Adiós Diego Maradona: The football god who played on the side of the poor

Diego Maradona. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Debate over who was the greatest ever footballer will rage on, but Diego Armando Maradona, who passed away on November 25 aged 60, will almost certainly go down as the most adored.

Maradona will always be remembered, by hundreds of millions of people around the world, as the football god who played on the side of the poor.

As a child growing up in Fiorito, a villa (shantytown) near Buenos Aires, Maradona only ever knew poverty and violence. Maradona always recalled how his mother — the most important formative figure in his life — regularly lied to her eight children to make sure they had enough to eat.

“Every time the food would come out, she would say ‘my stomach hurts’,” Maradona wrote in his autobiography. “What a lie! It was because there was not enough to go around. That is why I love my old lady so much.”

Football became a means to escape this reality. But to Maradona it was much more than this.

Given a football on his third birthday, Maradona played with it all day and slept with it under his shirt at night, for fear of it being stolen. Everywhere he went, Maradona would walk along bouncing anything he could find up and down on his foot: an orange; a crumpled up ball of paper; a rolled-up rag.

Asked as a small boy what his life dreams were, he said he had only two: to play in a World Cup and to win it.

Maradona’s gift was obvious from a very young age: his name appeared in national newspapers when he was just 10 years old playing for Argentinos Juniors. At 15, he made his first division debut for the club, and with his first contract he bought a small two-storey house for his family.

From there, he went on to scale the greatest heights of the sport, winning trophies in Argentina for Boca Juniors, in Spain with Barcelona and, most famously, in Italy with Napoli.

In 1986, at the age of 25, he accomplished his boyhood dream of raising the World Cup on the back of the most dominant individual performance ever by a single player at the tournament.

Football as resistance

For Maradona, football was more than just a sport: it was a way to express how he felt about the world and the injustices he saw.

Explaining what it meant to play for Napoli, Maradona wrote: “My debut [for Napoli] was an away game against Verona, in the north of Italy, on 16 September, 1984…

“They greeted us with a flag that made me understand, suddenly, that Napoli’s struggle wasn’t just a football matter: ‘Welcome to Italy’, it said. It was north against south, racism against poverty…

“To have won Napoli’s first Scudetto in 60 years was, for me, an incomparable victory. Different from any other, even the 1986 World Cup … The Scudetto belonged to the whole city, and the people began to realise that there was no reason to be afraid: that it’s not the one with the most money who wins but the one who fights the most, who wants it the most.”

This bond between Maradona and Naples — where he continues to be adored as an adopted son and god — led him to call on locals to support him when Argentina faced Italy in the city during the 1990 World Cup.

“You shouldn’t forget that in Italy they do not consider you to be Italian,” he declared just days from the game. “The country comes and asks for your support for just one day of the year, and for the other 364 they’ll call you Africans.”

Maradona’s allegiance to the class he came from influenced many of his life choices. Despite being offered much more money by River Plate — a club associated with more affluent sectors and whose nickname is the Millionaires — Maradona told his agent he would only play for their arch rival, the working-class team of Boca Juniors.

He credits this rebellious spirit for arguably his two most famous goals, which came against England at the 1986 World Cup. The politically-charged game took place just a few years after the Malvinas War between the two nations.

It is no surprise that this game — more than the World Cup final (where he gave the assist for the winning goal) or the semi-final against Belgium (where he also scored twice and arguably played even better) — has become so identified with Maradona and what he represented.

It best summed up why Maradona is etched in the hearts of so many. Defeat over England meant defeat over the old colonial empire — for Maradona, for Argentines and for many millions across the Global South.

Asked recently what his dream gift for his 60th birthday would be, he responded: “I dream of being able to score another goal against the English, with the right hand this time!”

As is the case with countless athletes and other high-profile personalities, the football and media establishments were happy to turn a blind eye to Maradona’s personal problems (drug use, treatment of women) when using him to sell sport. As long they accepted the rules set by the establishment, their private lives were covered up.

In Maradona's case, however, it became necessary to highlight these elements of his life in order to hide the person he really was — to hide what it was that drove him to be the best.

Refusing to renounce the class that he came from, Maradona had become too much of a threat, particularly in Italy, where he had begun to speak out in support of some workers' struggles. Hounded by the media, he was banned from playing football for 15 months for drug use not long after the 1990 World Cup.

From there, his football career never recovered. Maradona went on to have brief stints at Sevilla (Spain), before returning to Argentina to play for Newell Old Boys and prepare for the 1994 World Cup.

Banned again for testing positive for ephedrine at that World Cup, Maradona attempted a third football comeback in 1995, playing out his last games at Boca, before turning his hand to coaching teams in Argentina, the United Arab Emirates and Mexico, as well the Argentine national team.

Friend of the people

While the media focused on Maradona’s personal problems during the latter half of his life, he continued to express his same rebellious spirit, now increasingly off the pitch.

In 1995, he helped set up a union for professional soccer players, explaining: “The football player is the most important thing in the game and we will defend their demands to the death”. His years of public denunciations of corruption in FIFA were vindicated in 2015 by the scandal that engulfed football’s governing body.

Maradona became a great friend of Cuba and its former president Fidel Castro. His appreciation for the Caribbean island began in 1987, when he first travelled there to receive Prensa Latina’s sportsperson of the year award. He recounted how astonished he was to see there were no children begging or running around barefoot in the streets.

He returned to Cuba for several months in 2000 to receive treatment for his drug addiction, crediting Castro for saving his life.

Maradona also established close relationships with, or expressed support for, other left and progressive presidents in the region, such as Hugo Chavez and Nicolas Maduro (Venezuela), Evo Morales (Bolivia), Lula da Silva and Dilma Rousseff (Brazil) and Nestor and Cristina Kirchner (Argentina).

In 2005, he participated in the People’s Summit in Mar del Plata, Argentina, together with progressive and left organisations from the region. It was held as a counter to the Summit of the Americas, where heads of states had convened to discuss a United States-pushed free trade agreement for the region.

Wearing a T-shirt with US president George W Bush’s face and the words “war criminal”, Maradona spoke at a rally alongside Chavez and social leaders, declaring: “We Argentines have dignity. Let’s kick out Bush”.

Maradona was one of the staunchest defenders of Venezuela’s Bolivarian Revolution, publicly stating he had turned down advertisement contracts that required him to remain silent on Venezuela and helped circumvent US-imposed sanctions to get food and medicine to the country.

Maradona was also vocal in his support for other anti-imperialist causes, such as Palestine, declaring “My heart is Palestinian” and that “the Palestinian people need everyone’s help and I am at their disposal. I am their number one fan.”

Following his death, Lula said of Maradona: “I have rarely seen a football player stop playing and yet not stop. Maradona continued to play. He continued to play in thoughts, in his political opinions, in his criticisms. He continued to play for poor people all over the world.”

Despite his stature in Argentina, Maradona never entered politics. After Castro suggested to him during an interview that he should get involved in politics after retiring from football, Maradona just smiled. He later explained: “I don’t like politics”.

Football was always his passion; politics, on the other hand, was something he viewed as being full of opportunists eager to side up to power. Maradona instead preferred to stand alongside the people, even when it meant having to confront power. 

It's why he will forever be adored by the many - and hate by the few. It's why, even in death, his image will remain there, alongside the people, on banners held up on football terraces and at street protests. 

Champion of the poor

Maradona played football in such a way that he would constantly amaze opponents, teammates and spectators with his genius and rebellious style of play that made the impossible seem normal when he had a ball at his feet.

Yet, Maradona never forgot where he came from: “The time when I felt most free was when I lived in the villa.”

Asked about the pressures he faced, he responded: “Pressure is what the person who has to leave home at four in the morning and cannot bring 100 pesos home faces; they are under pressure because they have to feed their children.

“I do not face pressure, my cooking pot is full, thanks to God.”

Maradona, of course, had his problematic side, no more so than when it came to his treatment of women, which should not be condoned or covered up.

Yet despite, and in some cases because of, his flaws Maradona was adored by so many. He was the best at what he did — and yet he was so much more. Maradona represented hope, genius, mischief, skill and justice. He was not just a sporting champion but a champion of the poor.

When Argentina beat England or Napoli defeated the big Italian teams of the north, it felt like more than just winning a game: it felt like our side, the side of the poor, was striking a blow against the seemingly invincible rich.

In a world of hyper-commercialised sport, where athletes are constantly converted into sanitised commodities to be marketed internationally, there will likely never be a sports superstar like Maradona again.

We will probably never see an athlete’s face tattooed on as many people as his is, with a church devoted to him, with so many songs, books and films written about him, and with a capacity to generate a general strike simply because people want to see him play, as happened in Bangladesh when Maradona was sent home from the 1994 World Cup.

Maradona will forever have his detractors who will say he was just a drug addict or a cheat. They will say he should have lived his life differently. But none of them will ever know what it felt like to walk in the boots of Maradona — having come from nothing to not only achieve his wildest dreams but become a legend, adored across the planet and to not just feel like a god, but be treated and constantly told they are one, with the impunity that comes with such a label.

Reflecting on his life in 2005, Maradona pleaded: “Let me live my life, I don't want to be an example. But I also won’t find peace in death. They used me in life, and they will find the moment to do so when I’m dead.”

Despite this, he added: “If I die, I want to be born again and I want to be a football player. I want to be Diego Armando Maradona again. “I am a player that has given much joy to the people and for me that is more than enough.”

Discussing this more recently, Maradona said: “In my career, I have taken some hard knocks, in all senses of the term. On the pitch, I received numerous kicks, and in life, I was attacked in every which way. I was not given any presents … But, after all that, when you think about all the wars and all the children who die very young in this world, I say to myself that I am lucky … I am extremely satisfied with what I achieved.

“I feel like I made people happy, made people amused, who were coming to watch me in the stadiums and who were watching me on TV. I am happy to have brought joy to people with a ball. That is my biggest source of pride.”

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