The Argentinian great Diego Maradona died today from a heart attack. He was 60. His rise to footballing heights was not just a sporting miracle, but also a one-of-a-kind sociocultural phenomenon.

Though Argentina and its people are sometimes thought to stand aloof from the rest of Latin America, the diminutive Maradona’s legend and off-field influence knew no borders.

His strident anti-imperialism and embrace of leftist leaders made him a sports icon with political influence surpassed only by Muhammad Ali in recent world history.

From the barrio to superstardom

El Pibe de Oro, The Golden Boy, was born in a Buenos Aires slum to a father who worked in construction and a mother who washed dishes for a living. Unusually for a player of his talent, he made his name in Europe playing for a smaller team, Napoli, located in the poorer Italian south.

A child phenom, he had first moved to Barcelona in 1982 for what was then a world record transfer fee of five million pounds. But in Spain, he was racially derided and caricatured as a South American mercenary playing for money.

The game that led to his departure two years later saw an all-out brawl between his team and Athletic Bilbao when he reacted to incessant racist abuse from the crowd about his father’s Guaraní Indigenous heritage.

His transfer to Napoli, at just seven million pounds, set another record. It was Diego’s destiny to wear Napoli’s shirt. The subaltern could only enter history playing, and winning, for an underdog.

His new team won their first national title in the 1986–87 season — the first team from the Italian south to become national champions.

The people’s champion

For his beloved Argentina, El Diez delivered a second World Cup in 1986. Their first win came in 1978, at home, under the dictatorship, right in the middle of the country’s dirty war. It was not seen as a legitimate win. But the tournament in Mexico eight years later was a different story.

The quarter final against England stands out for Diego’s “Hand of God” goal, as well as his second goal moments later, which is unarguably the greatest individual goal in the history of international football.

The match had political significance for Argentina, as it had only been a few years since the Falklands War. There was a score to be settled.

Needless to say, the downtrodden don’t care how the first goal went in. England had no moral lessons to give to anyone. Not to mention that Diego’s handball was light humour compared to the outrageous fouling, if not assault, he was subjected to by English players throughout the game.

And as far as sporting ability is concerned, he put all doubts to rest with his second goal. England was well and truly beaten.

Diego did not score in the final win against West Germany, but he did not need to. It was his World Cup in every way possible. No player has dominated the tournament the way he did in Mexico that year.

Though compatriot Lionel Messi is perhaps a better overall player due to his consistency and longevity, Dieguito was more than a footballer. He was a people’s champion, and delivered a World Cup title to his country. He carried the hopes of a nation, a class, a culture all on his own shoulders. He had the courage and the personality to live up to it. His football was outrageous, but he was even more so. (Messi, in terms of personality, is bland toast in comparison.)

Overwhelming talent, overwhelming personality

Eduardo Galeano, the late Uruguayan writer whom some called the poet laureate of football, connected Maradona’s effervescent style of play with his personality and off-field troubles:

He was overwhelmed by the weight of his own personality. Ever since that day long ago when fans first chanted his name, his spinal column caused him grief. Maradona carried a burden named Maradona that bent his back out of shape. The body as metaphor: his legs ached, he couldn’t sleep without pills. It did not take him long to realize it was impossible to live with the responsibility of being a god on the field, but from the beginning he knew that stopping was out of the question … Maradona is uncontrollable when he speaks, but much more so when he plays. No one can predict the devilish tricks this inventor of surprises will dream up for the simple joy of throwing the computers off track, tricks he never repeats. He’s not quick, more like a short-legged bull, but he carries the ball sewn to his foot and he has eyes all over his body. His acrobatics light up the field. He can win a match with a thundering blast when his back is to the goal, or with an impossible pass from afar when he is corralled by thousands of enemy legs. And no one can stop him when he decides to dribble upfield. (Football in Sun and Shadow, 1995)

To make people dream by watching you perform in front of millions — that’s what makes you larger than life. Not everyone is Maradona, but everyone can dream of being great.

That’s what the beautiful game we call football is about, and Maradona was its finest ambassador. Rest in peace.