JANUARY 17, 2021
EARLY IN 2020, the death of Kobe Bryant struck an ominous note for the year to come. It echoed powerfully 10 months later, when Diego Maradona also died, seeming to bookend a whole year of loss and grief. Coincidentally, Kobe had grown up in Italy when Maradona was playing there. Maradona was Kobe’s idol.
Since I write this for LARB and not a sports magazine, I won’t assume that all readers know from direct observation the singular greatness of Maradona’s talent, so let me try to explain it by way of a metaphor. Imagine you are in a class of artists all painting the same model. After 20 minutes, most have sketched a good line drawing that faithfully captures the subject. Meanwhile, one person has created a stunning, finished portrait in full color, and is now having fun trying new techniques. That’s how amazing Maradona was to anyone who ever played the game. There are hundreds of clips online illustrating his skills, but perhaps the most shared in the days after his death was the one showing his warm-up before a Napoli game against Bayern Munich. The ball is his dancing partner, synched to his every move. Among all the other players, he creates his own force field, another dimension of physical possibilities and emotional expression. As you watch, the awareness that he is special is immediate and exhilarating.
There is great satisfaction in witnessing this kind of talent: sports, even more than art, might be the last actual meritocracy. We engage emotionally with the success of athletes because we literally watch them fall and get up again. We celebrate their talent because we know that it cannot be faked or bought: it is natural and/or the result of hard work.
Kobe’s and Maradona’s deaths hit in different ways. Kobe’s had shades of Lady Di’s: it was random and shocking, taking him so soon after he retired, as he was just beginning the next chapter of his life, with so much still to do. Maradona’s was Elvis-like, the sadly predictable end of a downward spiral — his body bloated, his mind clouded, his glory days long gone. Despite this difference, both deaths had a deeply tragic quality, and both produced heartbreak on a massive scale.
Being one of the millions who wept, I’ve been asking myself: what is the meaning of our grief for sports heroes — especially those, like Kobe and Maradona, who were also well known for their personal failings?
The question had risen immediately after Kobe’s death, when some called the celebrations offensive and re-traumatizing for rape victims (Kobe was charged with sexual assault in 2003; the charges were dismissed after a civil case was settled out of court). Those reactions, in turn, offended those who felt they were being lectured and shamed in a time of mourning. After Maradona’s death, most of the world celebrated him as the greatest football player of all time (a title he may arguably share with Pelé), yet some of the obituaries in the United States and United Kingdom seemed rather stingy in their praise, while effusive in reminding us of his shortcomings. Of course, there were many: Maradona committed the most infamous act of cheating in the sport, failed a doping test, consorted with gangsters. He was unfaithful to his wife, neglectful of his illegitimate son, and allegedly abusive to a girlfriend.
So why did people grieve so deeply for these two flawed men? The answer is counterintuitive: we didn’t love them because they were pure and perfect; we loved them because they were not. Maradona rose to godlike stature, but he was nothing like the inerrant God of monotheistic religions. Had he been flawless, he would have felt alien, remote, and incomprehensible. Instead, he was like a pagan god, magnificent and unique, but also damaged, warped, recognizably mortal. Greek gods, after all, were always hyperbolic versions of human types, created in our image rather than the other way around.
People can debate forever whether Maradona or Pelé is the GOAT (some may even pick Messi or Ronaldo). What is unquestionable is that Maradona gave us the greatest myth. His limitations only made his accomplishments seem more fantastic. He was short, stocky, and only used his left foot — yet that unimpressive body seemed to defy the laws of physics. He was tormented, self-destructive, and uncontrolled in his appetites — yet he exuded charisma and inspired generations of athletes. He was an almost mythological representation of the duality of human nature.
You could hardly dramatize this any better than he did in his 1986 World Cup game against England, when he scored both the infamous “Hand of God” goal and the most celebrated goal of the century. Not only did the second “redeem” the first, but it cast it in a different light, as its own work of art: a cunning, improbable magic trick, so stealthy that neither the ref nor his assistants could spot it. That’s why Maradona’s post-game “Hand of God” remark was immediately understood on two levels: the god of football had smiled upon Argentina, but also the god of football was Maradona himself.
Songs would be written about him — none more popular than the one called “La Mano de Dios.” As for the English lamentations, they would ultimately feel churlish: after all, no footballer can honestly claim they never cheated — never embellished a fall, never pleaded innocence after a foul, never claimed a dubious goal. Maradona simply cheated for higher stakes, with more daring and more flair. He had karmically earned it, by receiving more kicks than any other player.
The figure Maradona cut was not only mythological but also sharply political. His game against England channeled a country’s resentment over the Falklands War. Later in life, he made clear his contempt for American imperialism, his support for Palestinian rights, his sympathy for Che and Fidel. He looked and acted the opposite of a traditional Hollywood hero or a polished, media-trained brand ambassador. He was the iconic champion of the Global South, the kid from the barrio whose heart never left home. Everybody acknowledged his greatness — whether they liked it or not — but he belonged to the underdogs.
Ultimately, that’s the whole point of sports heroes. Yes, they can be turned into brands, can make billions for Nike. But they belong to the people. It’s the people who decide what to call them, and how to remember them. And the people’s tears don’t imply obliviousness to the heroes’ sins, as much as they suggest a strong investment in the narrative of redemption. Part of why we need heroes is that we need to forgive them. We need to believe that they can do bad things but then wrestle with them, take responsibility, make themselves and the world better — and furthermore, that what happens on the field transcends their human failings. I think Maradona, whose gift for poetic sentiment was a notable addition to his skills as a footballer, said it best in his farewell speech to the fans at La Bombonera: “La pelota no se mancha.” The ball doesn’t stain.
The world was always bound to cry for Maradona, but the intensity of the grief was also, perhaps, magnified by the toll of the pandemic: the countless, nameless, faceless deaths we could only mourn in the abstract. The death of celebrities is an outlet for the sadness we don’t otherwise get to share publicly; the death of such a great icon gave us a great outlet. We cried for Maradona so we could cry for the nameless, too.
Lastly, of course, crying for our sporting heroes is a lament for the passing of an era. Kobe was still too young, but people like Maradona (or Paolo Rossi, the legendary Italian striker who led Italy to World Cup glory in 1982, and died two weeks after the Argentinian icon) remind us of a different time: a time of games that had to be watched live, the whole world at once, for no recording would be available afterward. A time of affordable tickets, standing crowds, team shirts without corporate logos. A time of innocence, which was never really innocent (marred as it was by toxic masculinity, racism, homophobia, thuggish tribalism) but still represented, at its best, a working-class ethos, a sense of community, and pure love of the game.
Paolo Rossi, I should point out, was a very different character from Maradona: he was universally seen as a wholesome figure. Though immensely popular in his heyday, he was living a more ordinary life, somewhat befitting his name (“Signor Rossi” is the Italian equivalent of Mr. Smith). Few were even aware of his illness: his death sneaked up on the world like he used to do as a player — ghosting into the box, seemingly out of nowhere, and beating everyone to the ball.
The death of Maradona was such a big event that it felt definitive, symbolically bringing the year to a close. Yet coming so soon on its heels, it was perhaps Paolo Rossi’s death that captured the dark essence of 2020: like the year itself, it felt exhausting.
Kobe is gone, Maradona is gone, Paolo Rossi is gone — all of them too soon. But our mythology of sports heroes is inevitably shaped by a romantic framework, which always converts early departures into bigger legends. They’re now as big as imagination itself, and ours for the rest of time.