Olmert to 'Post': The secret to Diego Maradona's undeserved glory

There have been players better, more accomplished and more successful, but none of them were as revered and loved as Maradona was, and perhaps none of them will ever be.

ARGENTINA’S DIEGO MARADONA falls during a World Cup match in Mexico City in 1986. (photo credit: GARY HERSHORN/REUTERS)
ARGENTINA’S DIEGO MARADONA falls during a World Cup match in Mexico City in 1986.
The sudden death of an older man – 1.65 meters tall (5’5”), with a pot belly, an aging face and a staring gaze, who has long had difficulty walking on his own – has managed to stop the pulse of hundreds of millions of people. Diego Armando Maradona once again managed to excite the imagination of people around the world and evoke in them an almost personal sense of loss, pain and longing for a magic that is difficult to feel or define exactly.
Argentina has declared three days of national mourning, as if it were at least the president of the country. All the football games in the world opened with a long minute of silence in his memory. League games in the UK did as well. The country that was defeated in the World Cup quarter-final match in June 1986 following a goal from the “Hand of God” – as Maradona called the goal-stealing that changed the history of the World Cup games and added to his aura as a player of almost cosmic proportions – honored his memory.
TV shows and news broadcasts around the world have been dealing with Maradona’s death for quite a few days, and have instilled a feeling that humanity has lost a person with extraordinary qualities, an exemplary man who it is impossible not to admire and bow to his marvelous achievements. The greatest football player in history is a title that Maradona appropriated to himself in his life, and now, after his death, he has received a kind of seal of approval from many of the commentators and mourners of his death.
As in many other cases, the spontaneous reaction to Maradona’s death fits in with the myth that was created during his lifetime, of his greatness, of his achievements, of his contribution to sports in general, and to football, the most popular sport in the world.
In some cases that I followed, and I certainly missed the vast majority, delusional things were written that crossed the line of reasonableness. For example, one of the sports commentators wrote that the second goal scored by Maradona, in that badly remembered game against England in which Argentina ousted them from the World Cup in Mexico, was no less the most amazing goal ever scored in the history of football. Indeed, the goal was amazing. It was an ingenious football move. Not many players were able to do that. But the greatest goal ever scored in a football game?
The outburst of exaggerations should not be overlooked when it comes to Maradona. It’s hard not to comment on it. Maradona was a brilliant football player. Few were like him. Some were much better than him. Argentina has won the World Cup only once, under Maradona at the same championship in Mexico in 1986. There is no doubt that Maradona was the dominant player of the Argentines. Still, even in the final game in which Argentina defeated Germany 2-3 in a very exciting game, Maradona did not score a goal, although he did cook up the winning goal.
It is impossible not to compare Maradona with at least three other players whose achievements surpass his own. The first, the greatest, the special and most unusual of them was, of course, the Brazilian Pelé.
Pelé participated in the football team that won the World Cup three times. The first time, in 1958 in Sweden, Pelé was only 18 years old. Even then he was the star of the team, after he managed to lead his team in Brazil, Santos, to the championship.
At the 1962 World Cup in Santiago, Chile, Brazil once again won the World Cup, again starring Pelé. In 1970, Brazil defeated Italy and won the World Cup for the third time, again starring Pelé.
THIS WONDERFUL player scored the first goal of the game. I remember the goal from Dan Shilon’s live broadcast 50 years ago. Pelé scored the goal after stopping the ball with his chest, lowering it to his leg, and from there to the goal. He was not helped by the hand. He did not steal the victory. Brazil won 4-1, and Pelé was crowned the star of the championship and became the first and only player ever to be a partner in winning the World Cup three times. In addition, he scored an endless amount of goals in the teams he played for, including the Brazil national team.
Franz Beckenbauer from Germany presents a completely different history. He was the star of the World Cup in England in 1966, at the age of 21. In 1974, he was captain of the German national team that won the trophy. In 1990, he was the coach of the German national team that won the World Cup. He is one of only two football players to have won the World Cup both as a player and as a coach.
Another player worth mentioning is Johann Cruyff. True, he did not win the World Cup, even though he brought the Dutch team to the finals at the Munich Games in 1974. He made the Dutch Ajax the Dutch champion eight times, played in Barcelona and won the Spanish championship with it, and then was the coach of Barcelona and won four championships with them.
As an Ajax player, Cruyff won the European Champions Cup three times and was personally crowned the best player in Europe and given the Golden Ball Award three times.
Maradona won the World Cup once. True, he led the city of Naples to win two championships in Italy, but it soon became clear that he was addicted to drugs, connected to the Italian mafia, and even suspended from games in Italy for 15 months. From then on, his professional career was riddled with scandals, with the climax being his dismissal from the 1994 World Cup, after being found positive on a drug test.
Maradona was unsuccessful as a coach. In 2010, he was the coach of the Argentina national team, which failed in the World Cup. For long periods in recent years he was in drug rehab.
I have no doubt that each of the names I mentioned was a better, more accomplished and more successful player than Maradona. But none of them was as revered and loved as he was, and perhaps none of them will ever be.
Why? What was in him that others do not have? What ignited this mental turmoil, the lost senses of millions all over the world who worshiped a man who played great football, but stained this great sport with behavior and norms contrary to everything the cultured world purports to cultivate?
Still, the worship of him was not born on the day of his death but pumped in many hearts for decades while he played, and years after he stopped playing and was mostly involved in shameful scandals.
Maradona’s greatness is not only rooted in his achievements as a football player, but mainly in the path he took, from his poor neighborhood and family who barely had food to feed their children, to a kind of peak in sports. That evoked the sense of identity with millions of his countrymen and with many others around the world who saw his rise to the highest level as a kind of miracle that many dream of achieving and fail. His miraculous journey from the social and economic bottom to the center of international consciousness, the ability to break all frameworks and all the rules of conduct and norms accepted in sports and life in general, created around him a kind of aura that almost no other great athlete has achieved.
In the history of modern sport in general, and football in particular, which is loved by more people than any other sport, Maradona has left a colorful and flamboyant mark, and as such he will be remembered. After the resonance from the excessive, sometimes hysterical praise that surrounded his death will expire, sports fans will return to admire those whose achievements in sports were free of scandals, drugs and riots. Maradona will not be among them.