It was nothing extra, actually, than a ruffle of the hair and a kiss on the cheek. There was no pomp or circumstance that day in 1994, no phrases of knowledge whispered within the ear or sweeping gesture made for the gang. Diego Maradona left the sphere, and Ariel Ortega changed him on it. However that was all it took. The torch, it was determined, had been handed.
Ortega was not the primary participant to be labeled the brand new Maradona. That honor, in keeping with frequent consensus, fell to the previous Boca Juniors ahead Diego Latorre, and he definitely wouldn’t be the final. For a few many years, not less than, a brand new pretender got here to Maradona’s throne seemingly yearly.
There can be brief Maradonas and tall Maradonas, slender ones and squat ones, fast ones and sluggish ones. Generally the parallels had been apparent: Pablo Aimar and Juan Román Riquelme and Andrés D’Alessandro performed in the identical place as him, in the identical means as him, on the identical group or bearing the identical jersey quantity as him.
And typically they weren’t. There have been new Maradonas who turned out to be jet-heeled wingers or elegant, deep-lying midfielders or languid target-men or elfin goal-poachers.
Typically, Maradona himself would anoint his successor, although his favor was unsure, shifting. For some time, it was Javier Saviola, although it pained Maradona to say it, “as a result of he performs for River Plate,” the nice rival of Maradona’s beloved Boca Juniors. A number of years later, Maradona decreed that D’Alessandro was the “solely participant who amuses me.” He solid Carlos Tevez as “an Argentine prophet for the twenty first century.”
Principally, the brand new Maradonas had been Argentines, although under no circumstances completely. There have been Maradonas everywhere in the world, on each continent, in each mountain vary. There was a Maradona of the Carpathians (Gheorghe Hagi), a Maradona of the Caucasus (Georgi Kinkladze), a Maradona of the Alps (Andi Herzog) and a Maradona of the Andes (Roberto Merino).
Some got a complete nation: Krishanu Dey was the Indian Maradona, Ali Karimi the Iranian model. Others needed to share their territory. There have been, in keeping with some lists, not less than 4 Maradonas of the Balkans.
Some got a way more exact geographical location. Fabrizio Miccoli was the Maradona of the Salento, the realm within the south of Italy from which he hailed. Turkey’s Emre Belozoglu was the Maradona of the Bosporus. At one level, there was even a Maradona of Basingstoke, an unremarkable commuter city southwest of London, although that one, not less than, was a understanding joke.
Some gamers leaned in to the comparability: Miccoli, a gifted however mercurial ahead with Juventus, Fiorentina and Palermo, purchased a pair of Maradona’s earrings at public sale and would later purchase a tattoo of Che Guevara’s face, similar to the one on his idol’s shoulder. Tevez acknowledged that he had primarily based his type of play on his idol; they’d go on to turn out to be shut mates.
Others discovered the strain implicit within the comparability suffocating. When Saviola signed with Barcelona in 2001, twenty years after Maradona had achieved so, he was requested what he product of the parallels. “As I by no means tire of claiming, there won’t be one other participant like Maradona,” Saviola stated. He was 19, and he already felt like he was repeating himself.
There have been some who got here near residing as much as the title, in the identical means as boarding a industrial flight is shut, in some respects, to going to the moon. Aimar, Riquelme and Tevez loved lengthy and profitable careers during which they performed in World Cups, lifted league title trophies and outlined their very own legacies reasonably than being condemned to the coda of one other participant’s.
Hagi carried Romania to a World Cup quarterfinal and stays a logo of his nation’s soccer tradition in the identical means Maradona, greater than anybody, represents Argentina’s. Dejan Savicevic, one in every of Maradona’s many Balkan apostles, grew to become one of many best gamers in Europe, an inspirational a part of the nice A.C. Milan groups of the early Nineteen Nineties.
Others by no means did fairly sufficient to flee Maradona’s shadow, Ortega prime amongst them. Maybe that was unavoidable: no person, not even Riquelme and Tevez — the 2 gamers tasked, willingly or not, with residing as much as Maradona’s title at Boca Juniors — felt the white warmth of expectation fairly a lot because the boy who took the sphere to interchange him that day in Salta in 1994.
That recreation — a 2-1 win towards Morocco — had been a warm-up for the World Cup set to start out just a few months later. At Argentina’s base that summer season in Wellesley, Mass., Ortega shared a room with Maradona, the group captain. When Maradona was thrown out of the event after testing optimistic for ephedrine, Ortega can be tasked with changing him for Argentina’s remaining video games.
It made sense. Each had been stronger than their stature would recommend. Each had a low middle of gravity, nearly flawless method and a burst of acceleration that carried them previous opponents. They even shared a passing bodily resemblance, proper right down to the shock of raven-black hair.
Their similarities didn’t finish there. Ortega had a flash of his mentor’s mood; one of many issues Maradona most admired about him was his defiant, self-possessed, renegade streak. Ortega was despatched off in a World Cup quarterfinal, and later punished with a worldwide switch ban after strolling out on his contract on the Turkish membership Fenerbahce.
To an extent, too, his destiny and Maradona’s had been entwined. Ortega struggled with an alcohol dependancy — Maradona himself would, at one level, advise that his previous good friend “wanted assist” — that first derailed after which curtailed his profession. It’s harmful to psychoanalyze from a distance, however it’s exhausting to not surprise if, maybe, the torch he was handed that day in Salta was too sizzling for him, for anybody, to deal with.
Argentina has not anointed a brand new Maradona for greater than a decade now. The remainder of the world has moved on, too. The hunt to seek out an inheritor had grown too quixotic to be taken critically by the center of the final decade. When the tag was bestowed on Lionel Messi someday round 2005, it now not felt fairly so onerous.
Messi did what none of his predecessors ever may: He managed not solely to construct his personal profession, to determine his personal title, however to take action emphatically sufficient to boring the urge to check. He neither embraced nor rejected the parallels with Maradona; he merely rendered them irrelevant.
Whether or not his greatness matches or exceeds Maradona’s won’t ever be simply quantified. For all of the similarities between them — small, left-footed, Argentine — the variations are stark. Messi doesn’t possess Maradona’s penchant for self-destruction. Maradona by no means benefited from the rigorous professionalism of the sport Messi has identified.
Maybe we are going to discover out solely with time. Greater than a decade elapsed between that second in Salta, when Ortega stepped onto the sphere and Maradona walked off it, and the emergence of Messi. The seek for Maradona’s inheritor had spanned each nook of the globe, each nation, each mountain vary.
Maybe, then, we are going to know the size of Messi’s greatness by the point it takes to seek out his successor. There may be already a Thai Messi and an Indonesian Messi and a Japanese Messi. There’s a new Messi yearly in Argentina. And there might be, simply as there was with Maradona, till somebody who could be identified by their very own title comes alongside.