Diego Maradona missed Argentina’s first game here.
He claims he was denied entry for political reasons. FIFA claims he tried to go through the wrong door and didn’t bother bringing credentials.
He showed up for the second game with his daughter, Giannina, who is the ex-wife of current Argentine star, Sergio Aguero. Every time the camera panned up to him, Maradona had his arm draped possessively around her. The effect was vaguely disturbing.
The second greatest player in history has been a shrunken presence at this World Cup, largely, one guesses, because he feels so much in the shadow of the greatest.
Pele’s image is everywhere here in Brazil, if the man himself has been oddly absent.
They opened a museum dedicated to him in Sao Paulo last week. When he was caught in traffic during the first half of Brazil’s opening match, it was treated as some great national metaphor. He’s in half the ads on television.
Maradona also has a TV ad in high rotation. It’s for a sort of Brazilian Kijiji. In it, he plays an anthropomorphic easy chair that is so annoying, its owners give it away. This is called method acting.
Famously, the pair that defines footballing greatness hates each other’s guts.
Maradona does most of the attacking on this front, with three running themes – that Pele is old and addled; that Pele is a shill for FIFA; and that Pele was never any good anyway. When Pele does strike back, it’s usually through a proxy.
He continues to insist that Brazil’s Neymar is a better player than Argentina’s Lionel Messi. Every time he says it, Maradona publicly wigs out. It’d be sad, if it wasn’t so much fun.
Maradona had been quiet here. You knew that wouldn’t last.
It’s a sharp contrast to the 2010 World Cup, when he was the manager of the Argentina team and in danger of using up all the oxygen in subequatorial Africa.
I recall him holding a news conference in Pretoria ahead of Argentina’s second game. This was before it all started going wrong, and Maradona was in fine, erratic form.
In North America, all news conferences are dishwater dull. In international soccer, they are Shakespeare meets Friday Night Fights. I’ve seen tears, screaming matches and one instance of fisticuffs.
When Maradona came out, the press gallery cheered. Cheered. It was a dank little room inside the Loftus Stadium, rammed like steerage on the Titanic. You needed tickets to get in. I was trying to follow along via headphones and instantaneous translation. It was impossible. Maradona speaks like he’s been on a 36-hour coke bender. I gave up on taking notes and began whispering along into my audio recorder.
As I did that, someone sitting behind me slapped me across the back of the head. Hard.
I swivelled round, prepared to engage my full rock ’n’ roll psychopath mode. The guy who’d done it was a cretinous old goat, maybe 80 years old. I could not find it in myself to give him the beating he so deserved. He made a shushing gesture and turned his face back up toward St. Diego.
In the course of that half hour, Maradona buried Pele (“He should go back to the museum”); UEFA boss Michel Platini (“We know what the French are like and Platini is French”); Argentina’s next opponents, South Korea, the quality of the pitch, the design of the World Cup ball and the tournament in general.
Once it was done, Maradona swanned down off the podium so that he could sign autographs. For the goddamned journalists.
That was my one up-close interaction with the little maestro. I will admit a strong bias here. I’ve interviewed Pele once, in a Toronto hotel room. As I entered, slightly atremble, the greatest athlete in history popped out of his chair and rushed over. He pushed my extended hand aside and hugged me. Not one of those phony hugs men give each other nowadays. A bury-my-chin-in-your-shoulder-and-squeeze-hard sort of hug. I nearly wept.
Both men have their issues beyond the game. They have an outsized need to be loved (Pele) and listened to (Maradona).
They are the yin and yang of soccer, so much so that it gets more difficult with each passing year to remember they never actually played against each other.
At 73, Pele is slowing down. Maradona is 53, but may be older in practical terms. He’s had as many death watches as Cup appearances.
This will be the last time the pair of them so dominate the imagination of a World Cup. To the end, they remain true to form.
Pele is imperious, floating slightly above it all. As the Cup grew less popular with the average Brazilian during the long lead-up, he drew further from it. He is still the only proper choice to hand the World Cup trophy to the winning side.
Maradona has moved in to claim Pele’s vacated space. On Thursday night, he was desperately trying to wind everyone up by being the first to publicly support Luis Suarez.
Wearing a hand-drawn T-shirt that read, “Luisito, we are with you,” Maradona used the platform of his TV talk show to compare Suarez’s four-month ban to “throwing him into Guantanamo.”
He coaxed the president of Uruguay into agreeing that FIFA was aligned against his country. As campaigners for justice go, it’s hard to take too seriously a guy who once opened fire with an air gun on a crowd of reporters outside his house.
But whether he’s right or not isn’t the important thing. What matters is that we’re listening. As long as the world cares, Maradona has a rationale for being.
Pele? Pele is just over there being Pele, which means being loved. Even if at a remove.
How difficult must it be for Maradona to fight a ghost? A lot less difficult, one imagines, than going on once he no longer has that maddening inverse image of himself to tilt against.