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'The whole community is in shock...but Maradona will live forever'

Fabian Costello is a former Argentine footballer now living in Cork, and he talks to The42 about the sad death and enduring legacy of Diego Maradona.

A tribute to the late Diego Maradona.
A tribute to the late Diego Maradona.
Image: Alessandra Tarantino

FABIAN COSTELLO, PRESUMABLY the only Argentine footballer with a Copa Libertadores medal currently living in Cork, saw the full stop of an impossible era appear in a WhatsApp message from his son. 

Diego is Dead. 

He immediately jumped into a group chat of old team-mates from Newell’s Old Boys – Roberto Sensini, Abel Balbo, Ricardo Lunari among them – and saw it streaming with messages.

It initially clogged with shocked messages wondering whether it were possibly true, which then made way for a deluge of prayers, memories, and photographs of El Diego. 

“The whole community are in shock about the bad news. It’s impossible to imagine. Some people say it’s like a bad movie”, Fabian tells The42

“He got through a big surgery, he came back home and next day, he passes away. Unreal. It is still unreal.”

Fabian was among the crowd the day Diego first came to Rosario in 1975, part of an Argentinos Juniors side to face Newell’s Old Boys. He wasn’t the only home fan in the crowd swayed by their first glimpse of Maradona. 

“Everyone was a fan of Newells Old Boys, but really, we were there to see Maradona. It was unbelievable.” 

Fabian was born in Rosario, in a part of the city which would soon become famous as the birthplace of Lionel Messi. He too became a professional footballer, albeit different in stature to Maradona; a tall and muscular central striker. His stature made it impossible to mimic Maradona. Then again, who could? 

“Everybody wants to be like Maradona, wants to do the skills he did on the pitch. But you never could be like him. When you were a young lad you tried to do as Maradona did, but it was impossible.” 

Though Diego’s skills and talents could not be replicated, he at least gave those born into poverty something to try and emulate. “You cannot imagine where Maradona was born”, says Fabian. “It is a poor place. Some people love Maradona as he was so simple with his dreams, and he could get them. Everyone can dream but not everyone can reach them. 

“He represented these people, and represented the lower class people. He could show the possibilities to these people: if I can do it, you can do it too.” 

The highlight of Fabian’s career came in 1987, winning the Copa Libertadores – South America’s version of the Champions League – with Penarol of Montevideo, coached by the current Uruguay manager Oscar Tabarez. 

It came a year after the apotheosis of Diego: the 1986 World Cup win, and that second goal against England. 

“It was a perfect goal. Everyone was expecting Maradona would score, but not as great a goal as he scored. You can’t find the words to describe the goal he scored. Impossible. That is the right word. The impossible goal. And he scored it.”

soccer-world-cup-1986-argentina-vs-england-21 Maradona beats Terry Fenwick and Kenny Sansom en route to his iconic goal against England. Source: DPA/PA Images

In 1993, Maradona left European football and returned to Argentina to play with Newell’s Old Boys. It was a weekday afternoon, but 5,000 people – Fabian among them – turned up at the stadium to catch a glimpse of Maradona. 

Maradona was mobbed, just as he was everywhere he went. Fabian hung back with a footballer’s mindset, aware of the pressure of publicity. Thus went his only chance to personally meet Diego Maradona, but he doesn’t regret it. 

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“Because I was a player I understood this man should be left alone. Everyone was in Maradona’s door. He was like an idol. Everyone goes up to him. You think, ‘Stop.’

“They should be allowed to relax. I preferred to leave and watch on TV.” 

In retirement, Fabian wonders whether Argentina became too aloof to Maradona, saying he and his countrymen “didn’t take care of him as much as we had to”, and that he should have been involved with the Argentine FA much earlier. “It’s sad. He was a hero for many people, but we didn’t take care of him.”

Fabian has lived in Cork for the last 18 months, moving to Ireland to return to the country of his ancestors, who initially came from Leitrim. His sons live in Dublin now, while he and his wife have fallen in love with Cork. 

He spent the hours after Maradona’s death watching news channels from Rosario, where thousands of fans flocked to the stadium to lay flowers and light candles beneath a mural of Maradona. These scenes raise memories of home, says Fabian, but he is happy in Ireland. “I have split my soul between Argentina and Ireland.” 

soccer-lionel-messi-feature The mural of Diego Maradona at the Newell's Old Boys stadium in Rosario. Source: DPA/PA Images

Argentina has announced three days’ mourning, and many of those paying tribute to Maradona on television have broken down in tears. 

Things will never quite be the same again. 

“Maradona is a point of inflection, it’s like an age. There is Before Maradona and After Maradona. It’s like in Europe, there will be a Before Messi and After Messi. This would not be as big a sport across the world without Maradona. 

“Sometimes I sit down and watch Messi and say, ‘This is a PayStation game.’ Maradona was like that.” 

Fabian is in a position to talk to old team-mates of Maradona and says these conversations have revealed a different side to him, one often not seen in the media. 

“Everyone talks about him as a kind person, a good man and a brilliant friend. You often only see the bad news about him. Maradona was a big man, a great friend, and the business likes to show the bad face. 

“Maradona would give presents to everyone, the value you can’t imagine. €10,000, a watch, a car, and only to people who need it. He was a brilliantly kind person.” 

Fabian Costello will grieve the loss of his country’s most iconic footballer from a distance, but such is the size of Diego Maradona’s legacy, he will hardly find himself alone. 

“I have a friend in Dublin and he is crying today, he loves Maradona. Another colleague of mine at work has a tattoo of Maradona. Irish people love him. It’s unreal. 

“But Maradona will be on walls and streets across Argentina and Napoli, forever. Maradona will live forever.”

About the author:

Gavin Cooney

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