Football genius whose flaws made him a hero

Great divide: Maradona, Ulysses and Amy Winehouse versus Obama, Henman and Florence Nightingale.

Are virtuous heroes boring? As the world mourns footballing legend Diego Maradona, some commentators argue it was not his sporting achievements that made him an icon – but his personal failings.

He was a drug addict and an alcoholic. He was taken to court after he refused to recognise his own children. He was banned from the sport he loved after a doping scandal. He only narrowly avoided jail after he shot at journalists with an air rifle.

But as news of his death spread around the world this week, Diego Maradona was hailed not only as a hero, but as one of the greatest sporting geniuses who ever lived.

Perhaps best known in the UK for his infamous “Hand of God” goal during the 1986 World Cup, Maradona was undoubtedly a giant of 20th-century football.

The Argentinian scored 259 goals in just 491 matches and broke the world transfer record twice, joining Barcelona for £3m in 1982 and Italian club Napoli for £5m two years later.

For all his flaws, he was loved by fans: when he arrived at Napoli’s stadium by helicopter, more than 80,000 people came out to greet him.

“One day, I hope we can play football together in the sky. I lost a great friend and the world lost a legend,” mourned Pelé on Wednesday.

For centuries, cultural historians have noted that some of our greatest heroes have also been riddled with personal failings and individual flaws.

Homer’s legendary poem The Odyssey tells the story of a courageous ancient Greek king who led his men on an epic journey home from battle with intelligence, ambition and physical strength.

But Odysseus was a flawed hero: he angered the gods with his hubris by declaring that he alone was responsible for his victory in the Trojan War, conveniently forgetting the sea serpent sent by Poseidon to kill his enemy.

Mother Teresa is remembered as a devoted servant to the world’s poorest people. Yet at the medical centre she ran in India, conditions were wretched: volunteers reused needles, gave patients expired medicine and mortality rates were as high as 40%.

And Amy Winehouse, the talented British singer, was plagued by personal demons: she was charged with assault after a fight, appeared drunk on stage and, like Maradona, was addicted to drugs.

If you look closely, even many seemingly unquestionable global heroes have flaws. Winston Churchill, named the “greatest Briton ever” in a 2002 poll, is criticised for recommending the use of poison gas against “uncivilised tribes”. And Princess Diana spoke candidly about her struggles with self-doubt and eating disorders.

Indeed, one thing is clear: flaws are not always fatal to a celebrity’s image. And for some global figures, not having a flaw might be more of a hindrance than a help when it comes to attaining hero status.

In 2009, a year after Barack Obama’s US election victory, one American journalist wondered if the new president was just “too perfect”.

“He does not lose his temper. He does not curse. He does not sneak a smoke. He does not dress sloppily,” wrote Richard Cohen.

“Voters are suspicious of perfect,” said one media strategist at the time. “They actually prefer someone who is human. And has flaws. Like them.”

So, are virtuous heroes boring?

Lacklustre legends

Definitely, say some. From Mother Teresa’s hypocrisy to Diego Maradona’s public battle with drugs, it is a person’s flaws that make them interesting, not a list of their achievements. And the public have spoken – Tim Henman, whose biggest weakness amounts to the occasional cigarette, may be a British tennis star but he was declared “even more boring” than Andy Murray in a 2018 poll.

Of course not, say others. Diego Maradona is hailed as a hero despite his flaws, not because of them. It is hard to imagine anything more virtuous than “the Lady with the Lamp” visiting wounded soldiers at night – but nurse Florence Nightingale became a Victorian icon. And history will not forget the “perfect” Obama – in fact, his new memoir sold a record 1.7 million copies in its first week.

You Decide

  1. Can somebody be too perfect?
  2. Would the world be a better place if politicians were more boring?

Activities

  1. Make a list of five people who you think are heroes. Do you think any of them are boring? Write half a side explaining your thoughts.
  2. In a group, come up with your own definition of a “hero”. Then decide together what qualities make someone a hero.

Some People Say...

“It is better to be absolutely ridiculous than absolutely boring.”

Marilyn Monroe (1926 - 1962), American actress

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
It is generally agreed that one of the most fascinating moments of Diego Maradona’s football career is also one of the most controversial moments of football history. In the 1986 World cup match, Maradona used his hand to punch the ball over the head of English footballer Peter Shilton into the net, unseen by the referee. He said the goal was thanks to “a little with the head of Maradona and a little with the hand of God”. Shilton has never forgiven Maradona for the goal, repeating this week that the Argentinian knew he was “cheating.”
What do we not know?
One main area of debate surrounds whether or not being boring might actually be a good thing. The debate between vice-presidential candidates Mike Pence and Kamala Harris during the US election campaign in October was so boring that most of the coverage focused on a fly that landed on Pence’s head. Yet after the fire and fury of the Trump/Biden debate, many commentators were thankful: one New York Times headline on the debate read “never has something so boring been so appreciated”.

Word Watch

Pelé
A Brazilian footballer who is widely regarded as one of the most successful sports figures of all time. Pele and Maradona share the official FIFA title of top football player of the 20th Century.
Odysseus
The Greek hero and king of Ithaca was one of the men who hid inside the Trojan Horse to gain entry to the city of Troy and win the Trojan War. He is also known by the Latin name Ulysses.
Hubris
Excessive confidence or arrogance. Odysseus also displays excessive curiosity when he listens to the dangerous sirens and recklessness when he dismisses advice not to take cattle onto the island of Helios.
Poseidon
The Greek god of the sea, earthquakes, storms and horses. He is known as one of the most bad-tempered Olympian gods, and for being vengeful when insulted.
Mother Teresa
The Roman Catholic nun, who died in 1997, was declared a saint by Pope Francis in 2016.
Winston Churchill
As Prime Minister, Churchill led the UK to victory over the Nazis during World War Two. However, today he is criticised for strategic mistakes and some even accuse him of racism.
Hypocrisy
Mother Teresa shocked many when she said that “there is something beautiful in seeing the poor suffer”. Conditions at her medical centres were terrible, but when she became ill she received care at a modern hospital in America.
Florence Nightingale
Nightingale, an English social reformer, is hailed as the founder of modern nursing. She became known as “The Lady with the Lamp” by soldiers she nursed at night during the Crimean War.

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