“All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players.”

In all of the reflections written since the death of Diego Maradona, the metaphor contained in Jacques’ speech in Shakespeare’s comedy As You Like It has seemed particularly apt.

The duality of Maradona’s life has long been ruminated over by those who knew him best. His personal trainer

Fernando Signorini, who perhaps fits that category as well as anyone, identified him as two characters: “Diego”, the little boy lost, riddled with insecurities, and “Maradona”, the caricature who carried the burden of superstardom. In Asif Kapadia’s eponymous BAFTA-nominated film from 2019, vintage footage shows

Signorini saying he would happily go with Diego “to the end of the earth” but “with Maradona he wouldn’t take one step”. The riposte from his friend was straight to the point: “without Maradona I would still be in Villa Fiorito [the slum where he grew up]”.

George Best, whose death 15 years ago fell on the same date as Maradona’s, knew all too well the importance of the

caricature. Just as the

Argentine had, Best used it as a comedic device, a mask to ameliorate drinking bouts, his womanising and financial splurges. As such, his self-

perception was finely tuned, once noting famously “I was born with a great gift, and sometimes with that comes a destructive streak. Just as I wanted to outdo everyone

when I played, I had to outdo everyone when we were out on the town.”

In later years, he admitted his sense of mischief contained the seeds of his own downfall saying that his decision to wear a sombrero and leather coat when he returned to England following his seminal performance against Benfica in the 1966 European Cup quarter-final was for the press. “I thought I was taking advantage of them,” he would note. On the contrary, he was marking himself out. The fifth Beatle was born.

As icons of popular culture, no other footballers have come close to having the global impact of Best and Maradona. The explanation for this is simple: they were the two who spoke most to the purest ideas of what football meant but

the magnetism of their personalities made it something

transcendental and emotional. For anyone who witnessed Maradona, even from a

distance, it has been

impossible to avoid a sense of grief. If he moved you – and he did me – then you will have found yourself shedding more than a few tears this week.

Maradona has been

compared to a rockstar but his death has confirmed – as in life – that he was a quasi-religious figure. An Argentine friend told me this week that it is “as if a person has died in every single household in the country at once”. Meanwhile, his near-Biblical significance on the streets of Naples has long been illustrated by the murals that celebrate him all over the city. Napoli anointed his status when they announced hours after his death that their San Paolo stadium would henceforth bear his name. A deity replacing a saint.

Reflecting on Best’s death reminds us of his street-lined

funeral procession on its journey to Stormont Castle. There was the same feeling of national loss, a unifying dimension in a community still trying to come to terms with its new-found and delicate peace. He was apolitical; mourned by both sides in Belfast. Best, though, was no spiritual figure. His was similar to the death of a hedonistic pop star.

Nevertheless, it feels like one of God’s greatest tricks has been to rob us of Maradona on the same date that Best died. There is a symmetry that binds them together more than the superficial observation that both were addicts, that they were geniuses with ball at feet or that they transcended religious boundaries.

There was nothing God-

given about either man’s talent, though. Maradona did keepie-uppies with scrunched up newspapers, an orange, a ball made of rags. Best took a tennis ball with him every day to school. Their devotion to taming the ball is what connects them. Their addictive personality could be a source for good just as much as they could be for destruction and for that they both knew what it was to carry the weight of expectation.

Maradona admitted on hearing of Best’s death in 2005 that he had been influenced by him.

“George inspired me when I was young,” he said. “He was flamboyant and exciting and able to inspire his team-mates. I actually think we are very similar players – dribbles who were able to create moments of magic. And I can also relate to what George has been through because of addiction to alcohol. I was also very sick and close to death in December last year – but I pulled out of it by a miracle.”

The seeds of their downfall were sewn from a young age. By the age of 11, Maradona was attracting the attention of the national media. Four years later he made his professional debut for Argentinos Juniors, 10 days short of his 16th birthday. At 17, Best was making his debut for Manchester United, by 19 he had appeared on Top of the Pops. Like Maradona, he found himself in-demand with advertisers and businesses desperate to take advantage of his huge popularity among women – at the height of his fame he claimed to have received 10,000 letters a week from fans – “it freaked me out,” he would say years later. Exposure to “life” at an early age gave both the quality of appearing older than their years.

Belfast’s Cregagh Estate, with its high-rise flats and back-to-back red-brick mid-terraces where Best grew up, could not easily be mistaken for the benighted Villa Fiorita where Maradona was raised. The infant Diego almost drowned when he fell into a sewer at his family home – a ramshackle construction of loose bricks and corrugated iron – before being rescued by his uncle; Best suffered no such indignity. Life was tough in a working-class estate as one of six children but this was not the bullet- and bomb-

riddled Belfast it would later become. The privations

suffered by Maradona were

not as evident in a post-war Northern Ireland, even one dictated to by the ration book.

No two stories are the same but there can be striking


The footage of Best retaining his balance in a League Cup semi-final against Chelsea under a potential leg-breaking challenge by Ron Harris is reminiscent of a thoroughbred clipping a fence at Cheltenham.

Best’s body contorts and threatens to give way, but he corrects himself enough to maintain serene progress towards Peter Bonetti’s goal before sidestepping the

Chelsea goalkeeper and rolling the ball into an empty net: an iron fist inside a velvet glove. It was the same unstoppable energy possessed by Maradona and not just made famous by his second goal against

England – he did it regularly.

It was why both players

became the target for on-pitch assassins and why they reacted in the manner that they did on the pitch. Best was no angel on it either. He punched a Benfica player who spat on him, got into physical fights

as a result of his commercial activities promoting Cookstown sausages and was accused by a number of partners of striking them. Maradona shot an air rifle at journalists, was an associate of the Neapolitan mafia, shunned former lovers and even his own children.

Yet their misdemeanours did not prevent a multitude from mourning their deaths. What is it that causes us to grieve those we do not know? And some people rather than others?

With Best I was mourning my father who had died six years earlier. They had both been in the same class at

Nettlefield Primary School in East Belfast, nine months separated them in age and they had that same dark hair and swarthy complexion.

But with Maradona I am mourning a loss of innocence and a part of myself; the carefree child of 30 years ago, who sat mesmerised by his performances at the Mexico World Cup, whom I barely remember.

As boys who struggled to grow up, their imperfections chime with anyone who

witnessed them. They resonate with the contradictions that run through all of us, though we are not measured on a daily basis or judged on our every move.

As Jorge Valdano wrote earlier this week in tribute to his great friend and former Argentina team-mate:

Maradona found it “impossible to live with the responsibility of being a God on the field” and the “terrible, terminal journey from human to myth divided him in two”.

He might just as easily have written the same about Best.