First things first.
The best piece I read about Diego Maradona was in this newspaper last week. Liam Brady’s memories of Maradona gave a vivid picture of a real athlete, of which more elsewhere.
A lot of the other pieces... well, they were interesting, but not so much for what they said about the great Argentinian player.
More for what they conveyed about their writers, about attitudes to Maradona, about attitudes to people, to flaws, to almost everything you could think of. Talk about your rich field of study.
Why? Because for commentators and columnists, Maradona’s career occupied the writer’s version of the Goldilocks zone: not too distant to be impossibly remote, like Puskas or Di Stefano, but also immune from recency bias, so ripe for evaluation.
The wealth of clips of Maradona in action co-exist with a parallel industry of rumour and innuendo about his off-field activities: again, the timing of his career accommodated both. He began playing in an era when grainy black and white footage of him juggling a ball was the only evidence available. He finished up at the dawn of the internet in the mid-1990s.
Hence the array of Maradona commentaries we saw in the last week, and the categories they occupied.
Take the Maradona Was My George Michael approach, wherein a writer could lament the greatness of the ‘80s, and Maradona’s embodiment of the decade’s excesses in his swagger, his haircut, his fondness for ghastly sweaters.
Such pieces carried a message which is sometimes implied, and sometimes overt, but always amount to ‘unless you were there you can’t understand’. Not that that disqualifies the reverse piece — the I Was Too Young For Maradona, wherein a conspicuously younger writer could wonder about the hold this player exerted on those who nourished their adoration of Maradona on an occasional hazy clip of him bamboozling a defender while wearing the blue of Napoli.
Then there was the Angel Or Devil, No, Angel AND Devil angle.
In fairness, this was a route travelled by the makers of the Diego Maradona documentary. In this stunning film, an early contributor differentiates between the characters of ‘Diego’ the gentle soul and good friend — and that of ‘Maradona’, the savage competitor and off-field rapscallion (or was it the other way around?).
This is a perennial theme for sports opinion, of course — the athlete whose performance in a chosen discipline is utterly at odds with their behaviour when not involved in their sport, whatever that is.
‘Utterly at odds’ covers a multitude in Maradona’s case. From what might be gingerly termed ‘links’ to the Camorra when he played in Naples to a string of paternity claims and cases, well-established problems with cocaine, failing a drugs test at the 1994 World Cup...
On the one hand this is grist to the mill of the columnist taking the Angel/Devil approach.
On the other is it a charge sheet disturbing enough to put Maradona in the devil’s party for once and for all, to paraphrase Blake on Milton?
At what point, precisely, does an athlete’s behaviour away from the field/track/court/dartboard become so egregious, that it overshadows the sporting career completely? It might be the ultimate tribute to Maradona’s ability with a ball at his feet that it isn’t overshadowed by his slew of off-field shenanigans, come to think of it.
To underline just how well Maradona facilitated the sports-opinion industry last week, consider the other interesting byways travelled, ranging from the hilarious reaction from the English tabloids on one hand to studied use of the term ‘pibe’ — to subtly advertise one’s familiarity with Argentinian slang — on the other.
Am I having my cake and eating it, writing the above? Of course I am. Who taught me how to do that but El Diego?
I mentioned Liam Brady’s tribute to Maradona elsewhere on the page.
This is the part that resonated with me.
“As well as the brilliant goals, and the little bit of Gaelic, there are all those chances he created for others, most of them missed.
“But you know what you don’t see after any of those misses? Maradona throwing his hands up in the air, having a go at his team-mates. Up close, that’s how I remember him too.
“I see it all the time now, prima donnas who couldn’t lace Maradona’s boots, making it clear their team-mates aren’t up to their standards. Never from him. His team-mates loved him dearly.”
Brady’s brilliance on the field gives him instant credibility as a pundit. As one of the rare players to succeed in the old English First Division and the Italian league when it was the ultimate test of talent, who would be better suited to discuss the various tactical approaches and cultural differences?
Yet he picked out a feature of Maradona’s game hiding in plain sight for all of us — the player’s even-handedness with less gifted players.
There’s a lesson here for everyone who studies games, professional and amateur. Sometimes the most obvious conclusion is not so much plainly visible as jumping up and down, waving its hands in the air to get your attention (or not, as he pointed out in the case of Maradona).
If someone has access to super-slow-motion cameras and unlimited replays they’ll pick something out that’s worth exploring. But finding a nugget of gold in what’s available to everybody?
That’s what you call top, top punditry.
I thought that Páirc Uí Chaoimh, Thurles, and the Gaelic Grounds were strange enough billets in recent weeks, but Croke Park has them beaten up a stick, I’m afraid.
I was at the All-Ireland semi-finals over the weekend in Jones’s Road, and eerie is my best attempt at a description.
Perhaps it’s because the stadium is on a different scale to the others I mentioned, but it was certainly a more unusual atmosphere than I’d encountered before.
This is no reflection on any of the four teams and their efforts in the games, nor is it a plaintive bleat from someone who knows his privilege at being allowed in to see a game in the flesh, when thousands aren’t given that opportunity.
My observation is simply that the strangeness of the experience, which many readers may identify with from club games they may recently have attended, seemed to be amplified in the biggest venue in the country.
The fact that the Germans seem to have a single, precise word to describe sensations and feelings which need an entire phrase in English — schadenfreude is the usual example given — then they surely have one to sum up this notion.
What do you call it when your first notion when you hear about the subject of a book is indifference, but that soon turns to a strong desire to acquire and read same?
I saw a reference to Alright, Alright, Alright: The Oral History of Richard Linklater’s Dazed And Confused by Melissa Maerz and skipped past it.
Then I returned to it. And now I think I’ll have to get it.
If you speak German yourself or you know anyone who does, can you put a name to this condition?