Let’s be honest here. Most of us are too young to ever appreciate Maradona as a footballer. Watching videos on Youtube is not the same as watching a player decide games on his own and changing the course of footballing history. Even though he is considered as the greatest ever, it is just a collective opinion that recycles itself every generation getting catalysed by the nostalgia of our fathers, Who in fact did have the chance to watch Maradona.
So for us, we are more aware of Maradona the phenomenon, the cultural symbol rather than Maradona the footballer. And seeing Maradona with a killer beard screaming on the Argentine national team while they were getting thrashed by Germany in the South African world cup might be the most relevant footballing episode of his life we would have seen. But more than that, over the past couple of decades, it was the off-field antics that kept him relevant.
I have no clue what kind of drugs he was on, but he stole headlines from the teams that were playing during the FIFA world cup while he was doing his shenanigans from the stands. But if you can bottle that craziness and sell it (legally), you would be a very rich man.
After the Argentine national team, Maradona would wander around the globe doing a whole host of managerial and ambassadorial roles for clubs no one has ever head of. From the Middle East to Belarus until he touched down in Mexico.
The important fact that I am yet to introduce is exactly where in Mexico. I am sure most people might have heard of Joaquin Guzman, better known by his alias El Chapo. He is considered to be the father, the son and the holy spirit of the drug cartel that in principle has more influence than the Mexican government in some parts of the country.
And Maradona goes to manage a team in this city called Culiacán which is like the de-facto capital for El Chapo’s cartel. Quoting one radio presenter when he was talking about Maradona’s arrival. He said: “It is like taking a diabetic to a candy store”. Maradona’s history with drugs is well documented. Sometimes even better documented than his football.
Dorados de Sinaloa
This was a team in shambles, stuck to the bottom of the table in the second division of Mexican football. They literally had nothing to lose. The club president said that if there was anyone brave enough to hire Maradona, then it would be him. And so he did.
Maradona arrived with a lot of fanfare. Journalists were crowding the airport when he landed in Culiacán. The city which had till then been in the news only for gang violence and drugs, suddenly became relevant on the world football map. Media from all over the world was interested in this story. And that is what most people thought was the intention of this affair – publicity. The club president said he wanted the first Google result to come up when people search for Culiacán to be Maradona and not the cartels or El Chapo.
But there was something that the club and Maradona had in common – a need for redemption. Dorados were relegated after just one season in Liga MX ( Top division in Mexico ) and the supporters didn’t have anything to cheer about for years. And for Maradona, it was almost like the entire world had cast him aside as the clown. He needed to show the world that there was still greatness left in him. In spite of all the distractions. It was a marriage of convenience of two “losers” who had a point to prove. And sometimes that can be a very potent combination.
During the first day of training, the players couldn’t believe themselves. The astonishment within the squad is tangible as Maradona is flicking balls to them to practice their shooting. Most of the players in the team are not world-beaters or ever going to play for their national teams. They are the players who are just good enough to earn a living by playing football. And when they see Maradona who came from the slums of Buenos Aires to literally have the world at his feet. The morale improves and the players sense a feeling of responsibility to give it, their everything. This was the change in mentality that started from day one and it would continue.
For the first match, at least in my opinion, he gave a very banal team talk. Nothing out of the ordinary. But something seemed to click. The team wins after a deflected goal. And post-game, the fiesta in the dressing room was more reflective of the personality of the man, a small but tangible step in the right direction.
The next game at home they win an emphatic 4-0 victory. The downward spiral of the team is being addressed and they are not at the bottom of the league anymore after 2 back to back victories. The home fans love him instantly. There is a swagger with the team that they lacked before. It is almost like Maradona has transplanted his chutzpah to the team.
The opposition of the next game crawled back to 2-2 and then a goal by Dorados in the final minutes helped them won again. The players say, before if the opposition had scored then they would lose their stride. But now with Diego, the team has confidence that they can win every game. There was a feeling that El Dorados were finding their feet again. Reminiscence of a time when a certain Pep Guardiola played for them during the dusk of his career was coming.
His training sessions were fascinating. There isn’t a lot of tactical acumen or organisation to it. But he advises the players to express themselves, gives them the belief that even if they lose the ball even 100 times, they shouldn’t be afraid to express themselves with it – the kind of mentality that he carried when he was dribbling the ball. ” He talks to them like a father” – were the words of the club president.
Soon the club is in the playoffs for the promotion. The first leg is a home game and there is a bit of bickering between the referee and the goalkeeper of Dorados. The game ends at 0-0 and Maradona is furious with the match officials. He gets on the field and confronts the referees after the game. He insults them with disapproving gestures and he even incites the crowd to keep abusing the referees. This is the part of Maradona that we all knew was coming. Then the Thanatos of his psychology makes itself the dominant side of himself after the game he is suspended.
But he did show something that night. He showed that he is willing to go to hell and back to carry that team on. He made a commitment to that team and he is honouring it with everything he’s got. Some managers are very good at creating the “Us vs The world ” mentality and sometimes that can carry a team forward into doing things that they thought were not possible before.
With Maradona putting himself on the line for the team like that, the team started to believe even more that he was there to actually make them win and it was not just a publicity stunt. Maradona might have paid a heavy price for the second leg by getting suspended. But he showed that he is willing to die for the team and by doing that, he shows what he expects from his player, Nothing more than what he expects from himself – be willing to die for the team.
And the next game, Maradona was in the stands with a Dorados cap and retro sunglasses handing out instructions to his assistant on the touchline. The game is tight and Dorados eventually score one. In the last 10 minutes, Diego leaves the stadium. He can’t take the intrigue anymore and walks out. The opposition is throwing everything into the Dorados box. Even their keeper comes forward. In the end, Dorados won. Maradona was elated outside the stadium and he jumps up with a lot of effort trying to stabilise his frame.
Later that night at a charity dinner when he was asked to speak, you can see the insecurity and timidness of someone who looks like they were out of their element. Diego has played in front of thousands of people in stadiums and never had a problem expressing himself. But I felt there was a part of his personality that still struggles with the burden of attention and the microscopic eye the world laid on his narrow shoulders.
If I were to quote Maradona’s personal trainer and friend Fernando Signorini – “Diego and Maradona were two different people – Diego was the wonderful boy with human insecurities; Maradona was the character he had to come up with in order to face the demands of the football business and the media.” At that moment in the dinner, we saw a glimpse of Diego – the little boy who just wanted to play football in the slums of Buenos Aires.
The next game is the two-legged semi final and Dorados absolutely steamroll the first leg at home winning 2-0. The players are paying back the trust Maradona has put in them. Maradona had said that most people thought that he was coming here on vacation. But his mission was to get the team promoted. And even though most people would not have believed it initially, now there was a real belief that it was possible. The second leg is a tight affair. The opposition scored one back and the last minutes were like what Sir Alex used to call “squeaky bum time”. The ref blows the whistle and Dorados are two games away from promotion and the riches of LIGA MX. But more importantly, they are 2 games away from proving all the doubters of Diego and of the club wrong and bringing a sense of happiness to a city that has nothing but drug violence to its name.
During the pre talk before the final, one of the defenders reminds the players of where they all have come from – about the little boy who didn’t have money to buy boots and all he wanted was to play. To forget the cars and the money and just play. And he reminds them that their dreams of winning the final are almost about to be realised and the players are lifted. The drive that a player from a working class background can produce to push himself to succeed is something very powerful. But when you have the greatest embodiment of that drive who won world cups after coming up from the streets in the same dressing room as you, that is a force of nature.
The game is tight, it’s physical and it’s getting rough. Dorados scored in the 65th min and the ceremonial beer torrent rains down on the stands as everyone throws their beers into the air. But a few minutes later there is an incident. A dangerous tackle on the striker of Dorados inside the box, but there is no penalty. This was enough to set off Maradona. He goes to the opposition coach and there is a heated verbal battle.
The 4th official struggles to exert his frame between the mercurial characters that manage both the teams. It was almost sure Maradona was going to get suspended. He was breaching into the area of the other team and making gestures with his arms which are almost a threat. The ref comes in and sends him off. Maradona is acting astonished. But he knows what he has done. He waves at the crowds, raises the decibel levels at the stadium, kisses the ground and enters the tunnel. The game finishes 1-0. But Dorado doesn’t have a coach for the second leg away. The most important game of the season.
The final game of the season. The winner takes it all – the promotion. The losers will walk away with the regret that they got so close and still couldn’t make it. Maradona is in the stands. The game starts well for Dorados. And on a counterattack, they took their chance. They are in the lead, away from home. Diego could not have wished for a better start. Then out of nowhere, in extra time of the first half. The opposition equalise. Dorados still lead 2-1 on aggregate. But this came out of nowhere and they are rattled. The keeper of Dorados is on edge. Someone threw a beer on him during the goal celebrations and he is taking it out on the refs. It’s chaos, or maybe he is just finding a way to waste some time.
Second half beings and in the 56th min Dorados score. They have re-established their lead and now look like they are heading for a win. That was until the opposition with some slick play on the wings sends in a cross which the Dorados defender sends into his own post after trying to clear it out of the way. Catastrophe, an own goal. Now it is 2-3 on aggregate. And in the 75th minute the opposition score again. Again across coming from the flanks. Dorados are losing their confidence and there is no Diego on the stands to push them on.
The game goes into extra time. An extraordinary game that had the whole package of a Greek drama was now at its climax. The climax was a dagger to the heart of Dorados. The opposition score one more goal in the extra time and they become the champions.
What happens next is the peak, Maradona. The away fans crowd the passageway while Maradona was leaving. They chant something which I can’t write here. And he explodes and tries to take on the whole crowd by himself.
The dressing room is a funeral. No one is talking. No one looks each other in the eyes. Maradona walks in. As expected the wrath on the referees is unleashed. Then the fireworks go off while the opponents are celebrating. He breaks down in tears and says this hurts him. But he says that he will be back next year and he wants a rematch with them to really show them what Dorados are about. He is still crying and he leaves. The club president comes in and makes the statement that this story is not over and that next year they will come back and beat them.
So do they beat them next year …
All I can say is that this article was based on the Netflix documentary called “Maradona in Mexico” and I highly advice you to find out how the rest of the story goes. I can promise you as with everything involving Maradona that this story has a lot of twists, turns, moments of elation and moments of depression. It is kind of like his life.
And I am grateful I had a chance to watch that before Diego passed away. I would never be able to appreciate just how good a player he was. But I will always appreciate and respect the person, who was honest about what he felt , who loved unconditionally those he trusted and always wore his heart on his sleeve.
You will be missed.