One of the first things we learn in soccer is to pass the ball. If you don’t, you lose it. But on that day, Maradona did the stuff of movies. He defied the odds. He charged on as an army of English players closed in on him. I was in the living room right in front of the TV, yelling, “Pass the ball!” He forged on, leaving English player after English player, and even the goalie, in his wake. He covered almost 200 feet in 10 seconds, before sending the ball to the back of the net as Argentines all burst into screams of joy and disbelief.
It wasn’t just a World Cup win for Argentina. When he led a coup against Margaret Thatcher’s England, which killed our soldiers four years earlier in the Falklands War, he gave us the best (and probably the only) payback we could get as a nation. One hero to mend the open wound of millions. I would have been perfectly happy winning with a couple of average goals. But Maradona first gave the English a wet willy, and then he showed them — the creators of modern soccer — how it’s done. After that game, he scored another two incredible goals against Belgium in the semifinals, and then led us to victory against West Germany in the final.
Through him, I was able to experience the incomparable joy of being champion of the world in the sport I loved. It was the last time that happened. As much as our dear Lionel Messi has tried, we Argentines have not won a World Cup since ’86. And boy, have we held on to that moment, to that Maradona. Holding on to the memory of a nation that was once on top of the world is such an Argentine thing to do.
Ángel Cappa, a well-known Argentine coach, says that fútbol is an excuse to be happy, to forget all our troubles, even if it’s only for 90 minutes. Maradona gave us happiness for a lifetime. Of course, for people like my Venezuelan friend, he was a despicable character. But I simply saw him as human, with good and not-so-good qualities.
Maybe my perspective is influenced by the joy he gave me. Wait, let me rephrase that: My perspective is definitely influenced by the joy he gave me. And I, quite frankly, cannot help it. As the great Argentine writer and humorist Roberto Fontanarrosa once put it, I don’t care what Maradona did with his life; I thank him for what he did with mine.
Last week, when none of us had the slightest clue that his death was imminent, I bought a replica of the official 1986 World Cup ball online, which I had owned as a kid and cherished as a souvenir of one of the happiest moments of my childhood. About 10 minutes after I heard the sad news, I received a package — the 1986 World Cup ball. That it would arrive on the same day he died was an eerie coincidence, but one day I’m going to tell my daughter that was Maradona still working his magic with the ball.
Juan Manuel Rótulo (@Rotulin) is a head of music editorial for Latin America at Spotify.
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