Diego Maradona could do things that a human being normally could not do. His disciples, therefore, considered him to be the extended arm and hand of the Almighty – and at some point, it is said, the day came when he believed them.
In the summer of 2018, the World Cup in Russia is overshadowed by a bizarre appearance in the stands in St. Petersburg. During Argentina’s match against Nigeria, Diego Maradona, visibly threatened by madness, is repeatedly broadcast in close-up to the whole world.
“Ar-gen-ti-na!” he roars.
“Li-o-nel!” he pleads.
But above all, he shouts crazy things across the stands that no one understands. The former king of football is completely out of control. He alternately asks a woman sitting next to him to dance with ecstatic twitches, leans dangerously over the railing to accept the homage of his fans, starts wild chants, gives the stadium and the world the extended middle finger and takes a nap in between. When Lionel Messi scores the eagerly awaited goal, the veins of his predecessor on the people’s hero throne swell, at the peak of the jubilation (“Messi! Messi!”) his eyes completely pop out of his head, and when he leaves the stands after the final whistle, he has to be supported.
Maradona was taken to hospital and the football world expected the worst that night. But the next day, the born-again gave the all-clear on Instagram, writing defiantly: “Diego will be around for a while.” Now the sad news reached us yesterday: the while is over.
Diego Maradona is dead.
This time it is true. It has to be said explicitly because many will not believe it at first, too many times Maradona has been declared dead. We remember well a fellow Argentine reporter who said at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa: “A cat has seven lives, but with Maradona, we stopped counting.” It was the same after the bizarre standoff in St Petersburg: as a result of a cardiac arrest, a red-hot busybody spread on the internet, the football king had died in hospital. Credibly and indignantly, Maradona contradicted this a few days later in his TV show:
Do I look like I’m dead?
At least he didn’t look well.
Diego Armando Maradona. You can’t do justice to this terrific, crazy and unique figure of football with one obituary, you need two: one for the supernatural football god – and the other for the poor guy off the pitch who couldn’t always manage without the ball on his foot and got lost in the labyrinth of life.
Yet this life had started well. Those who are born in Fiorito, this unfortunate district of Buenos Aires, don’t really have a chance, but the little fuzzy-headed boy made the most of it. At the age of 16, “El Pibe de Oro”, the golden boy, was already old enough for his first international match, and his Argentine national coach Cesar Luis Menotti said: “What Diego can do with his feet, we mortals can’t even do with our hands.” Not much later, the prodigy thrilled at FC Barcelona and SSC Napoli, as the world’s best footballer.
Above all, he was the king of the Neapolitans, and unforgettable for all those who were there is his one-man show before the 1989 UEFA Cup final against VfB Stuttgart. 70,000 Swabians were sitting in the Neckar Stadium when the magician scooped the ball onto his foot during the warm-up at the kick-off circle and began to juggle. The ball bounced onto his other foot, then onto his knee, chest, head, rested briefly on his neck, and back it went, head, chest, knee, foot. This went on for minutes, not once did the magician allow the ball to make contact with the ground, and at some point 70,000 Swabians were no longer sitting, but standing and celebrating (“Diego! Diego!”) this circus acrobat who gave them the greatest experience of their spectators’ lives. I was shooting a film that evening for the programme “Sport under the microscope” and stood in amazement on the sidelines, and when Maradona, so as not to jeopardise the punctual kick-off, finally dropped the ball, my cameraman said: “Now we can go. That’s the best we’re going to get today.”
The only time Maradona was even better was at the 1986 World Cup in Mexico when he elevated his country to the throne. In the quarter-finals, he danced past six English players from the halfway line and completed the goal of the century. He went on to become FIFA Footballer of the Century, along with Pele. A jury of experts chose the Brazilian, an internet jury the Argentinian. The nonsensical scholarly war over who was the better of the two was later settled by Brazilian World Cup coach Carlos Alberto Parreira with the question: “Who was better – Monet or van Gogh?”
You know what, write what you want.
But soon it was on to the darker news. One day, Hector Pezzella, the director of the “Güemes” clinic in Buenos Aires, treated his compatriot who had been admitted with unclear symptoms and was quoted with the confusing diagnosis: “I think Maradona thinks he’s a god.”
Were these the late effects of that legendary World Cup match against England in 1986? For Maradona had scored a second legendary goal that day, unfairly, irregularly, with his bare fist. “That was the hand of God,” he claimed after the final whistle. Did Maradona think he was an extension of the Almighty? Or God himself?
That’s as good as we get today.
His disciples, his worshippers, encouraged him in this belief. They founded their own church for their saint, the “Iglesia Maradoniana”, whereby they did not write “Dios”, the Spanish word for God, but “D+10+S” – the “10” stood for Maradona’s biblical back number. His professing fans regularly met on his birthdays, worshipped him devoutly and sold T-shirts as his apostles that read: “I have seen God.” In the long run, only the strongest last. At some point, Maradona could no longer keep it together – and his fake friends, who supplied him with drugs, took care of the rest.
In his mid-30s, he began to talk about dying for the first time. At the 1994 World Championships, he, the crowned king, had been caught doping. He announced that he was not killing himself only because of his daughters, and once he said on television: “Many always wanted to see me dead – I am dead.” The world then understood how serious it was, at the very latest, from the following pictures: A small, fat star bounces into the TV studio for a talk show, dances the tango with a beauty queen named Cecilia – and collapses. Afterwards, he is seen again in a wheelchair in hospital, and the medical world whispers about “irreparable defects”, points to the destruction of brain cells due to excessive cocaine consumption and sees the star psychologically disintegrating.
Depression, aggression, paranoia, suicidal tendencies. Maradona was then sent to Switzerland, to a clinic on Lake Biel, to fight his drug addiction, and at the height of the therapy the professor demanded of him: “I want you to play big again at the 1998 World Cup.” Maradona nodded. Shortly afterwards, however, he shoved behind in the face of a stadium steward in England with his trousers down, and in Alicante, Spain, he smashed two doors, a table and five chairs in a hotel. A heart attack followed, by which time he was 43. And before he was 50, he was poking around in the fog of his life with the pole in such a way that a psychiatrically knowledgeable observer reported: “In a hospital, one thought he was Einstein and another Newton, and when Maradona said he was Maradona, they laughed.”
By any means necessary, Maradona at times tried to destroy himself in the deadly cycle between genius and madness. His liver was affected, and compounding the problem was his corpulence, which swelled to 140 kilos. He made the headlines as the “Maratonna”, and in the greatest emergency, his stomach was cut in half. He then went into temporary exile in Cuba, had Fidel Castro give him a revolutionary cap, and in the end, the shortest of all headlines was: “He’s crazy.”
But he lived. “The bearded one,” Maradona said, “always saves me.” He didn’t mean the bearded man in Cuba, but the one in the sky who once again lent him his hand: Maradona did indeed rise from the dead – and became national coach.
Especially those journalists at whom Maradona had occasionally shot with an air rifle were sceptical at first. In the past, they scoffed, Diego had been magical with the ball at his foot, but as a coach, he had a board in front of his head. He then paid them back brilliantly, or rather: genitally. After the successful qualification for the 2010 World Cup, he offered the reporters in the press conference: “And now you can all give me a blowj…” – and shot them down.
Then, at the World Cup in South Africa, everything went quite well at first. And when Maradona performed, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house; I witnessed it in the “Soccer City” stadium in Johannesburg. His Gauchos had just beaten the Mexicans 3:1, when an Argentine colleague in the press conference was already thinking ahead – and asked Maradona about the next opponent in the quarter-finals, the Germans. “No, no, no,” he grumbled sullenly, “today we talk about our victory and tomorrow about Germany.”
The reporters continued to press.
Didn’t you listen, I’m not saying anything about Germany!
Just one word, Diego, one of them begged …
“You know what,” Maradona then went ballistic, “write whatever you want.” And then he passed his thick, steaming Havana again, which one of his henchmen had kept warm for him while the master spoke.
Maradona was on fire. He was El Diego the Great once more. Every day he was the talk of the town – with diamonds in his ears and a rosary wrapped around his fingers, he magnetically attracted every camera, every step, every blink of an eye was broadcast live – and Maradona promised that if he won the World Cup he would run naked through Buenos Aires. Then it went splat. 0:4 against Germany. Out.
Diego Maradona, the once idolised player, was henceforth increasingly pitied and ridiculed. He did strange things, continued to befriend questionable leaders (as he had done with Ghadafi in Libya), took to the stage in the election campaign in Venezuela for Chavez and later for Maduro (“I am his soldier”), and bitter words now frequently made the rounds about him, from “full of crap” to “crazy”. The World Cup appearance in St. Petersburg matched this. Shortly afterwards, he had himself driven around a stadium in Belarus and announced: “I am now president of the Dinamo Brest club.” What he did there for a short time has never been known exactly, but it is said to have been the best contract of his life after all. In the end, a sheikh in Dubai, a Mexican second-division club and a club in Buenos Aires also paid good money to be allowed to adorn themselves with the old world star who could do everything as long as he had a ball at his foot.
The final word should belong to Ryan Giggs. The Welshman, who used to dribble elegantly at Manchester United, was only a small light compared to the Argentine – but he knew what he was talking about when he said: “Today there is Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo. But I’ve seen things from Diego Maradona that I’ve never seen from anyone else in the history of football.”
After Donald Trump, Jogi Löw is also resisting handing over the reins. The national coach apparently does not accept the 0:6 against Spain, demands a recount of the goals – and thus takes a risk like Giovanni Trapattoni once did.
In the White House in Washington, a tragedy worthy of a stage is currently unfolding, and the theatre is coming to a head day by day. For Donald Trump does not want to leave. “Over my dead body”, the US president has vowed and refuses to hand over the keys, he is resisting the handover of office and is allegedly barricading himself behind sandbags in the Oval Office – as things stand, an FBI evacuation squad will have to storm the building and carry Trump out at gunpoint.
Why are we telling this story?
Because it is strikingly similar to another one that has been rocking German football for weeks now in this dreary autumn. Jogi Löw, our national coach, also refuses to give way – he stubbornly refuses to go. Yet the people have voted him out of office like the Americans voted their president out of office, only much more clearly. According to representative surveys, about eight out of ten Germans are scratching their heads in the aftermath of the 2018 World Cup flop and, above all, the unbearable 6-0 defeat to Spain, and think that Löw should give it a rest.
Fake news, counters the national coach. In any case, he has let all the votes go in one ear and out the other so unaffectedly that a blasphemous mocking gibe in reference to the 0:6 in Seville chased the message through the internet: “Jogi Löw doesn’t recognize the defeat and demands a recount of the goals.” A handover of office was still far from being thought of.
Although this story is undoubtedly a lie, at best a cheap joke to laugh along with, it confirms a galloping trend: no one in power voluntarily leaves the field these days. In sports, shows and politics, Giovanni Trapattoni’s old motto is becoming increasingly true: “One day I’ll have to be kicked out of football.”
Will Joachim Löw ultimately have to be led away in handcuffs and a straitjacket? For the moment, he is still defying the overwhelming rejection and shaking off all the mockers like pesky houseflies. Subtle critics accuse the national coach of not listening to the great Schiller, who in the heyday of his career wrote: “A good exit graces the exercise.” But back then it was all about gymnastics.
Now it’s about football.
It is said that there have been the occasional rebellious Löw questioners at the German Football Association, but whenever things get heated, the answers are given either by Löw himself or by Oliver Bierhoff. It remains unforgotten how the manager of the national team pounded the table after the 2018 World Cup flop and demanded: “We have to have tough internal discussions.” Jogi Löw spontaneously nodded to this, discussed it with himself for eight weeks afterwards as part of intensive visits to the Black Forest, and found out that he was the right man for the rebuild. This rebuilding is now taking a diversion via complete collapse, so Bierhoff immediately demanded again with presence of mind after the 0:6 against the Spaniards: “We have to analyse brutally.” Once again, Jogi relentlessly discussed the facts with Löw – and continued to be tough as nails without any fear of being beaten up by the football fans.
Is the fear of leaving even greater?
Every farewell is a small death. Many know this terrible fear, not only the national coach but also at least three of his former world champions. Do you remember the faces of Thomas Müller, Mats Hummels, and Jerome Boateng when Löw abruptly told them that although it had been nice with them for a long time, it no longer made sense? Hermann Hummels recounted that his son called him in despair on that gloomy day: “I asked: Are you injured? And he said: it’s worse.”
The fear of being out of the game always goes hand in hand with ghastly feelings. When Lothar Matthäus retired as captain in 1994 after disagreements with national coach Berti Vogts, he slept terribly badly afterwards and wrote confusing diaries. But he didn’t let up, because he was determined to build on his record as a national player, and under public pressure, he was allowed to celebrate his comeback at the 1998 World Cup.
No one likes to quit. Did Uli Hoeneß ever quit as Bayern boss? When he feels it’s necessary to put his foot down, he still throws it in everyone’s face and swiftly dismisses the defender Alaba or his adviser without asking the chairman of the board Rummenigge much beforehand. What did people expect, that after his departure Hoeneß would only be a greeting-godfather and would otherwise be bobbing around Lake Tegernsee in a boat with his wife? Everyone forgets that he grew up as a young footballer under the Bayern patriarch Wilhelm Neudecker, who still threatened in his old age: “When will I stop? Only when I fall into my grave. And then I’ll continue for another two years.”
Cutting back might still be halfway bearable, but retiring? “Never,” Trude Herr once sang, “do you go completely”.
Jogi Löw isn’t going at all.
Yes, he did think about it once, but only briefly. In another darkest hour, after the 2-0 defeat by South Korea at the World Cup two years ago, he promised bleakly: “I have the responsibility and I stand by it.” His next sentence could then have been, “I resign.” But he was probably immediately slowed down by the question: where to?
When will I stop? Not until I fall into the grave. And then I’ll go on for another two years
What awaits someone who gives up a dream job? Is there any life at all after retirement, or is the most you can do as a retiree is to kill time with a cruise to Honolulu, walking your Doberman or sporadic expert appearances on Sport 1’s “Doppelpass”? Should he, as the former national coach, spend the rest of his life jumping through burning hoops in the accompanying circus of football as roaring Löw? Should he watch old films of his victories on the sofa with a glass of sherry? The national coach would rather stick to the boxer’s motto “pick yourself up, wipe your mouth, move on”, as we would probably all do.
We lowland Tyroleans have no idea how the enviable ones feel up there on their summit, floating in the airy heights. That up there, that’s happiness. And no one wants to descend and go back to the bottom camp of the deep valley.
Tom Brady told it beautifully. The great US quarterback was asked by a reporter two years ago after his last Super Bowl victory why he still hasn’t quit at 41. Brady pointed to the ecstatically cheering audience and shouted the answer in the other’s face: “Why? Yeah, look at that!” Adrenaline rush, pure and simple. Where else is he going to get that in life?
Leaving is not sexy, that’s why Brady is still playing and still winning. And that’s why Donald Trump wants everything but to quit. And Jogi Löw has also made a habit of sitting out all of his setbacks. Or is he doing some soul-searching after all? Unbending optimists are bravely clinging to their dream that the national coach will soon retreat to the Black Forest for another eight weeks to brood, but then stand manfully in front of a camera and say: “I have come to my senses after all.”
Many would applaud him spontaneously, probably including Günter Netzer. He recalled his glorious time as a ball distributor at Real Madrid and sadly described how the tenacious perseverance of some old stars there did not end well: “In the end, they had to be lassoed off the pitch.”
Are footballers more brilliant thinkers than Hegel and Sartre – or just hungry for a good omelette? Coaches like Jose Mourinho are raising the bar of high expectations.
Albert Einstein, the famous Swabian, was what the English call “the brightest bulb in the chandelier”. According to legend, the most failed man in the world went looking for an assistant one day and invited three applicants for an interview.
“What is your IQ?” he asked the first. “175,” the candidate revealed to him. “Splendid,” Einstein marvelled, “then we could philosophise together.”
“And what is your IQ?” he asked the next candidate. “120,” he replied, and the master was again deeply impressed: “Then we could go to the theatre together.”
“Do you also have an IQ?” he finally turned to the third and last. “75,” he said, to which Einstein replied, ” Doesn’t matter, then we could watch football together.”
Even if the story is not entirely true, it is at least very well invented. In any case, at some point the ghastly suspicion arose that footballers would be better off leaving the thinking to the philosophers. And indeed, for a while there was much to be said for this, because Jean-Paul Sartre, for example, said impressive things such as: “In football, everything is complicated by the presence of the opponent”. But the presence of the philosophers soon turned out to be the far bigger problem, at the latest when Sartre, in the labyrinth of his brainstorms, also drifted into the realisation: “A good goalkeeper distinguishes himself first and foremost by exceeding his powers.” What he was trying to tell us with that?
No one knows.
That’s why footballers now prefer to philosophise for themselves. Spontaneously, one thinks above all of national coach Jogi Löw, who as the highest authority in the country once put his foot down in front of a camera: “The philosophy of offensive play, that is, to score goals, to play forward, remains unchanged.” The “Spiegel” was speechless with enthusiasm in its online edition and raved: “The first national coach philosopher.”
But others no longer think of hiding either. When Lionel Messi briefly appeared on the transfer market the other day as a personnel matter, board boss Kalle Rummenigge justified FC Bayern’s lack of interest in the Argentine thus: “A player of this magnitude is not part of our philosophy.” The practical philosopher who teaches wisdom by example is the true philosopher.
José Mourinho, who currently coaches Tottenham Hotspurs, is also one of them. When a journalist once asked him if he still considered himself the greatest coach in the world despite his growing lack of titles, the Portuguese hit back: “Have you ever had time to study philosophers, Hegel for example?” When the reporter replied no, Mourinho confronted him with his proud life’s work as a coach, calling as a witness the Swabian thinker second only to Einstein: “Hegel says: the truth is the total.”
Philosophy is the search for answers to all the fundamental questions of the world and football. So nowadays every demanding coach pontificates at least with the sentence: “We have to create superior numbers everywhere on the pitch, that’s my philosophy.” Without such philosophies, a game is no longer even kicked off, and the whole world hangs on the lips of the associated luminaries. Even goal scorers without a high school diploma sometimes wrinkle their furrowed thinking foreheads in intellectual forward momentum and hurl the grave realisation into the microphones: “We’ve implemented the coach’s philosophy perfectly.”
Inevitably, football philosophy has at some point become the icing on the cake of all philosophies; in its shadow, the philosophy of nature, the philosophy of history, the philosophy of language and the philosophy of culture could meekly pack up. Even in coach education, it is for good reason that not the old farts Confucius, Nietzsche or Kant are taught, but the modern philosophers, from Sepp Herberger (“The next game is always the hardest”) to Franz Beckenbauer (“We”see”) to the most profound of all philosophies: “A rolling ball never gathers moss” (TV presenter Reinhold Beckmann). At some point, this constant striving of the human mind to recognise the interconnections of being led the great Italian Giovanni Trapattoni to fully pronounce the ultimate truth:
Football is ding, dang, dong.
Finally, someone said it.
But that was probably too much of a good thing. It’s not good when the air in the ball starts talking, say the conventional philosophers, shaking their heads, and now they are slowly but surely fighting back against the kicking masterminds. The philosophy magazine “Hohe Luft”, which brings us back to Jogi Löw for a moment, has asked the rebellious question in the direction of the national coach: “How can you scratch your balls in front of TV cameras and then also sniff your own hand?”
The headline of the thought-provoking pamphlet was “The Philosophy of Ball Scratching.”
But José Mourinho, in particular, has been on the receiving end since he described in kitchen philosophy terms that developing a football talent is comparable to making a good omelette. “Everything depends on the quality of the eggs in the supermarket,” Mourinho said, “without first-class eggs, you have a problem.” To which a critical detractor promptly asked publicly, “Is Jose a philosophical genius – or just hungry for an omelette?”
In any case, the philosophers are fed up. They are now reminding the footballers of the tried-and-tested wall slogan: “Man should leave the thinking to the horses, they have bigger heads.