GRACIAS DIEGO : a genius, a television and an ordinary fan

It was one man’s will and sheer raw talent to win against all odds. Not a perfect man, but a man who refused to accept defeat.

GRACIAS DIEGO : a genius, a television and an ordinary fan

There are a few instances in one’s childhood, that get etched in memory, and shape a person’s preferences and feelings for a lifetime.

The year was 1986. I was 8 years old. It was summer and there was a frenzied sense of excitement in my 8 year old mind. I don’t remember everything that happened that year, but the following incidents I remember, like it was yesterday.

We had been badgering our parents to buy a TV. It had been a hard sell. Being born to hard core academicians can be difficult at times. On this topic my mom and dad were united. They simply didn’t see the point of buying the “idiot box” as dad called it.

But dad had a weakness. Football. He loved the game. And it was 1986, the year of Mexico 86. It was time for WorldCup football. Dad had taught me how to kick a ball and would often play with me in the evenings. It was something we both enjoyed.

Dad wanted to watch the World Cup. For us (me and my sister) this was the perfect opportunity. Without a TV, there would be no chance to watch the games. So we pushed hard, but changed our tune to “we also want to watch the World Cup”.

I had no idea what a World Cup was.

However, my dad was a rocket scientist (an actual one). So while he was convinced that he wanted to watch the World Cup, he was not convinced that he had to “buy” a TV. After much deliberation one day he told us that he would “build” one. We were perplexed, but overjoyed nonetheless. We did not care how we got a “TV” as long as we got one.

Over the next month, I watched him convert his study into a workshop. Everyday after coming back from work he would work on circuit boards, soldering irons and in building an elaborate electronic circuitry. He had essentially studied the electronic and mechanical structure of a television, bought the parts and started assembling it at home. I think buying would have been “easier”, but that was my dad.

He was excited to “build” it.

I was over the moon. I could escape boring homework and hang with him. It was cool to sit with him in his workshop and watch the assembly happen. He explained many things to me, most of which I did not understand, but he would let me “assist” him. I loved those evenings.

And then just like that, one month later a “TV’ was born in our study. In those years every home had those aluminium TV antennae’s. So, even we got one and then it was a simple act of hooking it up. (Remember twisting the antennae in the roof to catch a signal? Ask any 80s kid. He knows it)

And like magic. It worked.

At age 8, I watched TV from my home for the first time. I remember that evening. All four of us, huddled in front of the TV, having dinner. It was a happy time.

While this was happening, there were other developments. The newspapers had started promoting the World Cup. There were articles everyday. One day, dad showed me an article on a player called, Diego Armando Maradona. It was a profile. He read the article to me and told me, that the media was hailing him to be a star in Mexico 86. Dad was curious and wanted to watch Maradona play.

I made a cut-out of the article and pasted it in my World Cup scrapbook where I had been collecting schedules, player posters and such. The simple joys of childhood.

Then the World Cup started. For the first time in my 8 year old life, all routines were relaxed. I stayed awake late into dawn and watched every game with dad. No curfew!. I don’t remember all the games entirely, but I remember the time. I remember some games. I watched all the Argentina games since dad wanted to watch Maradona play and the games with Belgium, England and Germany are etched in my head even today. And it was in these games Maradona probably played the football of the century. I realised it 10 years later, but there was something about this stocky, barrel – chested footballer scoring impossible goals and winning games single-handedly, that struck me even then.

That night when Argentina played England in the quarter-finals and Maradona scored the goal of the century dribbling the entire England team, we celebrated till dawn. The finals came and it was Karl Heinz Rummenige’s Germany. Brown scored the first goal and Valdano made it 2–0. I was happy. I had nothing against Germany. But I wanted Maradona to win and since Maradona played for Argentina, I wanted Argentina to win.

And then in the 74th minute Rummenige scored one back for Germany. There was tension. And in the 83rd minute Voeller made it 2–2. There was desperation. Germany had the run of play and Matthaus had marked Maradona out of the game. Nails biting we watched , almost sure Germany would win the game.

And then there was this one moment of magic.

Maradona did a slight dribble, pivoted, escaped Matthaus and released a peach of a defence splitting pass in the 86th minute. Burruchaga was in the clear on the right flank and calmly made it 3–2. There was an explosion of joy, wild screams, a glass breaking , pillows thrown, my dad picking me up in his arms in sheer happiness – utter pandemonium.

Argentina had won the World Cup and I, who was not an Argentine and understood very little, was happy out of my brains. No logic.

That was the start of a love affair with a game which I have carried till today. I played football through school, college university and more, until paying bills became important. I was never any good, but I enjoyed playing it. Even today I play out of the same passion. But it is not just that, it was also a thing that connected me with my dad till his death. Over the years as I travelled the world making my career, during Champions League games, Euro’s and World Cup games we would text each other and talk about games. Debate whether Messi was better or Maradona and so on.

Like it was 86.

Next year in 87, Maradona won the league with Napoli and then the UEFA championship. Napoli, a team that had won nothing in decades. This was what made Maradona such an icon for me. It’s easy to win with a good team, but he won games and championships with teams which were pretty much nothing without him.

It was one man’s will and sheer raw talent to win against all odds. Not a perfect man, but a man who refused to accept defeat.

What started with Mexico 86 continues today. I still support Argentina in all World Cups even though they never won it again. Italia 90 was fun. Cannigia’s goal that knocked out Brazil remains a happy memory. In the finals it was once again Germany versus Argentina. Brehme scored the only penalty of the game. After saving a handful of penalties throughout the tournament, Goycochea failed to stop Brehme and Germany won.

That night I cried as Maradona left the field in tears.

In 2014, it was Sabella’s Argentina who met Germany in the finals again and with misses from Messi and Higuain, Mario Goetze scored the only goal of importance he has ever scored in his life and Germany won again.

Again I cried as Messi looked listless into the camera. I was 34 years old.

Over the years, football evolved. I enjoyed the era of Milan’s dominance in the 90s, with Van Basten, Rudd Gullit , Maldini, Baresi, and Ariggo Sacchi and then pivoted to Cruyff’s dream team in Football Club Barcelona – a loyal affair that I have continued for 24 years. A club Maradona played for. And then I enjoyed Napoli and their resurgence under Maurizio Sarri. Again, a club Maradona played for.

The past 20 years there was not much positive about Maradona in the news. Cocaine, doping, mafia, health issues, illicit children – and yet it did nothing to diminish him in my eyes. To me his story remained a shining example of fighting against all odds to win. That it was possible to win if you wanted to win. Coming from abject poverty in the slums of Buenos Aires, with no formal training, this kid who started playing football on the streets from the age of three, redefined how the game could be played, won the greatest prize in the world of football single handedly and gave enormous joy to millions across the world.

The fact that was he was not perfect, almost made him real to me. A troubled personality, his raw genius was what made everything else pale into insignificance. In my life I have never seen a better dribbler of the football. Diego was real. Unscripted. Raw genius. You cannot create these. They happen once in a century. And he had passion. An insurmountable love for the game.

He wasn’t the most consistent. Or the most astute of role models. But his raw talent as a footballer was off-the-charts. When he played, it was poetry. For that reason alone, to me, he is the best footballer of his generation.

And then yesterday, Diego Maradona passed away. Marking the end of an era.

Gracias Diego.

From 86 to now, you have unknowingly influenced a few things in my life. My lifelong love for football to start with, my relationship with my father to follow up with and my undying wish to see Argentina win the World Cup again.

To believe, that it is possible, even if the odds are stacked against you.

Oh and yes, you were also the reason, I got my first television. The image of my dad working midnights in his workshop, assembling a TV to watch the 86 World Cup is one of the most defining memories of him I carry with me.

Rest in peace.