What Diego Maradona meant to Argentina

The footballer was a mirror of Argentina—its passion, its social problems, its aspirations

December 01, 2020
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The fifth child of a factory hand who was raised in a shanty town and never grew taller than 5’5, Diego Armando Maradona was a pugnacious underdog who became a national hero. Speaking after Maradona succumbed to a heart attack last Wednesday, Argentina’s president, Alberto Fernández, eulogised “You took us to the top of the world.” Maradona was born in Buenos Aires in 1960—the 150th anniversary of the republic’s revolt against Spain. Earlier that year, the exiled strongman Juan Domingo Perón had moved to Madrid; and Mossad had captured the Holocaust director Adolf Eichmann hiding in the Argentinian capital. Argentina had been one of the most developed countries in the world at the start of the 20th century, but Maradona’s youth coincided with chronic inflation and fiscal austerity. Nearly a third of all families in Buenos Aires shared a home with other families. In the Maradona’s villa, or slum, there was no sewage, no electricity, and no drinking water. Argentina needed a hero. Then came Maradona. With his astonishing control of the ball in the dirt streets, Maradona was spotted by scouts from the top-flight club, Argentinos Juniors. He was the youngest ever player in the Argentinian league, and soon became the youngest debutant for the national side. Asked to captain the Argentinian team at the 1979 Under 20 World Cup, Maradona lifted the trophy and won the Golden Ball for the tournament’s best player. El pibe de oro—the golden boy—was one of the most exciting prodigies in world football. With his adhesive left foot and low centre of gravity, Maradona thrilled fans as he shimmied past the best opposition players. After years of a military dictatorship that “disappeared” tens of thousands without trace, and right after its defeat in the Falklands War, Argentina hoped the 1982 World Cup would end triumphantly. Wary of Maradona’s subtle footwork, defenders subjected the Argentinian idol to violent tackles. Argentina was knocked out in the second group stage, and Maradona was sent off for a retaliatory kung-fu kick—the judgment is considered one of the most notorious red cards in FIFA history. In 1984, he was sold to Napoli for a world-record fee of £5m. The southern Italian club (and indeed, the city) were maligned by the industrial north, but with Maradona and alleged mafia funds, Napoli won two Italian titles—the only time a club from the south has been champion in the last fifty years. To the Neapolitan working class, Maradona was a demi-god. Maradona’s apotheosis came at the 1986 World Cup in Mexico. England fans will need no reminding of his role in the quarter-final, when the diminutive No 10 outleapt the 6 ft goalkeeper Peter Shilton to “head” the ball into the net. Four minutes after the most controversial goal in history, Maradona scored the most celebrated. Beating several defenders—none of whom managed to foul him—Maradona weaved more than halfway across the pitch and into the footballing pantheon. After the match, Maradona was asked if he had used his hand to score the first goal. He replied: “A little with the head of Maradona and a little with the hand of God.” The impact in Argentina was immense. Speaking to CNN Radio Argentina last week, the psychologist Gabriel Cartañá explained that “when he scored against the English, he avenged the Malvinas [Falklands].” Maradona might have had the hand of God, but the World Cup winner had the head of a mortal. Alcohol and drug addiction afflicted his football and his personal life. In 1991 he was handed a 15-month sporting ban for using cocaine. At the 1994 World Cup, his goal against Greece in Argentina’s opening match was marked by a wild, if not deranged, celebration. After the following game, he failed a doping test and received another 15-month ban. Although his vices were castigated by some, Maradona retained popular adulation. The late Argentinian cartoonist Roberto Fontanarrosa summed up much Argentinian feeling when he reportedly said, “What do I care what Diego did with his life? What matters is what he did for mine.” As footballer emeritus, Maradona remained a news story. In 2000, FIFA ran an award for the greatest player of the 20th century. FIFA insiders voted for the Brazilian forward, Pelé, but Maradona, ever popular with fans, took the public vote. The award was shared, but the Argentinian—who was suffering severe heart problems due to a cocaine overdose—walked off the stage before Pelé could be co-crowned. His health problems continued: in 2004, he had another heart failure. The following year, he had gastric bypass surgery. Suffering from hepatitis linked to drinking, he was hospitalised again in 2007, and then moved to a psychiatric clinic. In 2008 he somehow convinced the Argentinian football federation to hire him as head coach—a role that ended in tears and an embarrassing 4-0 loss to Germany. Maradona may have had the playing genius to attain to World Cup glory, but he had few coaching skills beyond charisma. With his passionate gestures and facial expressions, Maradona became a regular when Argentina played football, rugby and tennis. He was always more comfortable in the stadium rafters than the dugout. There was also the studio. The man who once shot at journalists stationed outside his house with an air rifle became a football pundit. Maradona also commentated on the Latin American left. He maintained friendships with Fidel Castro and Hugo Chávez, and last year endorsed the Venezuelan dictator, Nicolás Maduro. There were plenty of other unsavoury elements. ITV broadcaster Jacqui Oatley reported in 2018 that, in an apparently friendly exchange with South Korean fans at that year’s World Cup, Maradona “pulled his eyes to the side in a clearly racist gesture.” When Pelé criticised his style of play, Maradona responded “What can I say? Pelé lost his virginity to a man.” And in a press conference as Argentina manager he told journalists, “You lot take it up the arse.” The footballer shot from the hip as well as the left foot. “Maradona was imperfect and that humanised him,” said Cartañá in his conversation on CNN Radio Argentina. “[He] was like a grubby god who was by our side.” Maradona’s flaws should not define him or his legacy. In fact, it would be impossible to define a footballer, still less a man, whose sprawling story was so intricately tied to that of a nation. He was a mirror of Argentina—its passion, its social problems, and its aspirations.