On 25 November 2020, Diego Maradona, the famous Argentine Football player, passed away due to cardiac arrest. Maradona was a controversial figure in Football, vocal, dramatic, and awe-inspiring. A short player, at 5’ 5”, Maradona’s dribbling skills on the field earned him the moniker, “El Pibe de Oro,” meaning “the Golden Boy”. From humble beginnings, he will be remembered as one of the greatest Football players of all time.
Diego Maradona’s Rise to fame
Diego Maradona was born to father Don Diego Maradona, an indigenous Guarani factory worker, and Italian mother Dalma Salvadora Franco. Maradona grew up in a family with 7 children, living together in a small home in the working-class neighborhood of Villa Fiorito, near Buenos Aires. He began playing football at the age of three, impressing people with his incredible skills as a young boy. At age eight, he was picked up by a scout, who propelled his career.
At age eighteen, Maradona already was in the national limelight in the 1978-World Cup. It was a difficult time for Argentina, who lost democracy to a military dictatorship, and was experiencing massive social unrest. Maradona’s coach, Cesar Luis Menotti was an open leftist. Menotti wanted to make a stance against the regime. Football was a people’s game, and Menotti’s politics was well known, so a triumph in the World Cup was associated with a slap on the face of the dictatorship.
Menotti could not separate his politics from his sport, and initially, he was suspicious of the young Maradona. He was not sure if young Diego could pull his weight, but after the win in the 1978 World Cup, all walls were broken. The victory of Argentina’s football team in 1978 signaled a people’s win.
Football in the Shadow of the Falkland War
Maradona’s popularity waned after the forfeit of Argentina in 1982 after Maradona kicked a player on the opposing team in the groin. This came at a time when Argentina just lost the Falkland War, when Argentina attempted to take over the Falkland Islands, south of Argentina, from England. The loss of the war felt like a reestablishment of British superiority over Argentina.
Maradona regains both his and his nation’s pride in the 1986 World Cup, played against the UK. Maradona said that he wanted to beat England for their treatment of Argentina four years earlier. Maradona scored two goals that game, leading to Argentina’s victory, 2-1 against the UK.
Diego’s first goal was controversial, though amazing. A short man, he jumped over the opposing goalkeeper, the 20 cm taller Peter Shilton, and knocked the ball into the goal. The goal was controversial, as it was not clear if Maradona hit it with his hand or head. When asked, he said he hit it with “a little with the head of Maradona, and a little with the hand of God. To this day, the shot has been called the Hand of God. Later in his life, he admitted that he used his hand, and could have earned a penalty, but he did not care. He wanted to pay England back for the hurt they caused Argentina.
Maradona’s second goal earned the name, “The Goal of the Century” when he carried the ball 55 meters in under 10 seconds. In the run, he weaved by four other football players, and with a slight turn before the goal, that caused the goalkeeper to fall backward in anticipation.
Argentina went on to win the World Cup by beating West Germany, but the pride of the tournament was the victory against the UK, which returned pride to the people of Argentina.
Out of the Game
His family was a supporter of Juan Peron, founder of the Justicialist Party. Peron was a political centrist who sought to chart a third way between socialism and market-capitalism, and also a political isolationist. Peron’s legacy is a mixed bag. His successors were quite right-wing. However, in Argentina, he is remembered as a strong democratic leader who challenged imperialism and was unpopular with the reactionary middle classes.
In many ways, Diego represented the best of this Argentinian tradition. He was a populist, with a strong concern for the working classes. As a player, he was outspoken, especially on political issues, though he never joined any political party. It is often remembered that when he visited the Vatican, he looked at the gilded ceilings and asked why they couldn’t be sold to feed the poor.
Maradona was vocal in all ways. When he played in Naples, Italy for a few years, he would speak about how Italy was ignoring its southern cities. Even today, he is considered by the people of Naples as one of them.
Maradona’s support for the anti-imperialist leaders in Latin America was well known. Famously, he had tattoos fellow Argentine Che Guevara, and Fidel Castro, who he had met many times. He said Castro was a second father to him, as it was in Cuba that he received medical treatment for the cocaine addiction that led to heart failure in 2000. His time in Cuba excited his faith in Latin American socialism, and during the 2000s, he began supporting socialist leaders across the continent, including Eva Morales in Bolivia, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva in Brazil, and Hugo Chavez in Venezuela.
In 2005, when American President George Bush Jr. visited Uruguay to promote the FTAA, the Free Trade Agreement of the Americas, Chavez visited Argentina to campaign against the FTAA, and Maradona stood by him wearing a shirt with the words, “Stop Bush” and chanted, “El que no brinca es yankee” (If you don’t jump, you are a Yankee (American)).
Maradona was famous for his vocal attacks against imperialism in all of its forms, be it in Latin America, Palestine, or Libya. He also mentioned his deep admiration for Belarus’ anti-neoliberal President Alexander Lukashenko, hoping to meet him.
Maradona never directly entered politics, though he had considered it if only to oppose the Argentine Right-wing. He remained an outsider who supported those who he felt supported the poor and the working class. He died on 25 November 2020, on the fourth anniversary of the death of his second father Fidel Castro.
The author is a mathematician and a political observer based in Bangalore. Views are Personal.