I Love You, Maradona

From The Paris Review:

While reading Maradona’s autobiography this past winter, I found that every few pages I would whisper or write in the margins, “I love you, Maradona.” Sadness crept up on me as I turned to the last chapter, and it intensified to heartbreak when I read its first lines: “They say I can’t keep quiet, that I talk about everything, and it’s true. They say I fell out with the Pope. It’s true.” I was devastated to be leaving Maradona’s world and returning to the ordinary one, where nobody ever picks a fight with the Pope. 

I started reading El Diego: The Autobiography of the World’s Greatest Footballer, ghostwritten by Marcela Mora y Araujo, on the basis of a recommendation by an editor I have liked working with. He said reading it was the most fun he’d had with a book. I came to El Diego with basically no knowledge of Maradona or even of soccer. I would have said I hated soccer actually. I hate the buzzing noise the crowds make on the TV. But from the very first page I found Maradona’s voice so addictive and original that reading El Diego felt like falling in love. 

Maradona’s skirmish with the Pope goes the way of much else in the book. Because of his extraordinary talents and global fame, Maradona is invited to the Vatican with his family. The Pope gives each of them a rosary to say, and he tells Maradona that he has been given a special one. Maradona checks with his mother and discovers that they have the same rosary. He goes back to confront the Pope and is outraged when the Pope pats him on the back and carries on walking. 

“Total lack of respect!” Maradona fumes. “It’s why I’ve got angry with so many people: because they are two-faced, because they say one thing here and then another thing there, because they’d stab you in the back, because they lie. If I were to talk about all the people I’ve fallen out with over the years, I’d need one of those encyclopedias, there would be volumes.” 

Whether it be FIFA, money-hungry managers, angry fans, the Mafia, drug tests, or the tabloids, Maradona never takes anything lying down. He stews and stews, and this fuels him to play better and better soccer. There is an Argentinean word Maradona uses for this: bronca. Mora y Araujo explains, in an introduction in which she lovingly details the difficulties of putting Maradona’s unique voice down on the page, that this basically means “fury, hatred, resentment, bitter discontent.” But the difficulty of choosing a translation left her to simply leave bronca, and many of Maradona’s other favorite catchphrases, as they were. The result is a narrative voice which is totally distinct, and an overall energy out of sync with the pristine, restrained public image most celebrities seek to cultivate, especially in the social media age. 

Maradona first learned to play soccer on the streets of Villa Fiorito, the extremely poor city on the outskirts of Buenos Aires where he was born. He played all day in the blazing heat and then when the sun went down too. Early on in the book he says: “When I hear someone going on about how in such and such a stadium there’s no light, I think: I played in the dark, you son of a bitch!”

I still don’t know enough about soccer to verify my impression that he is one of the greatest soccer players ever. But Wikipedia asserts this too. El Diego tells the story of his extraordinary rise through the world of small, local kids’ clubs to a glittering career which involved World Cups (one of which he captained Argentina for), a transformative stint for the Italian team Napoli, setting the world record for transfer fees twice, scoring a famous handball goal against England, and lots of other things I don’t really understand properly but felt enormously gripped by.   

It’s an incredible life story, shadowed by, as well as his constant fights, a cocaine habit and a string of extramarital dalliances. But mostly I was gripped by the way he tells it. At one point, when FIFA bans him from a match, he says: “My legs had been cut off, my soul had been destroyed.”

I started El Diego in the airport, on my way back to Belfast for Christmas. A young man on my flight pointed at my book and asked me what I was reading. (I discovered over the next few weeks that reading the book in public places was a magnet for men.) I showed him the cover.  

He said: Oh yeah I thought it said Maradona. You like football? 

I said: Oh no I don’t know anything about football. 

He said: Why are you reading it then? 

At the time I told him it was because I wanted to read something different from what I usually read. If he’d asked me the same thing when I finished it, I would have said it’s not really about football. It’s about being in love. It’s about the little guy against the big guy, I would have declared. And believing in something. And respect. It’s about having a sense of who you are.

Link to the rest at The Paris Review