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Mourning Diego Maradona

Very few people in any generation possess the power to make the world hold its breath. Maradona, who died Wednesday at the age of 60, was one of them. 

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

I don’t believe Diego Maradona is dead, although I know he is. His death, of a heart attack, at age 60, has been confirmed by many people close to him, and I have no reason to doubt the reports; even now, the pictures will be starting to flood in, the images of the next few hours and days, which will serve as a confirmation. Not images of Maradona’s body—I’m not sure I would believe a picture of Maradona’s body—but of crowds on the streets, piles of flowers, flags flying, mourners weeping under banners with his face spread across them. It was always easy to mock the popular religion of Maradona; the religion of Maradona mocked itself. But to this extent, there was something simple and true about the veneration in which he was held in Argentina: The official sources could never hope to explain him, any more than he could hope to explain himself. The surest way to understand him was to look to the streets.

The streets will mourn him, which means he’s really gone, but I still don’t believe it. What I’m experiencing isn’t so much garden-variety denial as a more basic sense that death and Diego are simply incompatible ideas. Hearing that Maradona is dead is like hearing that the number four is now a part of Kansas; it doesn’t compute. Obviously, he lived for many years in a way that would catapult a normal person’s risk of dying into lunar orbit, but that in itself contributes to the disbelief. After all the overdoses and heart attacks and emergency surgeries and unbelievable weight fluctuations and scandals and feuds and decapitation-minded English machete-wielders of the last 25 years, it had begun to seem as though death was simply confused by him, like a cat trying to catch a laser pointer, or like a third-rate defender watching him dribble. He had survived so much; surely, he will survive his own death, too?

And then, too, there was always so much of Maradona, too much, a massive amount of him; he was someone who filled every space he occupied with more Maradona to spare. He was a holy icon in Naples, and a tabloid martyr in Dallas, and he rode helicopters with dictators, and used cocaine with crime bosses, and he chatted with the King of Spain about sailing, and lectured the Pope about the poor. I used to joke that if Maradona lost a game of chess, he’d only laugh and say, “but I have more pieces,” then pull out a Ziploc bag full of queens. That was how he lived, and the idea that, just like that, the world is experiencing a deficit of Maradona rather than a surplus—the idea that there is suddenly not enough of him; that there is none of him at all—is hard to take in.

Well. Struggling to believe something doesn’t make it untrue, or else the world would look like Facebook. My brain might be cheerfully convinced that Diego will give a press conference tomorrow, blame his death on one of his many enemies (George W. Bush, or maybe Pelé), insult several journalists’ mothers, and depart on a hovercraft to become the manager of Go Ahead Eagles. The truth, though, is that he’s gone. Talk about taking apart defenses—we watched him almost die in public for 25 years and he still pulled off a sudden death, a trickster to the last minute.

In the end, my disbelief is meaningless except in this sense: that the strange immortality he seemed to possess, in the midst of so many warnings that he didn’t, was an echo of the joy he brought to people. Many athletes bring joy to people, of course, and many athletes lead chaotic lives, and many athletes die too early, because many people do. But Diego was something else. I don’t know why anyone cares what a person can do with a ball; I only know that Maradona was able to do things with one that, when you saw them, made you feel like the universe was telling you a secret. The sight of him with the ball at his feet, this little guy with his hair streaming back, all chest and thighs and churning elbows, had a power that is given to very few people in any generation, the power to make a large part of the world hold its breath. Maybe that’s another reason it’s hard to believe he’s dead; where he’s concerned, we’re the ones who are used to being breathless.

In any case, at this moment, when we know he’s gone but still feel sure he isn’t, it’s worth holding on to doubt, at least for a minute. If you follow it where it leads, it takes you backward through everything that was absurd and offensive about him, back to the rude, beautiful, irrational, irreconcilable gift he gave us. And the contradiction of Maradona will turn out to outlive him, because the sadder you feel, the more you will laugh out loud.