It was nothing more than a ruffle of hair and a kiss on the cheek. There was no pomp or circumstance on that day in 1994, no words of wisdom were whispers in the ears or widespread gestures made to the crowd. Diego Maradona left the field, and Ariel Ortega took a spot on him. But it was all taken. The torch, it was fixed, was passed.
Ortega was not the first player to be labeled the new Maradona. By consensus, the honor fell to former Boca Juniors near Diego Latour, and that would certainly not be the last. For a few decades, at least, every year a new pretender came to the throne of Maradona.
The shorter Maradona and the longer Maradona will be the thinner ones and the squat ones, the quicker ones and the slower ones. Sometimes the similarities were apparent: Pablo Aymar and Juan Romain Richelme and Andrés D’Alessandro played in the same position as the way he impacts on the same team or the same jersey.
And sometimes they were not. There were new Maradona who turned out to be jet-heel wingers or elegant, deep-lying midfielders or target-men or elfin target-hunters.
Often, Maradona himself anointed his successor, though his side was uncertain, shifting. For a while, it was Javier Saviola, though it pained Maradona to say, “because he plays for the River Plate,” the great rival of Maradona’s beloved Boca Juniors. A few years later, Maradona decided that D’Alendro “is the only player who makes me happy.” He chose Carlos Tevez as “an Argentine prophet for the 21st century”.
Mostly, the new Maradona were Argentines, though by no means exclusive. There were Maradona all over the world, on every continent, in every mountain range. There was a Maradona (Gheorghe Hagi) of the Carpathians, a Maradona (Georgie Kinkladez) of the Caucasus, a Maradona (Andy Herzog) of the Alps, and a Maradona (Roberto Merino) of the Andes.
Some were given an entire country: Krishnu Dey was the Indian Maradona, Ali Karimi was the Iranian version. Others were to share their territory. According to some ListsAt least four Maradona of the Balkans.
Some were given more precise geographic location. Fabrizio Mikoli was the Maradona of Sultano, the area in the south of Italy from which he used to plow. Emre Belozoglou of Turkey was Maradona of Bosporus. At one point, there was also a Maradona of Basingstoke, an impromptu commuter town in the south-west of London, though it was minimal, A joke.
Some players leaned in to compare: Miccoli, a gifted but forward with Juventus, Fiorentina and Palermo, bought a pair of Maradona’s earrings at auction and would later get a tattoo of Che Gavarvara’s face, As if on his idol’s shoulder. Tevez admitted that he did a play based on his sculpture of his style; They used to become close friends.
Others found pressure in comparative suffocation. When Saviola signed with Barcelona in 2001, two decades after Madonna did so, she was asked what similarities she had created. “As I never said, there will be no other player like Maradona,” Saviola said. He was 19 years old, and he already felt like he was repeating himself.
There were others who had come close to living up to the name, just as boarding a commercial flight is close, in some cases, to the moon. Aimar, Riquelme and Tevez enjoyed long and successful careers, in which they played in the World Cup, lifted the league title trophy and defined their own heritage rather than condemning another player’s coda.
Hagi led Romania to the quarter-finals of the World Cup and symbolized their country’s football culture in the same way that Maradona, more than anyone, represents Argentina. One of Maradona’s many Balkan apostles, Daejan Savisevich became one of Europe’s finest players, an inspirational part of the great AC Milan teams of the early 1990s.
Others never did enough to escape Maradona’s shadow, Ortega was prominent among them. Perhaps it was unavoidable: none, Richelme and Tavage – two players who worked, willingly or not, to live with Maradona’s name in Boca Juniors – felt much of the expected white heat, as the guy replaced. The day took place in Salta in 1994.
That game – a 2–1 win against Morocco – was a warm-up for the World Cup set to begin a few months later. That summer at the Argentine base Wellesley, Mass., Ortega shared a room with team captain Maradona. When Maradona was ruled out of the tournament after testing positive for Ephedrine, Ortega would be given a place for the remaining Argentina games.
It made sense Both were stronger than their stature. Both had a low center of gravity, almost flawless technique and an explosion of acceleration that took them past opponents. He also shared a passing physical resemblance, just below the raven-black hair shock.
Their similarities did not end there. Ortega had a flash of his patron’s temperament; One of the things Maradona most admired about him was his disregard, self-denying, hypocritical streak. Ortega was Sent to World Cup quarterfinal, And was later punished with a worldwide transfer ban after going out on his contract at Turkish club Fenerbah.
To an extent, his luck and Maradona are also trapped. Ortega struggled with alcohol addiction – at one point Maradona himself would advise that his old friends needed “help” – who first derailed and then halted his career. It is dangerous for psychoanalysis from afar, but it is not difficult to wonder whether, perhaps, the torch he had passed that day in Salta was too hot for him, for anyone, to handle.
Argentina has not anointed a new Maradona for over a decade. The rest of the world has also moved forward. The quest to find an heir had become too quixotic to be taken seriously by the middle of the last decade. When the tag was put on Lionel Messi around 2005, it no longer looked great.
Messi did not do what either of his predecessors did: he managed to slack off comparisons, not only in building his career, in establishing his name, but in doing so vigorously. He neither accepted nor rejected equality with Maradona; They simply made them irrelevant.
Whether his greatness matches or not will be more easily determined than Maradona. For the similarities between them all – small, left-footed, Argentine – there are differences. Messi does not have Maradona’s penchant for self-destruction. Maradona never benefitted from the harsh professionalism of the game that Messi is known for.
Maybe we’ll find out over time. More than a decade passed between the moment in Salta, when Ortega stepped on the field and Maradona dumped him, and Messi was born. The discovery of Maradona’s heir had spread to every corner of the world, every country, every mountain range.
Perhaps, by then, we will know the scale of Messi’s greatness, until he finds his successor. There is already a Thai Messi and an Indonesian Messi and a Japanese Messi. There is a new Messi every year in Argentina. And it will be the same as it was with Maradona, until someone can be known by his name.