The autobiography of a professional athlete – or even a biography written by the greatest wordsmith of his or her generation – will rarely, if ever, pass for literature. I found this out the hard way when I picked up Maradona: The Autobiography of Soccer’s Greastest and Most Controversial Star immediately after reading John Le Carre’s engrossing Little Drummer Girl. I mean, the ending of that one – no spoilers! – left me feeling more emotions than I knew what to do with.
But the autobiography of Diego Maradona succeeds on another level, due mainly to the immense and complicated personality of its subject. In other words, if there’s a soccer fan/biography-philic person in your life, Maradona has plenty to feed their fancy. His career spanned an era in world soccer made by many famous names and events. That Maradona was in the middle of so much of that history allows him to provide his own highly unique perspective on those personalities and events. One of the most enjoyable things in the book for me, personally, comes with hearing his version of events that I’ve seen during World Cups – things like the goals, both famous and infamous, against England in 1986, or reliving the loss to Cameroon that opened Argentina’s 1990 World Cup.
For my money, though, the place that best reveals how Maradona ticks comes with his list of 100 notable players – not in order of their rank, he insists. Here, one really gets a sense of he sees the world, what he values in people and a somewhat surprising capacity to separate the personal from the professional. To give an example, Maradona holds Daniel Passarella the player the highest esteem, while thinking quite a bit less of him as a man. The treatment he gives other players – for instance, he think Paolo Maldini should have been an actor instead of a player (weird) and he sees a kind of detachment in how Michel Platini and Zinedine Zidane play the game – as well as the multitude of famous names it contains, makes that section alone worth the read.
Not surprisingly, however, Maradona’s personality holds the entire work together – and it’s vast enough to do so comfortably. He’s arrogant, to be sure – like so many of the larger-than-life, he refers to himself in the third person – but he’s also remarkably generous and, where appropriate, even humble. This last trait comes out most when he’s reliving his best games and remembering his favorite teammates; Maradona was involved in so much on the field (as his career numbers suggest), but often credits those players who made him better and fondly recalls everyone, whether coach or player, who taught him just about anything. Taken together, one gets the sense that, once one wins Maradona’s respect he or she would need to do something deeply hostile to lose it.
This isn’t to say the book doesn’t have defects. By about the second chapter, the series games he chronicles already feels as endless as the passages in the Bible about who begat whom. The occasional acknowledgement/condemnation aside, he largely glosses over his cocaine habit. More significantly, as charming as Maradona can be, 260+ pages of what reads as much like a stream-of-conscious monologue over cocktails as anything invites occasional skimming…to put that another way, if he DIDN’T gloss over the cocaine stuff, there’s a chance I missed it (in my defense, though, I did check the index; three lousy references – THREE!).
Maradona won’t change anyone’s life, or even inspire the reader, but that’s not its purpose. What it does provide is an account of life on the inside of the world of soccer – the training, the celebrity, the personalities and passions. That I grew up watching some of these events and many of the players undoubtedly helped me along, but “El Diego” – as he calls himself – brings enough humor, personality, insight, and even paranoia to the story to make it readable. It’s not for everyone, but it is definitely for the right person.