Diego Maradona made his international debut for Argentina in a friendly against Hungary on February 27, 1977, 36 years ago this week. He was 16 and already famous; he’d played in his first professional match, for Argentinos Juniors, as a 15-year-old the previous October, and scored his first professional goal less than a month after that. In a soccer-mad country, you don’t score a top-flight goal as a teenager without everyone learning your name. But the truth is that he’d been locally famous for a long time. There’s tantalizing video of the child Maradona practicing tricks, and what’s impressive here is not so much the skill on display as the aura of total calm, even serenity, that this kid, who’s maybe 11, possesses around a soccer ball. You watch other football-prodigy videos and it looks like the little circus-genius is about to give himself a heart attack; Maradona heads the ball up and seems to be waiting for it to come back down again, I mean waiting patiently, like someone who trusts that a loved one will always come home. Mostly he’s just still, and you can see how the wise heads in Villa Fiorito, the shantytown1 outside Buenos Aires where he grew up, would have spotted the little mestizo kid, how word would have spread. It’s different with this one. By the time he was 12 he was the halftime entertainment at Argentinos Juniors, where he was a ball boy. He’d do juggling exhibitions for the crowd, play keepie uppie with himself, a human YouTube channel already. You get the feeling he was just happy to be near a ball.
So that first match with Argentina wasn’t really the beginning of anything, but it was a mile marker: Welcome to full international. Maradona came on for Leopoldo Luque in the 62nd minute at the Bombonera. He doesn’t seem to have done much, though the match was more or less over by the time he entered. All the goals in Argentina’s 5-1 win — a brace for Luque, a hat trick for Daniel Bertoni, a late consolation strike for Hungary’s Sandor Zombori — had already been scored.2
Today the most striking thing about that game is how few details it seems to have left behind; late-’70s Latin America had yet to flip the “archive everything” switch.3 Spanish Wikipedia has a photo of Maradona that was apparently taken at the game. There’s also a silent, heavily watermarked black-and-white video that you can find online; it’s tagged “Debut de Maradona en la Selección Argentina” and features film-damaged footage of ’70s-era Argentina playing against a team that could just about plausibly be Hungary, with no time or score given. The camera occasionally breaks away in the middle of a pass to show a sudden super-close-up of some guy photographing something — the match? — with a Nikon camera; these shots are the most coherent part of the film. I’m sure someone can tell me whether the skinny kid wearing the no. 16 shirt — Maradona’s squad number with Argentinos Juniors at the time — who walks across the center circle at the 3:40 mark is definitely Maradona. I’ve been trying to JFK this out for an hour and I have no idea.
You don’t have to see the match, though, to know what Maradona represented in 1977. He was pure, radiant promise. It’s hard to believe this now, but Argentina had never won a World Cup, had rarely even contended for one. But this kid there wasn’t really a precedent for him. With his delicate face, his stumpy arms, his miniature barrel chest, and that astronaut’s helmet of curls, he looked like a cross between Eva Perón and a Wurlitzer jukebox. He looked an elf with a Soloflex. But he moved like no one before or since. Watching Maradona run is one of the signal experiences in the history of spectator sports, so I want to try to do this justice: give him the ball, and the pitch would move to help him. I am absolutely convinced that he caused changes to take place in the surrounding terrain at a topographic level. I mean, suddenly the defenders were running uphill. Sections of the field reassembled themselves. Some kind of deep-earth conveyor belt hauled him forward and flung everyone else off-balance. You see this in some of his early goals with Argentinos Juniors; you can read it in the famous picture of six Belgians trying to mark him in the 1982 World Cup. He hadn’t fully arrived as a player in his mid-teens, obviously, but there were glimpses. Everyone else on the pitch looked like they were working while he played.
There was a national clamor when he was passed over for the 1978 World Cup.4 According to a rumor that is probably not worth repeating, he wasn’t selected because the junta preferred Norberto Alonso; juntas aren’t known for their taste. In 1979, Maradona led Argentina to the World Youth Championship, taking down the Soviet Union 3-1 in the final. He was named the best player of the tournament. To be a fan in Buenos Aires at that point must have been like owning the sun. Argentina was the best soccer country in the world and its most talented player still hadn’t turned 20. The future was blinding, Maradona was the future, and Maradona was a kid playing with a ball.
Skip ahead to now: a decade and a half after the end of the future Maradona once represented. A couple of weeks ago, his ex-girlfriend, Veronica Ojeda, gave birth to a baby boy, Maradona’s fifth child depending on which court documents you download, and his second son named Diego. The first Diego Jr. was born in Naples in 1986; Maradona didn’t admit paternity until 2004 despite having been legally declared the father by Italian authorities in 1993. With regard to that sequence, cue Wikipedia: “Diego Jr. met Maradona for the first time in May 2003 after tricking his way onto a golf course in Italy where Maradona was playing.”5 The second Diego Jr., who is two weeks old, was born while his father was in Dubai, where he sort of lives now, despite having been sacked as the manager of Al-Wasl FC, where he was paid $4.6 million a year and given a private jet, in July 2012. His title in Dubai is now “honorary sports ambassador.” There are a lot of duties involved with being an honorary sports ambassador, like standing near Caroline Wozniacki, which is what he was doing last week, when the Daily Mail reported that “he will only be able to see his new son, Diego Fernando, when his commercial obligations finish in June.” (Other stories broken wide-open by the Mail‘s intrepid correspondent: Maradona “couldn’t keep his hands off” the American player Bethanie Mattek-Sands, “who appeared delighted at the attention.”) He is also repping a Kerala jewelry chain that wants to sell gold to soccer fans. In the meantime, your various tabloid Stradivarii are wailing that he abandoned Ojeda in order to go dancing “with the famous Indian TV celebrity Ranjini Haridas,” which who knows.
In the further meantime, Italian authorities have escalated their tax-fraud campaign against him; he allegedly owes the Italian government something like $50 million in unpaid taxes from his time playing at Napoli; the Italian government confiscated both the Rolexes he was wearing when he landed in Naples in 2006, when he was wearing two Rolexes. This month he filmed a video in Dubai blaming other people for his tax problems. Other people are often to blame. He’s maybe gained a couple of pounds since his gastric-bypass surgery in 2005, which once gave birth to the headline “Maradona’s gastric bypass inspires obese Colombians” (“overweight Colombians are flocking to doctors for the same procedure — and want the government to pay for it”), but he no longer looks like a gender-curious manatee, so that’s something. He is not, per recent reports, having a cocaine-induced heart attack, or chilling with Fidel, or running over a cameraman,6 or being the center of a deranged Englishman’s machete-decapitation plot, or chilling with Chavez, or hiding behind a Mercedes while shooting at journalists with an air rifle, or picking Ariel Garce over Javier Zanetti to play in the 2010 World Cup because he saw Garce’s face in a dream, or chilling with Fidel and Chavez at the same time (efficiency), or hurling gay slurs at Pele, or practicing any of the other hobbies he’s chosen in his retirement years. He is still the center of his own religion, but it’s been a while since he went after anyone else’s pope.7
So say that the two parts of this piece are the first and third in a three-panel series. What goes in the middle slot? What can you put in the center of the triptych to make the two extremes cohere? The answer is easy: It’s Maradona’s career. It’s the Hand of God, the Napoli scudetti, the ’86 World Cup, the greatest goal ever scored, the legend that seems to exist simultaneously as the apex of, and in a fog of complete ignorance regarding, irony. It’s the whole machinery of soccer. It’s more or less just life, if you’re as good at something as Maradona was at soccer and as many people care about the thing you’re good at.
But say you didn’t know about any of that. All you have is panels one and three. You have to imagine the center. What could you make of a mechanism that took the young Maradona in at one end and rolled the old Maradona8 out at the other? What would its characteristics be? And does that tell you anything about the nature of global soccer?
I genuinely don’t know, but the question tugs a little at the back of my mind every time he’s in the news for doing something insane. He was that kid 36 years ago. Now he’s an aging global icon who is unable to do either of the two things aging global icons want to do — relive or escape his own past. He seems bewildered these days, more than anything; for all his venality and bogus machismo, he seems hurt. As if he headed up the ball one day and still can’t understand why it doesn’t come back down.