Last Wednesday, unexpectedly but also inevitably, one of Argentina’s best copywriters died in the solitude of his home, surrounded by doctors, nurses and psychiatrists.
He was only 60 years old, and his name was Diego Maradona.
He had a career as a futbol (the right way to say football) player until 1986, but one evening, after a minor incident during a World Cup match – he had allegedly scored a goal using his hand – he decided to start his creative copywriter phase.
Overwhelmed by the questions of the many reporters, especially the English ones, who insisted that he had cheated, Maradona quickly coined his first piece of brilliant copy: “It was God’s hand”, he said out of the blue.
The phrase, with its biblical connotations, fit perfectly within the brief. It wasn’t just another match, it was Argentina v England, only four years after the Malvinas War.
That sealed the incident – at least for us, his Argentinian fans. But that also started his brilliant second career, as brilliant as the one he had as a player.
From that moment on, Maradona would find within seconds the most amazing phrases inside his unstable but speed-of-light brain. The kind of catch phrases that the next day would be used by everyone, not just football fans.
Crying in front of the cameras, the night he learned he was out of the World Cup due to doping accusations: “They just cut my legs off.”
Talking about Juan Simon, a former colleague whom Maradona found especially sneaky: “Simon is capable of stealing the milk off his own cat’s plate.”
About his masterpiece, the second goal against England, scored the same afternoon of the hand’s one: “It was a nice goal, but don’t call it a wonder. Raquel Welch is a wonder. A goal is just a goal.”
About getting to the rival goal area without the ability or the energy to kick the ball: “It is like going to a party to end up dancing with your sister.”
When he was asked about his days spent in a sanitarium: “There was a guy there who believed he was Robinson Crusoe, but they still wouldn’t believe me when I told them I was Maradona.”
Perfectly describing his way too smart agent, Guillermo Coppola, when they were already estranged because of, let’s put it this way, financial differences: “Coppola is too fast. He can smoke underwater.”
To describe the lack of speed of a government bureaucrat: “He let the tortoise run away.”
As great copywriters do, he peaked under pressure, the moment when all eyes were on him, waiting, for once, for his words instead of his football skills. It was the evening of his farewell game, a melancholic show of bad football in his beloved Boca Juniors stadium. Surrounded by his friends, some football stars and the love of Boca fans, Diego took the podium after the match. He mumbled here and there, taken over by the emotion of the moment. His speech was a bit erratic until it found its pace and a clear direction. He then listed his failures, assuming them as his own responsibility. But no-one should blame the sport.
“I made my mistakes. But the ball doesn’t show dirt.”
La pelota no se mancha. The sound of this phrase in Spanish can’t be matched in English, and in that he also complied with the golden rule of writers, whose genius can’t be fully translated to a different language without losing its magic.
But where did his creative spark come from? Probably being born in Villa Fiorito, a neighbourhood as tough and poor as it gets, helped his mind to become fast and alert. In those places, having a quick mouth can save your ass as much as having a fast pair of legs.
But it’s not random that his writer’s career was officially born that afternoon, the one against England.
Great writers tell the stories of their own lives, disguised as universal ones.
What he showed on the field that day was the most Argentinian of displays. Against the country that had humiliated us in an unnecessary war, he first cheated, then he marveled the world, and finally found the words to wrap it all with a punchline.
Losing his words is an actual tragedy. We as a nation had lost the privilege of seeing him play many years ago, and certainly sooner than we should have.
But his death also means the loss of a verbal writing trick, a sounding phrase in the neighborhoods of Argentina, a sort of a street code.
The usage of his last name as a superlative or an adjective.
This is how it worked:
You’d do something outstanding, in any field of life. Immediately someone, usually yelling from a balcony, from a passing truck or from a newspaper’s stand, would immediately change your last name.
“Well done, Maradona!” they would say.
And then life would go back to normal.
That’s where Diego failed us as a writer, I have to say.
He should have found a phrase to prepare us for his absence.
What are we now going to call people when they do something amazing? Messi?
I don't think so.
Javier Campopiano is chief creative officer of Grey Europe and creative chairman of Grey London