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Thursday, November 26, 2020

Hand of God

Note: This particular entry is being cross-posted on both my book and expat blogs.

Because of my personality type, I find myself compulsively scanning newspaper headlines from several different countries on a daily basis. Usually, there is a logical degree of variation, from country to country, as to what lands on the front pages. Sometimes, though, the same news dominates the front page everywhere. Normally, that tends to happen only there has been a major disaster of some kind or a particularly dramatic development in the United States. Sometimes it is the death of someone famous.

Rarely have I seen such uniformity in top headlines as I have seen today on the covers of papers in Ireland, the UK, the rest of Europe, Chile, Peru, the rest of Latin America and even the US. It is a testimony to the unifying power of the sport of soccer that the top story everywhere was the sudden death of Argentine soccer god Diego Maradona of an apparent heart attack at the age of 60.

I say “even the US” because soccer does not have quite the hold in my own country as it does in the rest of the world. This is despite the fact that many of us would have played the sport in our youth and would be quite familiar with the rules. Certain countries, i.e. the ones that use the word “soccer” (the US, Canada, Australia, Ireland), have their own homegrown sports they call “football.” Most everywhere else, though, that word and its variants (fútbol, le foot, fußball) refer to what is universally called “the beautiful game.” While Maradona’s demise was widely reported in the US, he did not make the front pages of, for example, The Bakersfield Californian or The Seattle Times. He did make the front page of The New York Times, though well below the fold. He likely would have made the front page of The Wall Street Journal, but that paper does not publish on Thanksgiving. (Happy Thanksgiving, by the way, my fellow Americans.)

An impressive number of papers made a playful reference to God’s hands in their headlines, as exemplified by the UK’s Daily Express: “RIP: The eternal, flawed genius… now safe in the hands of God.” These are all not-so-subtle references to a famous/notorious goal he scored in Mexico City on June 22, 1986. It was in a quarter-finals match between Argentina and England. The goal should not have counted because Maradona used his hand. In fact, he should have received a yellow card for the infraction. Amazingly, no referee had a clear view, so the goal was allowed. Combined with a subsequent Maradona goal, it meant a 2-1 victory for the Argentines.

Afterwards, Maradona proclaimed that his first goal of the match had come thanks to “a little with the head of Maradona and a little with the hand of God.” The goal was henceforth known as the “Hand of God” goal. The second one became known as the “Goal of the Century.”

In Asif Kapadia’s documentary Diego Maradona, released last year, the soccer titan drew a link between that win over England and the Falklands War a few years earlier: “We, as Argentinians, didn’t know what the military was up to. They told us that we were winning the war. But in reality, England was winning 20‑0. It was tough. The hype made it seem like we were going to play out another war. I knew it was my hand. It wasn’t my plan but the action happened so fast that the linesman didn’t see me putting my hand in. The referee looked at me and he said: ‘Goal.’ It was a nice feeling like some sort of symbolic revenge against the English.”

Maradona’s passing comes at a time when his life and career and even the Falklands War are all fresh in my mind. That is because the la Guerra de las Malvinas, as the Argentines called that conflict, is a plot element in Searching for Cunégonde, and there is even a reference to the soccer player in the novel. In Chapter 14 our hero Dallas’s search for his long-missing friend Antonio leads him and his new British friend Donal to Mendoza, Argentina, and to a man named Alberto. To keep their quest from ending in failure, they need to gain the wary Alberto’s confidence. It appears that the pair have run out of luck until, by chance, Donal and Alberto discover a mutual bond over their passion for international football.

“There is a young Argentine player you need to watch out for,” says Alberto. “He is only twenty years old, but he is already better than George Best ever was. Listen to my words. Remember the name Maradona.”

Indeed, at that point Maradona had wrapped up five years playing for a club called Argentinos Juniors and around that time signed a contract worth US$4 million with Boca Juniors. At not quite 16 years old, he had become the youngest player ever in the history of the Primera División. He had scored 115 goals in 167 appearances. Early on he was dubbed el Pibe de Oro (the golden kid). So Alberto did not need to be a gifted prophet to see Maradona’s bright future all the way back in 1981. What he probably did not foresee was the star’s later life beset by addictions and health problems.

Sadly, I will now never get the chance—as if I was ever likely to—to ask the great man if he was at all flattered to be featured in my novel. I suppose there is still hope, though, to someday ask actor Rob Lowe what he thought of his brief mention.

In the end Dallas and Donal get the information seek from Alberto, so at least that part of their quest is successful. As Dallas narrates, “I continued thanking him as he walked us back to the street. Locking the gate after us, he said to Donal, ‘Remember my words, Gringo! Watch out for Maradona!’ ”

Prescient words indeed.

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