“...Ahi la tiene Maradona. Le marcan dos. Pisa la pelota Maradona. Arranca por el derecho el genio del fútbol mundial. Puede tocar para...Burruchaga...siempre Maradona...Genio! Genio! Genio! Tá! Tá! Tá! GOOOOOOOOL!!! GOOOOOOOOL! Quiero llorar! Dios Santo, viva el futbol!”
It’s been watched billions of times: the Goal [of the century]. But every time I view Diego Maradona’s second goal from the 1986 World Cup semi-final match against England, a match charged with political undertones and animosity, I feel that I am watching God himself baffle the entire Three Lions defense. In that moment, Maradona was a transcendent being, playing to his own tune and running at England’s defenders as if they did not exist. In fact, Maradona frequently scored mind-boggling goals, but this one truly set the bar in both sheer aesthetic quality and importance.
With a penchant for the spectacular on and off the pitch, Diego had a career marked by controversy as fame corrupted the Argentine. He once remarked, “If I had never used cocaine, I would have been twice the player I already was.” Drug use, excessive partying, bizarre, stirring public statements, and a tendency toward violent behavior destroyed what could have been an even more spectacular and lengthy playing career. It was precisely this pathos of self-destructive behavior that marked a capitulation to the dark side of Diego’s driving force, La Bronca. Athletes are all driven by distinct forces, but what exactly is La Bronca? Why was it such a potent motivational force for Maradona? Do other professionals posses a comparable level of this Bronca? And how can the concept of La Bronca be applied outside of sport?
A young Maradona experienced untold hardships during a difficult upbringing in Villa Fiorito, a southern shantytown barrio of outer Buenos Aires. In his autobiography Yo Soy El Diego, Maradona discusses at length his childhood and the development of La Bronca. Literally translated from Spanish, bronca means anger. As Diego describes it, however, it more closely resembles a mixture of fury and defiance. One can imagine, to use a visual metaphor, the unrestrained fury of a bronco in defiance of its captors.
Without understanding Bronca, one sees in footage of Diego a furious desire and impassioned eagerness to defy-his opponents, the media, his coaches, and anyone who doubted him, slandered his name, or in his mind, wanted to hold him back. It may have been his squat, muscular frame and natural ability that made him stand out, but it was his eternal desire to get back at a cruel world that forced him into such early hardships that catapulted him to the summit of world football. For Maradona, la Bronca was more than a defiant style on the pitch; it was an attitude and a way of life. Perhaps that is why he was so exceptional, yet so prone to the self-destructive behavior that effectively ended his career.
In an era marked by hard fouls, looser officiating, and increasing media scrutiny on player’s private lives, Diego stood out because of his refusal to submit. Often, the only way to defend against the best attacking footballers is to foul them out of a match. As the world’s best player, Maradona was constantly subject to hard fouls aimed at tacking him out of the game, but seemed to always shrug off violent tackles when it suited him. While others would lose the ball or fall to the ground, Diego kept on running defiantly with the ball at his feet with just one thing on his mind, winning.
Of course, Diego was not exactly an angelic bull on the pitch. In the Criollo (Creole) style of football that he perfected, feigning challenges, using one’s hand, and doing what is necessary to win does not constitute an infraction of the game. The famous Mano de Dios (Hand of God) goal that he scored in that same World Cup semi-final match against England testifies to the darker side of La Bronca.
His refusal to submit often manifested itself in detrimental ways. It was his stint at Napoli where Maradona developed his drug habits. The Italian media reported that the player would engage in bacchanalian revelry the night before a match or training session as if to show that he was unaffected by such vices.
La Bronca is a potent driving force. Countless athletes utilize their anger as motivational tools, but few have done so as effectively as Maradona. From personal experience I understand the potency of anger when applied to athletics. In the heat of competition, fatigue, mistakes, and fouls feel irrelevant. Certainly, many professional athletes display an inner fury, but it is the consistency and longevity in channeling such anger that made Diego so remarkable. In spite of amassing a fortune as a player, Diego maintained a world-class presence on the pitch for at least a decade and was always motivated to defy expectations of him. Even his recent managerial stint with the Argentine National team was characterized by a distinctly Maradona-esque defiance. After the squad just barely qualified for the 2010 World Cup, he expletively told factions of the Argentine press “que la chupen, y que la sigan chupando (“They can s*!k it, and keep on s*!king it”)” and was subsequently fined. Clearly, La Bronca never truly left.
Since Diego’s retirement in 1997, the world has yet to witness as compelling a wielder of La Bronca. Every so often a young Argentine footballer comes along who the Argentine media inevitably mislabel “the new Maradona.” Such ridiculous comparisons are analogous to the post-Michael Jordan years of the NBA during which new stars were compared to the legendary # 23. These comparisons also add an unnecessary load of pressure for young athletes. In France, for example, up and coming attacking midfielders must frequently deal with the expectations inherent to the “New Zidane” label.
Several have come close to mimicking Maradona’s playing style or attitude, but none have yet replicated his success. There is even a Wikipedia article devoted to the topic of “New Maradona” a list that includes: Diego Latorre, Ariel Ortega, Marcelo Gallardo, Riquelme, Pablo Aimar, Ezequiel Lavezzi, Lionel Messi, Sergio Aguero, and Carlos Tevez. Only one of those nine players deserves any serious consideration.
A recent New York Times article discussed the boyish joy and unique talent of Lionel Messi. While he may have eclipsed Maradona in production and aesthetically spectacular goal scoring, he does not play with Bronca. Carlos “El Apache” Tevez is most similar in his playing style and aggressive nature to the legendary number 10. One sees many similarities between “Carlitos” and Diego-a difficult upbringing in one of Buenos Aires' most dangerous neighborhoods, Boca Juniors roots, a short, squat, and muscular frame, impressive technique, and most tellingly, a relentless aggression. Tevez plays with a frenetic aggression, the likes of which have not been seen since Maradona. It may not be Diego’s Bronca, but with every thumping goal, explosive dribble, and lung bursting defensive effort, Tevez comes close to matching his former manager’s passion for the game.
It is often difficult to draw comparisons between football and other sports. Football, in its simplicity and omnipresence, is a sport of the impoverished. Not only is it played everywhere, from dirt fields, to jagged concrete surfaces, to trash dumps, but countless all time greats came from humble beginnings and were educated on the street. This may also be the case with other sports, but unlike basketball, hockey, baseball, track and field, and tennis, a graduated, organized education is not necessary in football. The world’s best footballers are often “street ballers” who wow audiences with audacious skills learned from informal practice. Nevertheless, many non-footballing professionals have mirrored Diego’s Bronca in their intractable aggression. A young, Mike Tyson, for example, brings to mind a similar furious determination. Hall of Fame American Football player Lawrence Taylor is another athlete who played with unchecked aggression. Former NBA all-star Shawn Kemp also dominated games with an almost violent tenacity and thunderous dunking power.
Outside of athletics anger motivates action and change. Many of history’s most influential social justice movements and political organizations were influenced by outrage, anger, and a refusal to accept the status quo. Anger is both an incredible motivator and a potent destructive force. For every non-violent political movement, there exist an equal number of violent causes. I would even venture to say that anger is the most potent driving force that exists. Whence does the motivation to overcome adversity and demand a better existence come from if not a channeled anger? To succeed, though, one must harness that anger into a positive and focused output much like Diego did.