Newell's Old Boys gift Diego Maradona godlike reception, vital win for his birthday
Diego Maradona turned 59 on Wednesday, and on the eve of his birthday a huge party was thrown in his honour. Maradona was the visiting coach in a fiercely partisan Argentine football culture that currently bans visiting fans, and yet he was treated like royalty.
He took his Gimnasia side to Rosario, the country's second city, for a match on Tuesday against Newell's Old Boys. On the Monday night the Newell's fans gathered outside Maradona's hotel to sing his praises. Come the game, he was given a throne to sit and watch the match. It must have been happy viewing: Deep in relegation danger, Gimnasia beat Newell's 4-0 -- and still the home fans loved him.
There is a special reason for the affection: Newell's can claim Maradona as one of their own.
It was at one of his low ebbs, back in 1993, when Maradona came back from Europe after more than a decade split between Barcelona, the glory days at Napoli and a short spell with Sevilla. Newell's Old Boys offered him a refuge. He played just seven games in the team's red and black colours, and two of those were friendlies. But it was enough. He had worn the shirt, he had become part of the club's tradition, and Newell's Old Boys could forever afterwards proudly boast a connection with the player who, more than any other, exemplifies the history of South American football.
The game was introduced to the south cone of the continent by the British, and arrived full of first-world prestige. In a time of mass immigration and rapid urbanisation, it swiftly moved down the social scale, taken up and redefined by the locals, who came up with a balletic style of play perfect for those with a low centre of gravity. And this process led to international triumphs and global recognition for a region that can often feel a long way from the rest of the world.
Maradona illustrates this process to perfection. Born into poverty, a mixture of indigenous and Italian immigrant, with a stocky build -- he might have been created to show how football took hold in South America.
And then came the 1986 World Cup, when he hit heights in the decisive stage of a major tournament that may not have been seen before or since. The significance goes deeper than Argentina's victory, overcoming West Germany 3-2 in the final. Key to the Maradona story is the quarterfinal against England.
Much was made of the fact that this came just four years after the countries had been at war in the South Atlantic, but that is only part of the story. Argentina had developed as an informal part of the British Empire. There was some admiration for the British, but plenty of resentment at being on the wrong end of a colonial relationship.
Maradona's first goal against the English was the notorious "Hand of God" strike -- the one poked in with his fist. This was a footballing version of the Argentine self-defence mechanism: The English might have the formal power, but the Argentines are smarter, able to run rings around them and achieve their objectives with a cunning mind and a quick hand.
And then came the second goal, where, on a ploughed field of a pitch he managed to dribble around the entire English defence and slide the ball home. It was one of the greatest goals ever scored, it appeared to nail home the point that the Argentines were not only smarter, they were better.
Maradona, then, had lived out a national fantasy. He had achieved almost godlike status -- something that would take a heavy toll on his personality in subsequent years.
That match ensured that he belonged to all of Argentina, but clearly Newell's can make a special claim. And losing 4-0 to his side may even help open up the next chapter in a life story that weaves around in a fashion as mazy as any of his dribbles.
An extra reason for the love felt towards Maradona is his propensity to fall over and keep getting up again. Now he has put himself on the line as a coach. Beating Newell's 4-0 may not be enough to save Gimnasia from relegation, but it serves as a billboard, advertising his capacity to take on other challenges.
The job managing Boca Juniors may soon be vacant. Being given that chance would count as a perfect birthday present.