Diego Maradona is dead at age 60 after complications from surgery to remove a blood clot from his brain, and for those who dabble in the odd coincidence, today is the 15th anniversary of the death of George Best. The generally agreed upon best soccer players of the 1960s and 1970s did inconceivable forms of magic with, and damage to, their bodies in their time, but the Best comparison ends there. Best was a whirlwind; Maradona was an earthquake.
Maradona was indeed more of everything his true contemporaries—more brazenly assured than Michael Jordan, More defiant in the face of authority than Tom Brady, more aggressively aloof than Barry Bonds, more profligate than LeBron James, and more maniacal in-game than Lionel Messi. His only real peer for global influence is Muhammad Ali, and even then Maradona was far more volatile and self-directed. He had the athletic arrogance to think he could do anything at whim, and brilliance enough to carry it off, and in a business in which the word “no” is rarely used, he shot a perpetual middle finger at the very concept. His greatest singular moment as a player had as its comparison point God. Now that’s billing.
Indeed, Maradona might be the last athlete we ever see who refused to be corralled or cornered. He would have defied even the unseen hand of social media as being beneath his worry. He did what he wished to do in all phases of his life, whether beneficial or harmful. He was ultimately the star that went supernova and left in its wake a scar on the universe.
All of which is why it is helpful to remember him now as the greatest athletic disruptor of all time. Players typically fade in the mind’s eye because A) we hate history, B) we believe in the overarching value of the phrase “I ever saw,” as though anyone you didn’t see didn’t matter, and C) we want to pretend we share in the moments of greatness merely by having witnessed them. Maradona did not share. He did things he knew you couldn’t do, did them in front of the world, and then kept them as his own. Even his chemical and sensual vices were singularly resplendent. That he lasted to 60 is in itself an amazement in keeping with his life’s deeds.
His records are ancillary to his being, so you can look those up on your own. When you consider that his two world-record transfer fees were for five million and 6.9 million pounds, you realize that most counting statistics do not do comparative justice to the inter-generationally surreal. You’ll just have to trust us on this one: There has been no true “next Maradona” in any sport, and he imitated nobody who came before him. He is the first and last of his line.