07/06/2010 01:50 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

In Praise of Maradona


Few men have endured as many kicks as Diego Maradona. Throughout his august playing years from Boca Juniors to Napoli, month after month his precious legs were stamped by opponent's malice. The Basque player, Andoni Goikoetxea delivered the worst assault, horribly late, imprinted with his address -- The Butcher of Bilbao. It destroyed Diego's ankle; required thirty stitches to repair the damage. Goikoetxea kept the Argentine's shredded boot on top of his television set. Off the field, Maradona kicked himself. Busted for cocaine in 1991, banned during the 1994 World Cup for failing a drugs test, his body soon resembled a hot air balloon. His journey through the wilderness was fitting for a god.

Maradona was created in the slums. He grew up in a strong family determined to boot his way out of poverty's box. Los Cebollitas (The Little Onions) was his first team. At halftime, he would entertain the crowd by circling the field keeping the ball in the air. He signed his first professional contract with one thing in mind -- to lift his family out of the slum. And he did. But Argentine society was built on the stones of European ancestral prejudice, and Diego, described as "negrito" by the classes above, had the darker skin of mixed heritage. For the aristocracy, he could never truly delineate Argentina. He grabbed his sack for the bullion European clubs were offering him.

During the 1986 Finals in Mexico, behold the Hand of God moment, and the greatest goal ever scored, and up went the banner -- this little man is the best player ever. The glory came with more kicks, the mob wanted to grab him, to rip him apart, to feel blessed at having touched providence. No public space could hold him. The entourage grew, while temptation's tongue spoke with more venom than the Butcher of Bilbao's spit.

The Argentine nation rose and sank with El Diego. The economy ballooned then burst in the nineties. Diego had his stomach stapled, his flock distressed at the sight of their shepherd, close to death in hospital, bloated, obese, his body corrupted by the devil's work. The once flowing river of soccer grace was now a cesspool of personal failure. The word was primed for the greatest comeback since Lazarus.

Before this World Cup, and during it, Maradona's detractors continued to kick him. It is deficiency on their part, a failure to grasp the meaning of struggle. Che Guevara is tattooed on Diego's shoulder. On the soccer level, the philistines have exhibited a total ignorance. Nonsensical jabber of a rift between Maradona and his key player, Lionel Messi is the best marker of this stupidity. Every player playing for Argentina worships Maradona -- these guys grew up in the wake of his awe, they played football because they wanted to be him -- he embodied perfection on the ball. The hugs and kisses Diego is showering on his boys are like the love of a father. And the results speak for themselves. Now, Argentina and Maradona faces the mountain. The rivers that need to be forded on the way to the summit are fast and furious. Germany will have to be crossed. It's the second coming of El Diego.