That is not to say they would have been ignorant of what Maradona meant. They would have heard the stories and seen the videos of his goals and the photos of his brilliance. That, after all, is how legends work: They become lore, passed from one generation to another.
But they are still memories at one remove. Millions came to the Maradona story in his chaotic retirement years. For them, his brilliance on the field was the background. What they experienced, firsthand, were the drugs and the scandals. He became, in effect, the star of his own reality television show, a celebrity rather than an athlete: Maradona, rather than Diego. Just as Keith Richards is now more readily thought of for his hedonism than his music, to many Maradona was first and foremost an outlaw, not a player.
And rather than hampering his legend, it expanded it. There are those, among soccer’s greats, who almost single-handedly transformed the game, who heralded a shift between eras, who left the sport changed from when they found it. Johan Cruyff’s ideas and his ideals fundamentally altered our perception of how soccer should be played, our reckoning of beauty. Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo have shifted the parameters of greatness, the window of what might be possible, our definitions of positions.
It is not to quarrel with his greatness to suggest that Maradona’s impact was different. He did not hint at the next step the game would take. He bent individual games to his will. He shaped whole teams and entire tournaments by his own hand, lifting the otherwise ordinary to greatness. He changed history, but he was no harbinger of the future.
He was, instead, the exact opposite. Maradona was the apotheosis of the game as it used to be. Almost everything in his story is redolent of a lost age, and barely any of it would have been possible even a few years after his retirement. He stayed at his first club, Argentinos Juniors, for five years. Despite a couple of attempts, unlike almost any Argentine teenage sensation of the last 20 years, he was not spirited away to Europe at the first opportunity.