And yet without mention of those troubles, Maradona’s story is not cleansed. It is contorted. Those struggles did not improve him as a player. Instead, they would prevent him from achieving all that he might have done and, eventually, shorten his career.
But if the flaws diminished what Maradona was, they burnished what he represented to those who watched him, those who adored him. That such beauty could emerge from such tumult made him mean something more; it gave him a resonance that stretched beyond even his outsize ability. His darkness sharpened the contours of his light.
Thirty-two years before Maradona was born, the great Argentine writer Borocotó — editor of El Gráfico, the prestigious, trailblazing sports magazine — suggested the country should erect a statue to the so-called pibe: the dusty-faced street kid with the “trickster eyes,” “a mane of hair rebelling against the comb” and the “sparkling gaze” who represented not only Argentina’s soccer culture, but also its self-image as a nation.
Maradona was the platonic ideal of a pibe, all virtuoso skill and impetuous cunning. He captured the spirit Borocotó made immortal more than any player — more than anyone could have thought possible — not just when he was a teenager, fresh from the potrero, but throughout his career.
All of those iconic images of Maradona are monuments to the spirit of the pibe: leaping high above Peter Shilton, the England goalkeeper, the goal that he would joke — with the “Picaresque laugh” that met Borocotó’s description — was scored by the Hand of God; dancing, a couple of minutes later, through the entire England team to score “the goal of the century,” the strike that would prompt the commentator Victor Hugo Morales to declare him a “comet from the sky”; facing up to the entire Belgian team, the ball at his feet, a picture of fear on the opponents’ faces.
No matter how high he flew, Maradona never strayed from his roots; he was a pibe when he first emerged, he was a pibe when he almost single-handedly dragged Argentina to the World Cup in 1986, and back to the final four years later. He was a pibe when Barcelona made him the most expensive player on the planet and when he took Napoli to not one, but two Serie A titles. He was a pibe even as he conquered the world.