Sports

Diego Maradona’s Long Shadow

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It was nothing extra, actually, than a ruffle of the hair and a kiss on the cheek. There was no pomp or circumstance that day in 1994, no phrases of knowledge whispered within the ear or sweeping gesture made for the gang. Diego Maradona left the sector, and Ariel Ortega changed him on it. However that was all it took. The torch, it was determined, had been handed.

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Ortega was not the primary participant to be labeled the brand new Maradona. That honor, in line with widespread consensus, fell to the previous Boca Juniors ahead Diego Latorre, and he definitely wouldn’t be the final. For a few many years, a minimum of, a brand new pretender got here to Maradona’s throne seemingly yearly.

There could be quick Maradonas and tall Maradonas, slender ones and squat ones, fast ones and gradual ones. Typically the parallels had been apparent: Pablo Aimar and Juan Román Riquelme and Andrés D’Alessandro performed in the identical place as him, in the identical manner as him, on the identical crew or bearing the identical jersey quantity as him.

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And generally they weren’t. There have been new Maradonas who turned out to be jet-heeled wingers or elegant, deep-lying midfielders or languid target-men or elfin goal-poachers.

Typically, Maradona himself would anoint his successor, although his favor was unsure, shifting. For some time, it was Javier Saviola, although it pained Maradona to say it, “as a result of he performs for River Plate,” the nice rival of Maradona’s beloved Boca Juniors. A number of years later, Maradona decreed that D’Alessandro was the “solely participant who amuses me.” He solid Carlos Tevez as “an Argentine prophet for the twenty first century.”

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Largely, the brand new Maradonas had been Argentines, although not at all solely. There have been Maradonas all around the world, on each continent, in each mountain vary. There was a Maradona of the Carpathians (Gheorghe Hagi), a Maradona of the Caucasus (Georgi Kinkladze), a Maradona of the Alps (Andi Herzog) and a Maradona of the Andes (Roberto Merino).

Some got a complete nation: Krishanu Dey was the Indian Maradona, Ali Karimi the Iranian model. Others needed to share their territory. There have been, in line with some lists, a minimum of 4 Maradonas of the Balkans.

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Some got a way more exact geographical location. Fabrizio Miccoli was the Maradona of the Salento, the world within the south of Italy from which he hailed. Turkey’s Emre Belozoglu was the Maradona of the Bosporus. At one level, there was even a Maradona of Basingstoke, an unremarkable commuter city southwest of London, although that one, a minimum of, was a knowing joke.

Some gamers leaned in to the comparability: Miccoli, a gifted however mercurial ahead with Juventus, Fiorentina and Palermo, purchased a pair of Maradona’s earrings at public sale and would later purchase a tattoo of Che Guevara’s face, identical to the one on his idol’s shoulder. Tevez acknowledged that he had based mostly his model of play on his idol; they might go on to turn into shut pals.

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Others discovered the stress implicit within the comparability suffocating. When Saviola signed with Barcelona in 2001, 20 years after Maradona had carried out so, he was requested what he manufactured from the parallels. “As I by no means tire of claiming, there won’t be one other participant like Maradona,” Saviola stated. He was 19, and he already felt like he was repeating himself.

There have been some who got here near dwelling as much as the identify, in the identical manner as boarding a business flight is shut, in some respects, to going to the moon. Aimar, Riquelme and Tevez loved lengthy and profitable careers by which they performed in World Cups, lifted league title trophies and outlined their very own legacies reasonably than being condemned to the coda of one other participant’s.

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Hagi carried Romania to a World Cup quarterfinal and stays an emblem of his nation’s soccer tradition in the identical manner Maradona, greater than anybody, represents Argentina’s. Dejan Savicevic, certainly one of Maradona’s many Balkan apostles, turned one of many best gamers in Europe, an inspirational a part of the nice A.C. Milan groups of the early Nineties.

Others by no means did fairly sufficient to flee Maradona’s shadow, Ortega prime amongst them. Maybe that was unavoidable: no one, not even Riquelme and Tevez — the 2 gamers tasked, willingly or not, with dwelling as much as Maradona’s identify at Boca Juniors — felt the white warmth of expectation fairly a lot because the boy who took the sector to exchange him that day in Salta in 1994.

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That recreation — a 2-1 win towards Morocco — had been a warm-up for the World Cup set to start out a couple of months later. At Argentina’s base that summer time in Wellesley, Mass., Ortega shared a room with Maradona, the crew captain. When Maradona was thrown out of the match after testing optimistic for ephedrine, Ortega could be tasked with changing him for Argentina’s remaining video games.

It made sense. Each had been stronger than their stature would counsel. Each had a low heart of gravity, virtually flawless approach and a burst of acceleration that carried them previous opponents. They even shared a passing bodily resemblance, proper right down to the shock of raven-black hair.

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Their similarities didn’t finish there. Ortega had a flash of his mentor’s mood; one of many issues Maradona most admired about him was his defiant, self-possessed, renegade streak. Ortega was sent off in a World Cup quarterfinal, and later punished with a worldwide switch ban after strolling out on his contract on the Turkish membership Fenerbahce.

To an extent, too, his destiny and Maradona’s had been entwined. Ortega struggled with an alcohol dependancy — Maradona himself would, at one level, advise that his outdated pal “wanted assist” — that first derailed after which curtailed his profession. It’s harmful to psychoanalyze from a distance, however it’s exhausting to not surprise if, maybe, the torch he was handed that day in Salta was too sizzling for him, for anybody, to deal with.

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Argentina has not anointed a brand new Maradona for greater than a decade now. The remainder of the world has moved on, too. The hunt to seek out an inheritor had grown too quixotic to be taken severely by the center of the final decade. When the tag was bestowed on Lionel Messi someday round 2005, it not felt fairly so onerous.

Messi did what none of his predecessors ever may: He managed not solely to construct his personal profession, to determine his personal identify, however to take action emphatically sufficient to uninteresting the urge to check. He neither embraced nor rejected the parallels with Maradona; he merely rendered them irrelevant.

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Whether or not his greatness matches or exceeds Maradona’s won’t ever be simply quantified. For all of the similarities between them — small, left-footed, Argentine — the variations are stark. Messi doesn’t possess Maradona’s penchant for self-destruction. Maradona by no means benefited from the rigorous professionalism of the sport Messi has recognized.

Maybe we’ll discover out solely with time. Greater than a decade elapsed between that second in Salta, when Ortega stepped onto the sector and Maradona walked off it, and the emergence of Messi. The seek for Maradona’s inheritor had spanned each nook of the globe, each nation, each mountain vary.

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Maybe, then, we’ll know the size of Messi’s greatness by the point it takes to seek out his successor. There’s already a Thai Messi and an Indonesian Messi and a Japanese Messi. There’s a new Messi yearly in Argentina. And there will likely be, simply as there was with Maradona, till somebody who will be recognized by their very own identify comes alongside.



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