In January 1986, I became the South American bureau chief for a US magazine. It was not a happy marriage, and from the beginning I showed that I was not up to the job. A few weeks into my assignment, my editor in New York City phoned me at the bureau offices in Rio de Janeiro. “We have a great story for you!” he burbled. I said that was wonderful. “We’re going to put you on the cover!” he exclaimed further, and I said that was wonderful too. Bursting with excitement, he said, “It’s Maradona!”
There was a pause, and then I asked, “Where is that?” The silence that followed between us was to be never ending.
The story I then attempted was, naturally, a complete disaster. I never found Maradona, because the most famous football player in the world was living not in his native city, Buenos Aires, as I had supposed after asking my office mates for an emergency briefing, but in Italy, where he played for Napoli. (“Oh, you mean they’re allowed to play outside their own country?”) When I stopped by the leading Argentine sports magazine, hoping to beg for help, the director would not even let me past the ground floor sentry guards, having sensed perhaps from the tone in the guard’s voice on the intercom that I was a fool. I eventually tracked down Maradona’s kid brother, but he merely chewed gum and listened open-mouthed to my questions, either in disbelief or in a stupor. I left Argentina after filing a story so full of errors and devoid of sense that, as I recall, New York did not even make a pretense of typesetting it.
Nevertheless, I had fun. It was the first time I’d been in Argentina, and I got to watch my first soccer match ever not on a television screen but in the historic “Bombonera” stadium in La Boca: Argentina’s beloved Boca Juniors (Maradona’s home team) vs. the thuggish but thrilling Colo Colo of Chile. After the game I concluded that soccer was a very enjoyable sport, which is like deciding that Jehovah is kind of a nice guy.
A few months later—on June 22, 1986, to be precise—I sat in a hotel room in Lima with a friend and watched as Maradona employed “The Hand of God,” as he called it (it was actually his own completely illegal palm and five digits) to push the ball through England’s goal posts. Five minutes later, he scored a second goal, the most astonishing and beautiful finish in soccer history, the history books say. My friend, smoking his way through several packs of cigarettes out of World Cup stress, interrupted his concentration on the screen to look at me in surprise for a moment, for I was on my feet and yelling “Goooooool!” just before Maradona, having scuttled the ball an impossible length through England’s defense force as if the whole group had been zombified, simultaneously tumbled to the ground and kicked the ball past the helpless goalkeeper.
“I thought you didn’t like football,” my friend said, as I bounced around the room, ululating. What struck me then, and strikes me now, is how even as we watched the impossible happen and understood that it could not be, we simultaneously understood that this goal was predestined.
My career as a soccer journalist actually predates Maradona by two World Cups. The very first story I ever wrote about anything at all dates from June 1978, during the World Cup hosted by Argentina. Something unusual happened then involving Mexico—I look at the results tables and can’t for the life of me remember what it could have been; we never got past the first round—that made the Guardian newspaper in London decide that they needed a reaction piece from somebody there. A frantic ten-minute search put the sports editor in touch with the foreign editor who put him in touch with a friend who had been a correspondent in Mexico who knew someone who knew me. Could I possibly cobble together a paragraph or two of vox pop? I had no idea what they were talking about, and had never written a newspaper story, or indeed had the slightest desire to do so, but saying yes seemed the polite thing to do. I must have gone out to play reporter somewhere around the corner, but the only part I remember distinctly is calling a couple of English friends who were soccer fiends to find out what had happened and why it was important. I remember being surprised at the vocabulary (“Really, they call them strikers and left-wingers?”) but nothing at all about the story. It was published, though.
I still follow the World Cup, although I’m still barely more than illiterate. Given our historic connection, I’m overjoyed to see Diego Armando Maradona back in the contest, this time as Argentina’s coach. Known once by Argentines as “God” and more often referred to these days as “el Gordo,” he has acquired, along with the heft, a two-colored beard that is, like everything about him, extravagant and slightly ridiculous. There is a good Maradona and a bad Maradona, a genius and a rascal (or, as he puts it, a black or a white one, but never grey, for as long as he lives) and something about the combination makes him irresistible. In contrast to the poker-faced Mexican coach, Javier Aguirre, Maradona winces, moans, paces, pulls his hair throughout the match and, most enchantingly, leaps like a half-ton of mortadella into the waiting (and perhaps slightly apprehensive) arms of his coaching staff whenever his team scores. He was hopping around again on Sunday, as the Argentines set out to whomp yet another team—that would be Mexico in this case.
We lost, unsurprisingly, 3-1, but there was plenty of drama along the way: Argentina’s first goal was by an overwhelming consensus—and the brutally unforgiving television replay—a mile offside, leading to arguments on and off the pitch, yet no annulment. This was the beginning of the end, but the Mexican side played brave and at times lovely football—especially in the second half, fighting right up to the moment Maradona’s boys forced it to pack its bags and head back home. The fact was that Mexico was up against a faster, wilier, more experienced, and stronger force—and above all, against the fat little god. He was reviled when he was appointed to manage the national team, but here he is yet again, dancing and barracking and rudely flaunting his superiority, and he’ll probably continue to do so right up to the moment he claims his part in another World Cup championship.