Diego Maradona’s Long Shadow – The New York Times

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 group. Diego Maradona left the sector, and Ariel Ortega changed him on it. But that was all it took. The torch, it was determined, had been handed.

Ortega was not the primary participant to be labeled the new Maradona. That honor, in accordance with widespread consensus, fell to the previous Boca Juniors ahead Diego Latorre, and he definitely wouldn’t be the final. For a few a long time, at the least, a new pretender got here to Maradona’s throne seemingly yearly.

There can be quick Maradonas and tall Maradonas, slender ones and squat ones, fast ones and sluggish ones. Sometimes 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 method as him, on the identical workforce or bearing the identical jersey quantity as him.

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

Often, Maradona himself would anoint his successor, although his favor was unsure, shifting. For a while, it was Javier Saviola, although it pained Maradona to say it, “because he plays for River Plate,” the nice rival of Maradona’s beloved Boca Juniors. A couple of years later, Maradona decreed that D’Alessandro was the “only player who amuses me.” He forged Carlos Tevez as “an Argentine prophet for the 21st century.”

Mostly, the new Maradonas had been Argentines, although not at all solely. There had been Maradonas all over 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 whole nation: Krishanu Dey was the Indian Maradona, Ali Karimi the Iranian model. Others needed to share their territory. There have been, in accordance with some lists, at the least 4 Maradonas of the Balkans.

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, at the least, 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’d go on to grow to be shut pals.

Others discovered the strain implicit within the comparability suffocating. When Saviola signed with Barcelona in 2001, twenty years after Maradona had performed so, he was requested what he product of the parallels. “As I never tire of saying, there will not be another player like Maradona,” Saviola mentioned. He was 19, and he already felt like he was repeating himself.

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

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

Others by no means did fairly sufficient to flee Maradona’s shadow, Ortega prime amongst them. Perhaps 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.

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

It made sense. Both had been stronger than their stature would recommend. Both had a low heart of gravity, nearly flawless method 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.

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 previous pal “needed help” — that first derailed and then curtailed his profession. It is dangerous to psychoanalyze from a distance, however it’s onerous to not marvel if, maybe, the torch he was handed that day in Salta was too sizzling for him, for anybody, to deal with.

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

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

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

Perhaps we will discover out solely with time. More 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.

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

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