God Still Exists

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The last time I heard Diego’s voice was at the beginning of last year, when I’d come back to Argentina after leaving Pachuca, the club I had been coaching in Mexico. 

When my phone rang and I saw who it was, honestly, I was surprised, because I didn’t think Diego had the time for calls like that at that point. 

I mean, just being Diego Maradona was a job he had to do 24/7, you know? He had been followed everywhere by fans and journalists his whole life. It must have been exhausting. But now he was also coaching Gimnasia y Esgrima La Plata, a team in the Argentine top division. 

So even though I knew Diego had a big heart, I really thought he had enough on his plate already. 

But I was wrong. Somehow he had found the time to call me. We were close, we had been for a long time, but we had not worked together for almost a decade. But of course, as always with Diego, it was never about business. With him it was always personal. 

He said, “Hello Martín, how are you doing? How is your family? When are you coming over for a barbecue?”

And, well, that was Diego. He knew his presence was important to those around him, and he just wanted me to know that he was there for anything I needed. He was always like that, always caring, always checking up on you. And always showing up when you least expected it. 

But one thing you have to understand is that Diego wasn’t like this only with me. No, no. He was like that with everyone he truly cared about. The way he made you feel … he had a personal warmth that was incredible. 

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Which is why I still haven’t been able to assimilate the fact that he’s gone. 

It’s been three months now since Diego left us. When I heard the news, I immediately sent a text to a journalist friend who I knew was very close to him. “Is it true?” He replied, “Yes.…” And in that moment, you just don’t … you don’t believe it. You know? You remember how many times Diego has been in situations like that, where he’s in hospital and rumours spread about his death, and you go, No, it can’t be, they’re just saying that. It’s probably nothing. And in the end it really is nothing. Maradona always recovers. Maradona always survives. It had happened so many times. So you think, This is just another one.

But then the news about his recovery never arrives.  

I got more anxious the longer I waited. I even texted Claudia, his ex-wife, to learn whether it was true. She said that it was. But still you don’t believe it. Your mind refuses to accept it. To me, Diego was always going to be there. I was convinced he was going to make it to 100 years old. 

Maradona always recovers. Maradona always survives. It had happened so many times.

Martín Palermo

And now, as the days keep going by, I still have this sensation that it’s not true. 

Of course Diego is still here. 

You’ll probably run into him at some point. 

I know I speak for a lot of Argentines when I say that I struggle to imagine a world without Maradona. Ever since I was a kid, he was always present, always untouchable. When I saw him play at the 1986 World Cup, I realised what he meant to the world, and what he meant to us. Diego changed my whole perception of what football can be. 

I still see him as a representative figure of what I feel for football. Does that make sense? Let me try to explain. I was 12 years old during Mexico ’86, so I had been playing football with my friends in the squares of my neighbourhood all my life. There is actually a picture of me as a toddler taking my first steps, and apparently the first thing I did was to kick a ball, haha. But I was always very reserved. I didn’t talk much with my dad about football, or about anything really. I’d come back from a game and he would ask, “And? How did it go?”

I’d say, “Good, we won 2–0.”

He’d say, “Good. Did you score?”

I’d say, “Ah yes, I scored one.”

And that was it. I wasn’t sliding on my knees into the living room screaming, “WE WOOON!! AND I SCORED!” I kept that stuff to myself. 

But I still felt these amazing emotions when I was playing football. And when I saw Maradona in ’86, those emotions were amplified. I was watching the games with my parents and my brother in our living room, and I saw Diego take football to a height I had never thought was possible. The goals, the glory, the passion. This was football. When we went out in the streets to celebrate the World Cup title, I knew that it was the greatest expression of satisfaction, of relish, that football could bring. And the source of all that emotion was Maradona. 

Carlo Fumagalli/AP Photo

Of course, I found out that football can inflict pain as well. When you start out as a kid, you just play for fun, and nobody forces you to do anything. But when you join a professional club, you realise that your idea of being a footballer is going to change. It was a dream for me to join Estudiantes de La Plata, the club I supported as a kid, the club of my dad and my brother. My whole family is from La Plata. But I also began to experience injuries and setbacks and frustrations. And once more, that sense of sadness was something Diego transmitted better than anyone else. 

Actually, the moment I felt closest to Diego, without actually having met him, was at the 1994 World Cup in the U.S., when he was thrown out of the tournament, and he was saying that they had cut his legs off. I was 20 years old and had made my professional debut two years earlier. Seeing him there, feeling his pain, it awoke a new kind of affection for him. When I saw him cry, I wanted to do the same. It’s hard, really, to describe what I felt in that moment. All I can say is that I felt more connected to him than ever before. He was Maradona, he was God, but he was also so human, you know?

I never thought I would get as close to him as I did. Just meeting him in person was a dream come true. The first time was when I was playing for Estudiantes away to Boca in August 1996. We were both captains, so we met in the centre circle before the game. After the coin toss I summoned the courage to say, “Diego, when the game’s over can you give me your shirt?” I must have sounded like a fanboy — and I was! But that’s what happened. We won the game, I scored two goals, and when the game was over I sent the kit man to look for the shirt. Diego sent it to me. 

A few months later Maradona asked Mauricio Macri, the Boca president, to sign me from Estudiantes. This was in 1997, and it was an honour to go to Boca. That team was incredible: Diego was there, Claudio Caniggia, Diego Latorre, Navarro Montoya, Néstor Fabbri, the Barros Schelotto twins … but the club was not going through a great phase in terms of trophies. So the fans had reason to be unhappy. And yet with Diego there, everything was calm. His presence sort of masked everything. 

He was Maradona, he was God, but he was also so human.

Martín Palermo

I still count my blessings that I was able to play next to him during the final months of his career. Obviously I was never able to savour him at his peak in the 1980s — to have been next to him at Napoli, well, that was another Maradona. But you were still in awe of him. He’d come into training and it was like everything would stop, and we would just watch what he did with the ball, or stand there gaping as he curled another free kick into the top corner. I’m not exaggerating: He could literally put the ball anywhere he wanted. 

At the same time, Diego wasn’t just talent. Playing with him, or just being near him, filled you with a special kind of conviction. His last game was a superclásico against River at the Monumental. When we walked out onto the pitch, you could see how much he relished it. Unfortunately he had to go off injured at halftime, but I scored the winning goal, so we ended up having a double celebration: one for my winner and one for his last game. We sang and danced, we went out to eat. To experience a moment like that with anyone marks you for life. To do it with Diego … well, it was very, very special. 

That whole period with Diego went by very fast. It was only a few months, and looking back, perhaps I should have enjoyed it more. Diego knew he was close to retirement, but he kept fighting until the very end. He gave himself to the team in every way. Even when he was so close to the end, when his body was barely working anymore, he would push himself to the limit. He always wanted to be there for you. 

It’s like those movies about warriors. The warrior fights against everything and everyone, but he doesn’t do it for himself. He does it for the good of others. I see Maradona in that way. As an individual he was an artist. As a teammate he was a gladiator. 

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When Diego retired, it was because he had to. He knew he couldn’t push himself anymore, that his body had been through enough. He had given it all. 

After that we began to have a different kind of relationship. We were united through Boca, and as I kept on playing there he returned as club director. We began to interact more. And that was when we really began to get close on a personal level. 

We showed each other gestures that meant a lot to one another. He came to my wedding. When I lost my newborn son, he was there for me. 

And when he went through tough times, I was close to his family.

I never thought we would work together again. Nor did I ever think I’d get the chance to go to a World Cup with him. I had not played for Argentina since 1999. Then in 2008, when I was 34, I damaged the cruciate ligament in my right knee. At that point I didn’t even know if I would ever play football again.  

But I recovered in early 2009 and by that time, in some strange twist of fate, Diego has taken over the national team. Then he begins to rely on players who are playing at home in Argentina, and not just those based in Europe. Suddenly he calls me up. I haven’t played for Argentina in a decade, and now Diego Maradona starts giving me games. 

Then we get near the end of the World Cup qualifiers, and I realise that I’m going to be part of it. 

Fast forward to October that year and we need to beat Peru in the penultimate qualifier to be able to make it to the World Cup. It was a crisis in Argentina. To not win the World Cup, that’s bad enough. To not even go there? Unthinkable. We were really playing with knives against our throats.

So we’re facing Peru in Buenos Aires, and it’s pouring down. It’s biblical weather. First we score. Thank God, we’re set for a 1–0 win. Then Peru equalise just before full time. Disaster. We’re finished. Game over. Adios, World Cup. Some people leave the stadium, mad and pissed off. And Diego, he’s been criticised heavily in the press for his tactics, for calling up an old striker that everyone thinks is finished … now he’s done, too. 

But then in stoppage time, we get a corner. The ball flies into the box and somehow lands in front of me, and I just strike it into the net. Goal. I run around in the rain like a madman, my teammates running after me. The stadium explodes. Diego sprints out onto the pitch, launches himself into the air and slides on his chest along the wet grass. What a moment. What a night! 

I like to think that if my life was a movie, and the opening scene was the picture of me as a kid kicking the ball, then the ending, just before the credits roll, would be me celebrating that goal in the rain.

The ball flies into the box and somehow lands in front of me, and I just strike it into the net. Goal.

Martín Palermo

That win tied so many things together. Like the friendship between Diego and me, and the faith he had put in me. Not to mention the fact that when Argentina qualified for the 1986 World Cup, they also scored a late goal against Peru in a tense qualifier. 

Was all of that just a coincidence? I don’t think so. I think there’s a connection there. 

When you score a winner like that, you begin to dream about going to the actual World Cup. I had never been to one. Now Diego was preparing to name his final squad, and the uncertainty was hanging in the air for months. I had no idea whether he would take me. Every now and then he would call me up and ask how I was doing. Then just before the announcement, he rang me and said, “Martín, show up on Monday. You’re going to the World Cup.”

I can still remember his voice during that call as if it was yesterday. 

And I could only be grateful. I was all, “Thank you so much, Diego. Thank you for the opportunity.” My words for him were always of thanks. Same when I scored against Peru: A hug and a thank you. That’s how it was. 

I knew I wasn’t going to be one of the starters. I was 36 years old when I travelled to South Africa, and we had players like Lionel Messi and Carlos Tevez, so I respected that. But in the final group game, against Greece, we were already through to the knockout stage, so Diego put me on for the last 10 minutes. My first ever appearance in a World Cup. And I scored. I scored with my family in the stands: my brother, my eldest son, my wife. It was one of the happiest moments of my career, and another one of those that tied so many things together. It felt as if my career had come full circle. 

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Playing for Diego was a special experience. What he represented for us, the way he made us feel, it was very powerful. It went beyond tactics. He just filled you with confidence. When we were through to the round of 16, we really thought that we would win the World Cup. Because that’s the way things turn out with Diego. He had won the World Cup as a player. All he was missing was to win it as a coach, and now he was there with us. It all made so much sense. It seemed like destiny. 

So yeah, the fact that we couldn’t win that World Cup was one of my biggest disappointments, both in terms of my own career and my relationship with Diego. 

That said, the memories of that period with the national team will never leave me. Actually, I also have a little thing to remember it by. Diego was always wearing these shiny earrings that made it look like he was illuminating the whole place. So before one game I can recall saying to him, “Well, if I score tomorrow, you give me your earring.” I was only joking, really, but the next day I scored and he gave it to me. 

I still have that earring. It’s stored safely away somewhere, like a little treasure.

After that World Cup, Diego’s life went up and down. What people have to understand is that it’s hard to be a professional footballer or a coach. And it was even harder to be Diego Maradona. Much harder. Any attempt he made at being a normal person was crushed. He was followed 24 hours a day, he was worshipped, harassed and attacked. He couldn’t even go down the street in peace. How can you expect to live a normal life like that? 

If I could wind back time, I would do everything possible to help Diego during his final years. I would try to help him live a life that’s a bit more natural, a bit more real. I wanted to see him grow old. But helping Diego was difficult, and many others tried to help him, too. It’s hard to know what really happened to him. I didn’t like how he had to live in his last two years. He deteriorated so much, both mentally and physically. He wasn’t the Maradona that I liked to see. 

What I regret most of all is that he was left so alone. He wasn’t well taken care of. He didn’t get to live a life that was worthy of who he was. 

I will never judge Diego. He made some mistakes, sure, we all know that, but he lived his life and that was that. All I care about is what Diego meant to me and how he made me feel. It’s hard to describe it, especially in a footballing context, but, well, those who believe that God exists, and I believe that he does … Diego is like that in football. God exists in everything he represents. For me, Maradona does the same in football. 

I don’t know when I will face up to reality. Maybe at some point I’m going to have to accept that Diego is gone, the same way that I accepted the death of my son. I’ll have to cross that bridge and say, He’s not here. I’m not going to be able to see him anymore. 

But I still haven’t gotten to that point. It’s too painful, too surreal. 

For me, Diego is still here. God still exists. 

And in a way, he always will.