance! Football will never be this good again! Lol, sorry you missed the best bit! Perhaps this is simply what the Maradona generation had to put up with from the Pelé generation, and no doubt what future generations will have to put up with from ours (“The thing about Messi, you see, was that he was incomparable, in ways you’ll never grasp”). But it strikes me as a curious framing. Does Maradona’s greatness really have to stand in opposition to something else?
Meanwhile, going for ever is just what eras do; indeed the very point of eras in the first place. The ball is different. The boots are different. The pitches are different, the tactics are different, the picture is different. And yet it seems to me that to home in on the difference has always been a weirdly literal way of interpreting football, a sport that has never been defined by a single time, a single geography, a single aesthetic, but by plurality and flux.
“You can’t possibly compare players across different eras”, you often hear people saying: the 24-carat hallmark of someone taking themselves far too seriously. As it happens, you can’t strictly compare players across different leagues, climates or bodies either. It doesn’t matter. Nobody’s asking you for a scientific standard of proof here. This isn’t the Lancet. Now play the game, you intellectual coward.
Maradona, for his part, never seemed to succumb to any of this. The game was ugly then and is ugly now, and yet he never loved it any less, never stopped adoring football and adoring footballers. And on some level perhaps this was because Maradona recognised that football could never simply be some nostalgic museum piece, to preserve behind glass, to sanctify and weep over. It lives. It breathes. And when one part of it dies, the light simply passes to another.
Because when you strip away the artifice and projection, the game is the same. The ball is the same. The boots are the same. The pitches and the tactics and the meaning are the same. Most important, the joy is the same. It spreads and multiplies and diffuses. Perhaps this is why I found Messi’s tribute on Sunday so strangely moving. It was an acknowledgement of a lineage, an inheritance, the debt we all owe the previous generation for the game they bequeathed.
From Maradona to Messi to the next guy (and there will be a next guy). Maradona dies, but Maradona lives. And not just in grainy video footage or selective memory, but in the joy he gave, the joy he passed on. Maradona lives in the dribbling of Messi and the vision of De Bruyne and the skills of Neymar and the guile of Sancho and the movement of Miedema and the speed of Mbappé and the cunning of Ronaldo. It’s there in the park and the playground and the street and the imagination. It’s all there. But you have to want to see it.