The Night Maradona Came to Tijuana and I Looked into The Eyes of God
January 10, 2022
Nate Abaurrea wrote “The Night Maradona came to Tijuana and I Looked into the Eyes of God,” for the Winter 2018/19 issue of Howler magazine. It’s an emotional tribute to a hero and a remarkable slice of the soccer life that fits a fleeting encounter with Maradona at a post-match press scrum on a rainy Tijuana evening into a lifetime of football obsession. “God looked me dead in the eye and grabbed my left forearm with his left hand, La Mano de Dios. He muttered something to the effect of ‘de nada’ and squeezed, partly in kindness, partly in an effort to get better leverage in his ascent of the small staircase.” RIP.
It was just after eight on a Friday evening of ferocious thunder storms in the heart of Baja California.
Nestled in the Mictlan, the home of the Xolos—the Aztec Canines of Club Tijuana—I looked deep into the darkness of desert skies to the east. A bolt of lightning lit up the blank canvas as if it was thrown by Zeus himself. The bolt was bright gold and somehow held its form as its flight defied direction, a jagged stick moving all the way across the landscape toward Mexicali, stealing the show as it turned back toward San Diego County, maintaining its illumination as showers of immense proportion poured from the heavens.
“Gracias Dios. Por el fútbol. Por Maradona. Por estas lagrimas.”
This surreal display was quite fitting for the arrival of World Football’s God. Diego Armando Maradona, at age 57, came to Tijuana as the manager of Los Dorados de Sinaloa, a 2nd division Mexican club, to take on Xolos in a friendly during the international break.
The match was very much a product of the magical freedom of Mexican football. This is a man in Maradona, after all, who just four months before this night in Tijuana was seen by millions worldwide being hauled away by medics in a tequila- and passion-induced, mild cardiac-arrest stupor after flipping the most epic double-bird to fans of Nigeria (and anyone who had a problem with his presence) following Marcos Rojo’s late winner for Argentina in their World Cup group-stage finale.
His overall mentality in Russia had international minds pondering how many more brushes with death Diego could possibly have left before the inevitable became reality.We thought that time had come in 2004, when for eleven days we all hung on the window ledge of a Buenos Aires intensive care unit, following one of the worst cocaine overdoses of his life (there’s no official count, but there was definitely one prior in the year 2000, and allegedly more, with Maradona’s documented cocaine abuse said to have lasted from around 1983 in Barcelona until the above incident in his native land).
We thought we’d lost him, surely. He somehow lived on, the way our God always did.
Throughout my childhood, Diego Armando Maradona was the lead character in priceless history lessons, a Catechism of World Football.
I dreamt of time travel to every scripture setting of his career, and listened with ample jealousy to first-hand accounts of elders who saw him play in person. I always wished, more than any football fantasy, that I could go back in time and get my chance to cheer for Diego.
In April of 2004, my wish was granted in one of the grimmest ways imaginable—no time-travel or day-dreaming necessary. For those eleven days that Maradona spent in intensive care, reality held firm as I fired up the dial-up Internet every few hours to check on his condition. Some days the reports were good. Other days his condition would regress. Every day there would be conflicting reports from different media outlets.
I watched news videos of fans, draped in Argentine flags and shirts of La Albiceleste, singing in full throat, and often full cry, in the hundreds and even thousands outside the medical center.
It all felt like a game—a most important game. It had all the sights, sounds and emotions of a game, a proper Latin American contest, only this was a literal encounter between life and death.
I felt weirdly fulfilled. I finally got to cheer for Diego, and this match had a heightened excitement and nervousness attached, complexities that outdid even the greatest of Maradona displays.
From over six thousand miles away, in Watsonville, California, I felt connected to the streets of Buenos Aires, to the people of Argentina. I felt connected to the greatest win of Maradona’s life.
His release from hospital felt like every goal, every ounce of little genius grit, and every beaming smile rolled into one. It was spiritual and sickening all at once, like watching someone you love play one last round of Russian Roulette with the shiniest of handheld weaponry lined with fingerprints of powdered regret…and win.
We almost all enjoy watching an epic train crash, be it literal or analogous. But at what point do humans with souls go from craving mayhem to rooting for the train to stay on course—and wishing deep down that there was some way they could help?
Maradona underwent gastric bypass surgery in Colombia that same year, after his weight had ballooned to over 280 pounds. With a new lease on life and a retro body, Diego became a regular again at Boca Juniors matches, hovering high over the proceedings in a perch suite for most of the notable Copa Libertadores affairs during the latter stages of the Riquelme-Palermo years. He always turned it on for the cameras and always leaned over the railings after Boca goals, both fists clenched every time.
Instead of drifting off into futbol fandom and riding his unmatched reputation into the sunset, Maradona regained his competitive desire. He was chosen to manage the Argentine national team in 2008, a post he held until the underwhelming conclusion of the 2010 World Cup, an embarrassing 4-0 quarterfinal loss to Germany.
Strange club managerial stop-offs with major pay-days in the United Arab Emirates were the only coaching experiences to follow that World Cup in South Africa, except for a short-lived role as technical director for Belarusian side Dynamo Brest. It consisted of him being introduced in May of 2018 and exiting just two months later, following those waggish displays of fanatic passion and intoxication in Russia.
And so the road had led, of all places, to Culiacan, Sinaloa, his surprise hire by Dorados in September leading to countless memes and photo-shopped images of Maradona being paid in cartel kilos or sniffing cocaine off his contract with the Liga Ascenso club.
As ridiculous as it all seemed, where else could this actually be happening than in the second division of Mexican Soccer?
The cheesy memes were to be expected, as was a friendly with Grupo Caliente partners Club Tijuana at the earliest possible date. That date came just over a month after El D10S took the job, the fixture being announced only a week or so in advance.
I was lucky enough to be calling the match on local radio, tasked as the English language broadcast voice of the Xolos with relaying the events of this bizarre Tijuana evening to audiences in both the U.S. and Mexico.
Braving elements like these for a friendly would normally be an act of desperation, or a cry for help. On this night, it was an act of good faith from devout followers of the Beautiful Game. God was coming to our rugged red and black church, our humble house of worship where dogs growl and gentlemen gamble.
This God, who once painted frescoes with a Cosmic Kite in the swelter of Mexican Summer, while standing as a working-class hero in an eternal battle with the world’s elite, was coming to our little corner of the world to share his timeless aura with the youthful yet weathered shoulder chip that is the spirit of Tijuana.
Tickets were going for 100 pesos (about $5.50 U.S.), way below the customary rates for Xolos Liga MX matches. Despite the wickedness of Mother Nature, fans came in droves, buying walk-up tickets all the way past kickoff just to catch a glimpse of Diego.
This is where it all started to feel not quite right.
As gorgeous and hopelessly romantic as this worship was, it also felt a little manic: Arguably the greatest player of all-time, now an old man with a bad heart and two almost non-existent knees being paraded around in the rain for the amusement of paying customers. Diego appeared to be the train, the fans watching it pick up speed as it wobbled down the tracks of Tijuana.
In interviews leading up to the match, Maradona at times sounded incoherent. He gave rambling responses that were more confusing than controversial, and sometimes highly insulting. In a pre-game conversation with FOX Deportes, he said of Lionel Messi, a man he once coached for Argentina, “how are you supposed to make a leader of a man who has to go to the bathroom 20 times before a game?” (Maradona apologized for these comments a couple days later.) He mumbled and spoke softly. He would drop his microphone away from his mouth, with my friend Gustavo Mendoza, a television personality for FOX, continually pushing his wrist upward in an effort to get full sound back.
He needed assistance getting out of his seat and walking up and down stairs. He rode back to the dressing room on a golf cart just before the torrential downpour hit. As the rain picked up, so too did my guilt, only for it all to be washed away by the wild waters of the night.
Maradona’s first league away-days as Dorados manager were in Oaxaca City and Zacatapec, a far cry from the limelight of Mexico City. You have to truly love the game to compete at that level, especially as a manager, to brush shoulders not with beasts of the Azteca but with small crowds in old grounds, fighting for promotion with only the rawest of unrefined talent and ravenous journeymen at your disposal.
He didn’t have to do this. No one was forcing him to manage Dorados. No one demanded he take on a unique challenge in the Mexican Ascenso. This was his choice. He was doing all of this willingly.
He apparently jumped at the opportunity, lured by Culiacan coastlines and the chance to be involved in the game at an impactful and meaningful level. And by a 150,000 per-month USD contract, which unofficially made Maradona one of the three highest-paid coaches in all of Mexican Soccer.
His influence on the young Dorados squad was already evident. His mere presence had lifted morale, and a struggling team with just one win to their names the entire season had won three of their first four in the league under his guidance, hopping right back into the promotion hunt.
Videos of Maradona dancing to reggaeton and singing old Argentine terrace anthems alongside his players in the Dorados dressing room after a hard-fought win had gone viral. The expressions around that room were like those of young children in a state of jovial disbelief.
Many wondered if the players were taking Diego seriously. After seeing the various interviews of the day in Tijuana, I wondered if anyone was taking any of this seriously. As the rain began to let up, I gazed out over Estadio Caliente, seeing fans down below make their way back to the open air. I looked down at my broadcast equipment and said a quick word of thanks.
It was as serious as it needed to be. It was as real as it was ever going to be.
Nine o’clock hit. Bits of the stadium filled as walk-up sales continued outside. Both sides made their way to the pitch.
As soon as Diego emerged from the northeast tunnel, the scattered thousands in attendance let out a massive roar. He was walking under his own power, seemingly under little duress, wearing a gold Dorados polo, a slick flat billed cap bearing the club’s golden-fish crest, and a pair of shorts on this brisk, damp Baja night.
He crossed the field, toward the technical areas on the touchline nearest the press-box and our broadcast gantry. Every few steps, he would stop and look around. He would wave to whoever was there, sometimes waving to adoring fans, receiving claps, loving whistles and shouts of “te amo!” Sometimes it looked like he was waving in the direction of empty sections of the stadium.
Dozens of photographers waited in a patient swarm near the Dorados bench, hoping to get their perfect pre-game close-up with God on the night he came to their Baja home.
But before he got to the bench, God had some rhythmic expression to share with us. He gyrated, shimmied, and hip-thrusted, his body revived by music and dance. Diego has always been a lord of the dance, from his playing days well into the glamour stages of his post-career celebrity. It was like we were getting a taste of that iconic Maradona 1980s warm-up routine with the rolled down socks, the untied shoes, and who-knows-how-much cocaine running around his brain, his revolutionary freedom of expression and incomparable individuality on full display in the rawest and most nuanced forms. On this night, it was a man days from his 58th birthday, lapping it up, dancing to the tune of eternal youth.
The speakers blared out Camila Cabello’s “Havana,” but as the track faded out, and as Diego’s dance slowed and became more of a late-night arm-boogie, in my head the sounds of Manu Chao singing “Bienvenida a Tijuana” that filled the air.
The night just had that feel. Kinda glorious. Kinda grungy.
“Calavera no llora. Serenata de amor.
Calavera no llora. No tiene corazón.”
“Skulls don’t cry. Serenade of love.
Skulls don’t cry. They don’t have a heart.”
Diego’s dances subsided. The rains returned. The opening whistle blew. another eruption of noise came from the crowd.
The fans were surely applauding their own dedication as the showers intensified once more. For thousands of Tijuanenses in attendance, the mere sight of Maradona was comparable to the night when the magical Ronaldinho came to Estadio Caliente with Atletico Mineiro in the 2013 Copa Libertadores, or when Bayern Munich held a training camp in town and played a 1990 friendly against now-defunct Inter de Tijuana. For a city anxious to create its own soccer lore, hosting Maradona, even as a big-bellied manager, was a moment to cherish.
La Masakr3, Xolos’s passionate supporters behind the south goal, let loose with a pyro show that consumed over half the ground with red and black smoke—the combination of natural elements and human creation feeling like a fitting homage to the chapters of scripture that were Maradona’s Napoli years and every day he spent at Boca Juniors.
The match was uneventful, nary a shot on target in the first hour, both sides exhibiting understandable caution on a slippery artificial surface in a non-competitive affair. Our radio commentary with my colleague Tony Alvarez drifted into tales of the Nou Camp, Mexico ’86, the concept of “cheating,” the “Hand of God” and the “Goal of the Century,” Neapolitan gratitude, and that ruggedly romantic return to La Bombonera in 1995, conveniently glossing over the drugs and disgrace of USA ’94.
The only real highlight of the first half was Diego taking a couple steps onto the pitch during an injury stoppage and berating the fourth official.
He was ordered to sit down, and the crowd went wild.
“Your heart,” I said internally. I could see him smiling as he reluctantly adhered to authority before sarcastically jigging his way back to the bench, drawing more applause from the Xolos faithful.
I kept thinking about how skulls don’t cry, for they have no heart. I kept replaying Diego dancing, zoning in on his arms and digits. He was always moving his wrists and fingers, like a crazed DJ or psychedelic church organist mixing his own magical festival. It was a surreal and stormy night in October, very Halloween, and yet it felt a bit like Christmas. Diego danced with every step and shimmied with every scream. He was like Jack Skellington from “A Nightmare Before Christmas” if Jack Skellington had won the World Cup and avenged Las Islas Malvinas.
When the teams returned for the second half, Diego re-emerged with a rain jacket, a garment he would soon remove despite the ongoing precipitation. A man of the people. A man of the earth. Diego Armando Maradona.
Around the 70th minute, I fulfilled a lifelong dream and a promise from earlier in the day. I had told Tony that if circumstance permitted, I would recite, LIVE on the FM airwaves of Baja California and San Diego County, the iconic Victor Hugo Morales commentary of Maradona’s “Goal of the Century” against England in the 1986 World Cup, “El Barrilete Cosmico,” as it was labeled on the spot by the legendary Radio Argentina broadcaster.
I wrote my Watsonville High School English Exit Essay on that match. Studying that quarterfinal from Mexico ’86 as a teenager helped me further understand what football really was, not only as a social and political construct but as a means of spirituality and downright divinity.
Perhaps the greatest example of Diego’s duality is the pair of goals he scored in quick succession against the English that day, both unforgettable for such vastly different reasons and yet attached so firmly to the same pulsating desire, that will to win at all costs and use soccer as a form of revenge for the British bombs dropped on the Falkland Islands.
The goals themselves represent, in tandem, a perfect microcosm of Diego the player. Maradona quite literally punched the ball over the outstretched arms of Peter Shilton and into the England goal to open the scoring on a scorching hot June afternoon in Mexico City, blatantly cheating in front of the eyes of the world and Tunisian referee Ali Bin Nasser.
Diego would later say the goal was scored, “un poco con la cabeza de Maradona y otro poco con la mano de Dios” (“a little with the head of Maradona and a little with the hand of God”), coining one of the most divisive phrases in the world football lexicon. A few minutes later, he melted the hearts of millions with the most incredible individual goal, a run as raw and honest as it was majestic, his pinnacle moment as a footballer.
A span of less than four minutes on the Azteca green saw a divine battle between good and evil play out through the feet and hands of a 5-foot 5-inch, shaggy-haired 25-year-old from Argentina. The first goal was hate. The second was love.
It was that match that forever changed the way I viewed the Beautiful Game. That call of Maradona’s second from Victor Hugo Morales would later change the way I viewed broadcasting. It’s perfection in audio form, inducing enough goosebumps to literally make you weep. It’s done so for me countless times.
The ball went out of play. A Dorados player was treated for a cramp. A couple substitutes waited to come on for Xolos. The match had slowed to a complete stop. Tony gave me a look and demanded follow-through. Circumstance had allowed. The time had come to pay homage.
“…ahí la tiene Maradona, lo marcan dos, pisa la pelota Maradona, arranca por la derecha el genio del fútbol mundial, deja el tendal y va a tocar para Burruchaga. ¡Siempre Maradona! ¡Genio! ¡Genio! ¡Genio! Ta-ta-ta-ta-ta-ta-ta. ¡Gooooool! ¡Gooooool! ¡Quiero llorar! ¡Dios santo, viva el fútbol! ¡Golaaaaaazooo! ¡Diegoooool! ¡Maradona! Es para llorar, perdónenme. ¡Maradona, en recorrida memorable, en la jugada de todos los tiempos! ¡Barrilete cósmico! ¿De qué planeta viniste? ¿Para dejar en el camino a tanto inglés, para que el país sea un puño apretado gritando por Argentina? ¡Argentina 2-Inglaterra 0! ¡Diegol, ¡Diegol! ¡Diego Armando Maradona! Gracias Dios, por el fútbol, por Maradona, por estas lágrimas, por este Argentina 2-Inglaterra 0.”
There was a high that hit my entire body at the last, almost breathless syllable that is the “oh” at the end of that Morales “cero.” The writers around us in the press box laughed as our production crew hoisted their water bottles in salute. A deep breath. Corner to Xolos. Back to the “action.”
At the final whistle, what was left of the crowd made its way to the tunnel adjacent seats to get one last glimpse of the Golden Child.
Dorados had won the unimpressive, rain-soaked match, 1-0 on a deflected shot in the 80th minute from Edson Rivera, the Sinaloa player at least giving the crowd and the various sets of broadcasters a goal to savor and share. It was another win for the Golden Fish, albeit in a friendly, the Maradona Effect carrying right through the Mictlan.
We bolted down to the press area to get there in time for Maradona’s media conference. I’d covered matches at Estadio Caliente for three years, and I’d never seen the mixed zone completely empty. It was eerie. There were no player conversations to be had on this night. Every media member on hand had piled inside for one last interaction with Diego.
It was past midnight, and many inside the room began conversing discreetly about the possibility of him not showing up. Could you really blame him? He’d already given ample time to the media during his two days in Tijuana, from major networks on the day of the game to local writers and broadcasters the evening prior. The man who once scorned the media to the point of verbal and physical assault had treated every last journalist with love and respect. You could understand if he chose to sit this last one out.
Then the back door of the press room opened.
There he was, Diego Armando Maradona.
I’d managed to snag an aisle seat next to the stairs he descended, El D10S leaning softly on one of his assistant coaches. He walked past me on his way to the podium, every ounce of greatness and every detailed flaw brushing my left shoulder en route to the microphone.
A hush descended around the room. Not a single record-button left unpushed, not a single bulb left unflashed. We were in the presence of God, and there was a real nervy feel in the room as he began answering questions. This was the biggest moment in the professional lives of most of the people there, some with already quite impressive journalistic pedigrees.
There were more mumbles from Maradona, more unfiltered takes, and a sense of casual honesty throughout every answer. It was almost sad, yet absolutely riveting. As the press conference wound to a close, I was called upon to ask the penultimate question of the night.
Diego Maradona looked right at me, squinted, and smiled.
I had three different native Spanish speakers listen back to the recorded audio of his response. Not one could fully transcribe what he said. It wasn’t any kind of language barrier but rather a comprehensible speech barrier.
He gave me direct eye contact throughout his response. He definitely said “me encanta Mexico” a couple times. He spoke of his deep respect for the Mexican work-ethic, and mentioned something about a sense of political resistance and revolution among the nation’s people. He spoke of an unwavering love for football all around the country. He spoke of an everlasting respect for Mexico.
He also mumbled. A lot.
In all, the conference lasted about ten minutes. Not one reporter asked Maradona a question about Dorados or the Liga Ascenso.
As the press conference ended, folks around the room frantically made their way to the door where he was due to exit, anxious to get one last photo or perhaps even one last passing glance.
I stayed glued to my seat, knowing he would come walking right past me once more. Leaning again on the assistant coach, Maradona came within inches of my shoulder.
“Gracias Diego,” I said as he readied himself for another step.
God looked me dead in the eye and grabbed my left forearm with his left hand, La Mano de Dios. He muttered something to the effect of “de nada” and squeezed, partly in kindness, partly in an effort to get better leverage in his ascent of the small staircase. As he let go of my arm, my heart almost stopped amid a soulful butterfly swarm.
“Then I will take my hand away and you shall see the back of me, but my face is not to be seen.”Exodus 33, 18-23
I had literally been gripped by the Hand of God. And God was flawed, immensely flawed. He had dropped to my level to share that moment, a moment he’ll forget, a moment I’ll always remember. The King of the Azteca in 1986 had connected with me at the Caliente in 2018. His holy universe had somehow made its way into the sphere of my mere mortal existence, and I couldn’t be more conflicted about it.
I recalled being taught that when God, the superior and almighty being, manifests in human form, he shall be beheld only from behind, when his back is turned, with God already in the process of leaving. Perhaps this was out of fear and respect. Or perhaps to avoid confrontation of the mind, for I was also taught that looking into the eyes of God is to understand madness.
Back home in San Diego, I threw on an old Manu Chao album. In his song, “La Vida Tombola,” Chao, the embodiment of a “citizen of the world,” sings about none other than Diego Armando Maradona. The entire song is about the moral conflict of Maradona idolization. It came on my stereo as I jotted notes and sipped a glass of mid-shelf grocery store wine. “Si yo fuera Maradona… Viviría como él…”
Tombola is a multicultural word for “raffle.” The title of the song essentially translates to “The Gamble Life,” words that certainly sum up the being that is El D10S. That opening line is repeated throughout the song, translating to “if I were Maradona, I would live like him.”
It’s hard to find a better way to sum this all up. I like to think of a time hopefully twenty or thirty years from now when Diego Maradona passes away peacefully, with vigils, flowers, candles, and tears of thankfulness accompanying the family members and close friends by his side, as we watch montage after montage of his brilliance.
But if the story of El D10S doesn’t end that way, which it very well might not, that will be alright, for gratitude shall prevail over all else.
Accepting someone for who they really are can be a challenging endeavor, especially when you legitimately love and care for a person and know the darkest depths of their well of wrongdoing and weakness.
When seeing our parents through an adult lens for the first time, we’re often confronted with disappointment that must in turn be balanced with love. There is so much resentment that can come when you see those who created and raised you for the imperfect people they really are. Sometimes we have to ask ourselves if a person is actually deserving of truly unconditional love. Does such a thing even exist?
We crave answers to these psychological conundrums; we usually end up with more questions. Finding closure is no easier when it comes to a God, balancing forgiveness for their human sins with unwavering faith in their holy spirit. But if you can accept your God’s flaws, you’ll worship in peace forever more.
Nate is a writer, poet, broadcaster, and football romantic on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico Border. Hailing from Watsonville, California, Nate moved to San Diego in 2016 and soon became the first-ever English Language radio voice in Liga MX with Club Tijuana. He is known to savor goals and tacos. You can follow Nate on Twitter at @natebaurrea
Cover Illustration by Jake Foreman for Howler, follow @_jakeforeman or visit jakeforeman.com
Insert Illustration by Murphy Phelan follow @murphyphelan or visit murphyphelan.com