Gracias Diego, you commanded life till the end

CAPE TOWN – Forget the modern greats Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo and just for this moment remember only Diego Maradona. He was their equal – and possibly more – on a soccer pitch but in life no modern footballing genius was Maradona’s equal.

Messi and Ronaldo command a soccer pitch; Maradona commanded life.

Maradona, as a player, a coach, a manager, a supporter, a gangster, an alcoholic and a drug addict, dictated the front, back and op-ed pages of newspapers, the lead on digital soccer and sports news sites all over the world, and every social media platform.

I remember Maradona’s goals and assists as much as I remember the stories of his drug exploits, womanising, near-death experiences, laughter and tears.

Maradona in his prime weighed 70 kilograms and won the World Cup for Argentina in 1986; and Maradona at his worst weighed 130 kilograms and was a disaster as Argentina’s manager.

No one in Argentina cared and that statement possibly extended to his global audience.

He was the god of football, gifted the ’Hand of God’ to beat England in the 1986 World Cup, the best son of the most adored matriarch, the most loyal friend, the idolised older brother, the awed younger brother, the son every parent paraded, the partner you couldn’t live with or live without. He was the fans’ favourite, the opposition’s favourite and he was simply the best.

In footballing terms, there have been players his equal, or even better. Think Pele, think Messi and think the Brazilian and Portuguese Ronaldo.

But when I think of Maradona, I think of Manchester United’s George Best, because they knew how to play soccer and they knew how to live.

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The famous (or infamous, depending on how you perceive a life lived) story of Best was when he had scored for Manchester United, won at the hotel casino, drunk himself into a George Best-like state and arrived at his hotel suite with two beauties, one said to be Miss Universe or at least the first princess.

Best ordered from room service, and when the youngster arrived bringing more champagne and food, he found Best on the king-size bed, drink in one hand, smoke in the other, two beauties on either side and cash sprayed over the trio.

Best is alleged to have told the kid to take his tip from the cash on the bed, to which this boy is believed to have said: “Mr Best, can I ask you one question?”

When the footballing great said “Sure”, the kid asked: “Mr Best, when and where did it all go wrong?”

Today, as the footballing world mourns Diego Maradona, there may be many who ask when and where did it all go wrong, but in the context of a life lived, nothing went wrong.

Maradona, if he could respond, would tell the world it all went right, from his first goal until his last breath.

It is why Argentina’s President Alberto Fernandez decreed three days of mourning following Maradona’s death.

“You took us to the top of the world. You made us immensely happy. You were the greatest of all,” the president tweeted. “Thanks for having existed, Diego. We will miss you for a lifetime.”

Maradona was destined to live big and die big.

He was never going to quietly fade as a 90-year old. His life a year ago was that of a 19 year-old: football, guns, women, booze, drugs, tears, remorse, forgiveness, joy, redemption and a cuddle from a global audience who could only see the footballing saint and not the day-to-day self-destructive satan.

The last time I saw Maradona in the flesh was at Argentina’s 2010 Fifa Soccer World Cup quarter-final exit at the Cape Town Stadium. Germany humiliated the Maradona-managed Argentina four-nil.

Maradona was an emotional wreck on the side of the field, but many hours later, in a popular Cape Town nightclub, he was all god-like, in his pose and presentation. He partied like he had just won the World Cup and not like he had just overseen an embarrassment.

People queued to touch his hand, drink from the same glass, and the most stunning Argentinian women at this club just wanted to kiss him.

Maradona was drunk, powdered-up and bordering on obese.

“Look at him,” I said to one of the many beautiful Argentinian women at the club.

“Yes,” she said.

And just when I thought she would concur on the repulsive retired renegade I momentarily saw, she smiled and responded. “Yes, look at him … is he not the most beautiful magnificent man?”

I pointed at Maradona: “Him?,’ I asked and she said. “Yes … you not know him (sic)… he is ours … he is Maradona. He is our everything.”

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