Photo illustration: Tablet Magazine; original photo: Jorge Duran/AFP/Getty Images
Diego Maradona in 1986.Photo illustration: Tablet Magazine; original photo: Jorge Duran/AFP/Getty Images
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The World Cup Made Me a Believer

In watching the great Maradona play, a lesson in theology

Liel Leibovitz
June 15, 2018
Photo illustration: Tablet Magazine; original photo: Jorge Duran/AFP/Getty Images
Diego Maradona in 1986.Photo illustration: Tablet Magazine; original photo: Jorge Duran/AFP/Getty Images

Some people learn about God from prayer books. Others take to nature and look for the Almighty in the rivers and the trees. Me, I got to know the Creator by watching Diego Armando Maradona.

It was the summer of 1986. My friends and I had just graduated from the fourth grade, and in Mexico 24 soccer teams congregated to fight each other for sportsdom’s ultimate trophy, the World Cup.

It’s sometimes hard for Americans, an eternally cheerful bunch who can crown a contest between two teams located 9.3 miles from each other the World Series, to grasp just what the cup means for those in the rest of the world, so here’s a concrete example: Just before the cup of ’86—or, as we call it, the Mondial—Israel’s leading producer of frozen treats issued special edition ice pops corresponding to the leading teams’ colors. If you rooted for Italy, you opted for the strawberry-lemon-lime special in red, white, and green. If you cheered for England, it was lemon-raspberry—red and white. And for supporters of Argentina, white and blue, both somehow tasting like pineapple. Fans of Germany, alas, had no treats to enjoy.

We consumed these frozen confections with an almost metaphysical sense of pleasure. For us, the Mondial was about more than just soccer. We gravitated to the sport for the same reason prepubescent boys so often choose to do things, because it was a convenient entry point from which to begin to make sense of the world. It was a small. closed-off, and eminently knowable domain that you could, with a little bit of free time and a good enough memory, master. Our parents, our teachers, our bodies, girls—those were mysteries far beyond comprehension. Politics, death, money were all so abstract they might as well have been imaginary for us 10-year-olds. But learn the lineup of France’s national team, say, and you can quietly claim: I know something about the world. And so learn we did, and when the tournament finally started, we gathered on my parents’ blue corduroy couch to watch and put our knowledge to the test.

Me, I liked England. Maybe it had something to do with my grandmother’s stories about the British Mandate, and the exasperated johnnys with their red berets chasing the wily boys of the Jewish underground around Jerusalem. Or maybe it was because I was a nerd, and my back-of-the-sports-section calculations told me that having one of the greatest goalies in the game, Peter Shilton, as well as a gifted striker in Gary Lineker meant that the odds of an English victory were good. Whatever the reason, I flew high St. George’s Cross and shouted at the TV whenever the English sauntered onto the pitch.

The tournament’s first two rounds were uneventful. England lost to Portugal, tied with Morocco, and trounced Poland to make it to the round of 16, where it bested the strong team from Paraguay. It was on to the quarterfinals, to meet Argentina and its redeemer, Maradona.

The religious terminology is hardly out of place. When a young Maradona first stepped into the big leagues, playing for Barcelona, his teammates, some of the world’s greatest footballers, stopped their training and simply watched in awe. “When Maradona ran with the ball or dribbled through the defense,” recalled one teammate, “he seemed to have the ball tied to his boots.” Two years later, when he was traded to Napoli, 75,000 fans crowded the stadium just to welcome him to town. Naples, noted one local newspaper, lacked “houses, schools, buses, employment, and sanitation,” but “none of this matters because we have Maradona.” As likely to start a brawl as he was to orchestrate some celestial strike, he was the rare breed of athlete who was propelled by God-given instinct, not so much a player as a conjurer. “Diego,” said France’s Michel Platini, a Maradona friend and rival, “was capable of things no one else could match. The things I could do with a football, he could do with an orange.”

I found him terrifying. Not because I didn’t enjoy his prowess: It was hard to suppress the urge to applaud any time he touched the ball. But Maradona was chaos, and chaos was the one thing a prepubescent boy eager to assert some sense of self-worth feared most of all. Here I was, knowingly saying to my friends that recovering from a goal scored in a penalty kick by Italy’s Altobelli six minutes into the game would be hard for the Argentines, and there he was, chasing a wild ball and kicking it midair while running, straight into Giovanni Galli’s net.

By the time Maradona and his squad took on Lineker and the rest of my English idols, I was panicky. If, at 10, sports teams are a portal to personhood, they’re also a ready-made identity. If England lost, I knew, there would be no end of taunts; I would be branded a loser because of the missteps of 11 men playing for 90 minutes half a world away.

The game’s first half was largely uneventful. More than 114,000 fans showed up to watch the match in person—nearly three times as many as took their seats later the same day to watch Belgium beat Spain. They were all there to see Maradona. Fifty-one minutes into the game, they got what they were looking for.

Attempting to pass to his teammate Jorge Valdano, Maradona instead watched the ball end up with Steve Hodge, England’s midfielder. Trying to distance the ball from the enterprising Argentine, Hodge fumbled and shot it instead towards Shilton. The imposing goalkeeper ran out, hoping to grab control of the situation. Maradona had different ideas: He held his left arm straight and punched the ball past Shilton, straight into the net, giving Argentina a 1-0 lead.

If you want to fully appreciate either Maradona’s genius or my outrage at witnessing this bit of mayhem, go to the tape. Watch it, and you can clearly see Maradona tilting his neck in an exaggerated motion designed to convince the referee that he scored the goal with his head, which is permissible in soccer, and not with his hand, which is not. Observing this bit of theatrics, Maradona’s teammates stood motionless, certain that the referee would soon dismiss the goal as invalid. Like me and the millions watching around the world, they, too, clearly saw their brilliant star break soccer’s most basic rule. But Maradona was unperturbed: He ran toward the stand and motioned with his hand for his buddies to come and hug him. Later, he admitted that he wanted the team to celebrate on the pitch in order to dissuade the ref from rethinking the goal. It was, in other words, pure deception.

Letting my white-and-red ice pop drip on my thigh, I felt a dark void expand in my stomach. Maradona’s goal wasn’t just a spot of perfidy, a dirty trick by a great player; it felt like a repudiation of the entire construct of morality. I was drawn to soccer because it was orderly, because it had rules I could follow, because I could make sense of it, because it presented me with a sliver of existence I could claim to know without too many caveats or question marks. And just as my certainty and sense of agency were firming up, in marched this diminutive, curly haired agent of chaos, swiping his fist at my neat little universe and triumphing by cheating. Right then and there, I had my first theological crisis, my first instance of wailing about bad things happening to good soccer teams: If God allowed Maradona to score with impunity, I thought in a feverish moment, then God was unfair. (Maradona, by the way, seemed to have different theological ideas: The goal, he said in later interviews, was scored “a little with the head of Maradona and a little with the hand of God.”)

My crisis of faith lasted exactly four minutes. I was still reeling about justice and wondering if I’d have to find another obsession now that soccer had proved to be so existentially unreliable when Maradona, receiving the ball, launched into what would soon become known as the goal of the century, the single most majestic feat of soccer the world has ever seen or, I’m rather confident, will ever see. Running across more than half the length of the pitch, Maradona dribbled the ball, using his left leg exclusively. He breezed past Peter Beardsley, sashayed past Steve Hodge, sauntered by Peter Reid, tiptoed by Terry Butcher, and pirouetted past Terry Fenwick, all mighty talented outfielders. Shilton came out to try and stop the carnage, but ended up on his back. Maradona kicked and scored. He touched the ball a mere 11 times throughout the entire offensive, during which he needed no help from anyone but the Heavenly Father. “When Diego scored that second goal against us,” Gary Lineker said later. “I felt like applauding. I’d never felt like that before, but it’s true. … And not just because it was such an important game. It was impossible to score such a beautiful goal. He’s the greatest player of all time, by a long way. A genuine phenomenon.”

If England’s captain felt this way, it was impossible for us fans to disagree. Because the meaning of goal two, following so closely on the heels of goal one, was profound: It was there to teach you that the world was a mystery, no matter how hard you struggled to organize it into clear and precise categories. It was there to show you that your inability to grasp the whole of creation wasn’t a handicap; it was, instead, the very point of being, a daily dose of radical amazement that allowed you to revel in God’s plan even if you couldn’t begin to understand it. It was there to tell you that treachery and transcendence are often only minutes apart, and that in order to live well you must learn to suffer the one just as you celebrate the other.

Lineker scored. It wasn’t enough. The game was over. England lost. But I didn’t really care. I was sitting quietly on the couch, watching Maradona and wishing that I would always feel this moved, this amazed, this blissfully helpless before something that was very clearly otherworldly and very clearly benevolent and very clearly in charge. And every four years, when the World Cup rolls in and life comes to a halt and soccer erupts in all of its wild glory, that’s just how I feel.


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Liel Leibovitz is editor-at-large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One. He is the editor of Zionism: The Tablet Guide.