When John Rattagan was 11, his father took him to a kids’ show in Buenos Aires. In the interval a boy, about 15 years old and dressed in a red football kit came on to the stage, ready to show what he could do with a ball. Spellbound, Rattagan witnessed the magic of the Golden Kid for the first time in his life.
“Of course I didn’t realise until years later that he was Diego Maradona,” says Rattagan, the owner and chef at Buen Ayre, an Argentinian restaurant in Hackney’s Broadway Market. It wasn’t the last time Rattagan saw first-hand the skill of arguably the most gifted footballer ever to play the beautiful game. In 1978 he was in the crowd for a 15-minute cameo from Maradona during the second half of Argentina v Republic of Ireland, but it was during a guest speech at the Oxford Union in 1995 when he was floored again. The footballer was tossed a golf ball by a student in the gallery, and challenged to show his skills.
“Imagine, he was wearing a suit, a gown and shoes, and he threw the ball in the air and started doing keepy-uppies with it and all these tricks,” says Rattagan, the warmth of the memory in his voice. “The whole room went wild. It was an incredible moment.”
When the painful news broke on Wednesday night that Maradona had died at the age of 60, Rattagan was in a meeting. Interrupted by the relentless ‘ding, ding, ding’ of phone notifications, he read the news in disbelief. “We just sat there stunned,” he says. “He’s been in hospital so many times, but he always walked out again. Nobody really thought it was going to happen.”
Roberto Jellinek, who owns the Casa Argentina restaurant in Wimbledon, remembers watching Maradona play in the World Youth Championship in 1979: “He was absolutely amazing – the way he dribbled, the tricks, the passes.” But his sharpest recollections are of “a few incidents” during the 1986 World Cup quarter-final against England – which not only produced the goal of the century, but Maradona’s infamous “hand of god” moment where he punched the ball into the net to put his country in the lead.
“There was much more in play in those days because of that silly conflict we had,” he says of guerra de Malvinas, the Falklands war. “It was a very highly charged event. It was a win but it was also a win against England, historic football heroes for the Argentines.” He celebrated and chanted with thousands on the streets of Buenos Aires on that day, gathering at the city’s landmark obelisk on the 9 de Julio avenue.
Maradona wasn’t just a footballer, explains Rattagan. He brought Argentinians joy and pride during hard years under a ruthless military dictatorship and dire economic circumstances. “In the middle of all that, Maradona was our main source of enjoyment,” he says. A man of the people, who never forgot his humble beginnings, his countrymen and women felt a deep love for him that transcended sport, he adds. “No one else came close to him. He’ll live forever.”
Every single Argentinian looks up to Maradona, says Chiara Caretta, 18, who works in Jellinek’s restaurant. Her home team is Boca Juniors and her grandmother was good friends with the footballer’s mother. She is too young to have seen him play – but that hardly matters, she explains.
“You grow up knowing he is a God,” she says. “He united Argentina. For so many people regardless of status, of everything they had lost, even with all the political changes – he was that one constant. He transformed Argentina. He put us on the map.”
Jellinek hopes posterity will remember the flawed hero as one of the greats, rather than dwelling on his darker days and addictions. It must have been hard living in his skin, Rattagan adds – a man constantly hassled and talked about, on and off the field, carrying the weight of a nation on his shoulders.
On Thursday morning, the chef was tired. He’d stayed up late watching the news from Argentina; when he eventually went to bed, he and his wife lay there “crying like two babies”.
“The only thing missing for his place in the pantheon was to die young. This way it goes full circle,” Rattagan says. He compares it to JFK’s assassination in 1963, adding that people are already asking: “Where were you when you heard about Diego’s death?”
Asked what Maradona means to him, Rattagan laughs and takes a couple of deep breaths. His voice is soft and he’s smiling. Answering that is both impossible and easy at the same time. How to begin to encapsulate both the joy and the heartbreak, in equal measures? “Home,” he says. “Maradona is home.”