On November 25, 2020, the Argentinian noon programs of the likes of ESPN F901 opened in worry, knowing only that Maradona had fainted. Soon enough, the news was confirmed. Some left the set briefly to compose themselves a bit. All had tears in their eyes. Oscar Ruggeri, also a Mexico ‘86 champion, scrolled through his phone numbly. He later said he was actually in the team’s group chat, all of them asking each other whether it was true, hoping for the confirmation that it was yet another fake news. Elsewhere, in TyC Sports, Horacio Pagani was crying at the news.
Tributes and stories started flooding in. Obviously, the homages also took the form of written pieces. Between the journalists who followed him and those who were too young to really see him, a people’s pain was bare to see. But if Diego Armando Maradona was indeed the most human of all gods, the contradictory elements of such a phrase would inevitably colour the general response to the news we should’ve expected- yet never really did.
I called my uncle (and godfather) at around 1pm. He didn’t answer the phone, so I guess he was on his lunch break. I went back to Instagram and checked some stories. I came across one from his 17-year-old son. He dedicated three to Maradona. He expressed his sorrow and encouraged people to hug their loved ones. I replied, sending him hugs for his dad.
My cousin is 17 and, like my entire family, Peruvian. He wasn’t even alive for Maradona’s farewell match (technically, I was). But he would’ve been named Diego had a fellow cousin not been born six months before him. His father, who will be 50 this coming May, did what his generation’s fellows did to mine and his – told stories of Maradona, the wonder and joy he gave them. He told of both goals against the English, and the Cup.
We can’t really fathom the true dimension of those goals. How a hand goal, thirty years before VAR could come across and nullify it (indeed, the real miracle is how UEFA didn’t push for a similar system right then). How eliminating the English at their own game restored the morale stolen only four years earlier2. How that Cup vindicated an entire country, this time without blood, without generals who’d threaten foreign players one moment and oversee torture, disappearances and abductions the next.
Neither of those goals brought the islands back, let alone the lives of the young men whose military service coincided with the war, but they certainly restored something for many Argentinians, including women who had lost loved ones throughout the dictatorship or were simply having an unpleasant time in an unpleasant period. That win meant something.
Similarly, we can’t even try to put ourselves in the shoes of the Neapolitans, long seen as the Cinderella of a so-called unified country, asserting their importance, thanks to Maradona. Proving they were as good, as worthy, as those born and raised north of Rome – could you truly deny an Scudetto, twenty or so years before Calciopoli?
Yet, it is not even just Neapolitans. There is a global component to the loss of Diego Maradona, even if a smaller one in comparison. It’s everyone who loves football. My local football late night show, Movistar Deportes’ Al Ángulo, featured a forty-something Peruvian journalist breaking down in tears and unable to continue doing the program. In the end, it was the youngest pundit the one who put it into words:
All of us who love football have something of Maradona within us. To love football, is to love Maradona, is to love the Maradona who made so many people smile, who inspired so many people.
That makes matters clear for all of us, members in one way or another of the football world. Or, kind of. This is Unusual Efforts, after all, and even if someone didn’t feel comfortable enough with the feminist label due to its bourgeois origins, its White current or the prominence TERFs are getting in several circles3, I’m sure we can all agree on the dangers of the patriarchy, of sexism and misogyny.
Sure, Maradona may have congratulated actress Flor de la V on her transition…only to misgender her, years later, due to an argument. Okay, De la V herself forgave him. But if we think about it, the fact that he could consider misgendering a proper response to a polemic would have to be self-explanatory as for how much he really knew about trans issues. And that’s before getting into the physical abuse he displayed towards his last ex-girlfriend, Rocío Oliva4. As with all escalating aggressive behaviours, what began with infidelity towards his long-time girlfriend and eventual wife Claudia Villafañe5 ended with him being violent towards Oliva. Throw in the photos of Cuban orgies, and the rumours of it involving minor girls–and him not bothering to check ages at best–and you understand where some feminists came from when they criticized all the Maradona love, the three days of mourning and all of its related events.
Obviously, when they came after the Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo6, it was clear there was a hubris only youth and lack of knowledge could explain. The clear disconnection between their enlightenment and the massive sorrow was also telling. There was almost a pride in not being part of the demonstrations, “unlike those others”. Which others? The lowly? The poor? The uneducated7? Of course, when discussing Argentinian (young) feminists, a case can be made both on their youth and their lack of excuse given the importance the man had, not only on what he did on the field but when he did it.
Let’s go a year into the future and imagine an Argentina-England in any blood-soiled Qatari stadium. Picture Lionel Messi, free from a self-sabotaging institution or having contributed to a Barcelona cleansing, doing the match of his life and besting the English at what is technically their own game. Then, the 35-year-old would go on to win what is more than likely his last World Cup. It would be amazing, indeed. He would deserve it, obviously. But that’s the thing- all of that would be a debt football owes Messi. Forty years after the Malvinas war, and nearly the same amount after the return of democracy8, a similar triumph against England would be anecdotic, as well as reflective of a previous event, if not a Diego miracle. There isn’t a necessity to restore a country’s pride after several years of shame, death, fear and loss, unlike there was in 1986. The climate was there, and Diego Armando Maradona just so happened to be very, very good at his job.
The argument should be that, then. That he was simply in the right time at the right place, did what he had to do and gave joy to millions of people. A full separation of the player and the person. Most of us can live with that, or at most, bear with it and look forward to being better and building better people. Leave the products of their time right where they belong, as well as our memories once they pass.
However, this is where it gets a bit complicated.
A huge reason Diego Maradona was so beloved in his home country, enough to lead to Boca and River fans comforting each other despite the late hero having only played for the former (let alone the rivalry between both teams), was that he never let fame, nearly a decade living in Europe and all the millions in the world change who he was. In the words of Eduardo Galeano:
Maradona was adored not only due to his prodigious balancing acts but also because he was a dirty god, a sinner, the most human of the gods. Anyone could recognize in him a walking synthesis of human weaknesses, or at least the male ones: womanizer, gluttonous, drunkard, cheater, liar, boisterous, irresponsible. […] But gods never retire, as human as they may be. He could never return to the anonymous multitude from which he came. Fame, which had saved him from misery, had made him its prisoner9.
Diego’s appeal as a person doesn’t just come from his “inspirational” social rise – a man who started from a very low place (the Argentinian “misery town” of Villa Fiorito in the sixties, managing to rise above by virtue of his talent with the ball. Nor can it be understood without examining its caveats. Boca Juniors is indeed a big club, but it’s traditionally associated with the working class. Napoli belongs to a top league, but from the poorer, looked-down Italian South. Argentina is a CONMEBOL powerhouse, but it’s still a subordinated confederation’s powerhouse10. One might even raise the argument of FC Barcelona at the immediate post-Franco era being close to the idea of the underdog as well, even if he couldn’t really succeed there.
Later, he was still getting into fights, using a colorful vocabulary and being blunt in a way only an Argentine could be. The fact that he had a nice place in Dubai and all the cars he could possibly want, yet chose to live in Argentina, was another source of pride. The man didn’t just avoid forgetting his roots once he ascended; he remained close to them as he did so.
There’s also the fact of him being, if not the last player before the rise of marketing and the increasing curating of player’s images, then the last one who seized this freedom of sorts as much as he could. That bathed him in an aura of sincerity. You knew where he stood, and where you stood with him. There’s a reason why, as his behavior grew increasingly erratic in his final years, forsaking his own family, there could be patience, a perspective keener to see the manipulators other than his greater character flaw – the need to feel understood, and relating understanding with yes-manship.
With this I don’t want to make it seem like he had no agency. It’s hard to tell if he had it for the last few months, when a concerned Oscar Ruggeri would state he wasn’t sure it was him answering the texts. He did have it when he’d beat significant others, when he gladly partook in that sex party with (probably?) minor girls. I read somewhere how “he embodies our contradictions”. The genuinely good friend who couldn’t stay faithful to the mother of his daughters. The guy who made a flower-seller’s day by buying his entire stock, and telling him to give each woman in the restaurant a flower11. Who’d defined Peter Shilton, still bitter after 34 years, as a cabeza de termo who could still suck it12. Who would swear swore on his daughters’ names, but briefly cut contact because they dared say no to him. Who would receive the adoration of every stadium he visited, and would have to go, even if he could barely move. Who partook in drug prevention campaigns, after having wasted away his talent.
“The player I could’ve been had I not taken cocaine”.
It has been nearly 3 months since the news of Diego Armando Maradona’s passing broke on live TV. Since then, homages have been paid in the form of naming tournaments13, stadiums, minutes of silence, goals and shirts underneath. There was a massive wake, tear gas, selfies near the open casket, (finally) a private burial in a private resting place, and battles between the grieving family and the final entourage, with the latter poised to lose, if not legally, in the court of public opinion14.
For us who are left, who have to conciliate our nobler ideals with the consequences of them not being widely known in the recent past, there is some thought to be done. It is up to us to make sure no further myths are that tainted. But when it comes to folk heroes like Maradona, there’s a very thin line between proper criticism and what amounts to racism of intelligence towards the ones who love all of him.
In the 1996 Simpsons episode Lisa the Iconoclast, the 8-year-old title character comes very close to exposing the truth about town founder Jebediah Springfield,- a pirate, who’d tried to kill George Washington, and who looked down on the towns’ residents. However, upon realizing how much he means to the townsfolk, nearly two centuries after his passing, she ultimately refuses to say a word. Argentinians, who turned the making of Simpsons memes into an art form, would point to this as an example.
It could be said the episode is a product of its time, before the open questioning of the Founding Fathers. But so is Maradona. Maybe you couldn’t do such an episode today15. Then again, you couldn’t have someone like Maradona today, someone who was deemed God by virtue of being damn good at every aspect of the sport – the technical and the symbolic. Only the smallest dimension – the talent at the ball.
The truth is, Diego Armando Maradona, born on October 30th 1960, is gone. When writing the obituary, we’ll consider everything. The good and the crimes. The glory and the sin. The person is gone, we’ll just add the ending date. It’s the loss of someone who was truly brilliant and gave joy, while still part of a generation and a space-time that was, at best, playing catch-up.
It’s hard to say if we’ve reached some sort of a threshold knowledge contemporary adults between 18 and 40 should be very aware of. One would hope. As for those that came before, depending on the gravity of their actions (all of their actions), some understanding should be granted. Up to a point, there must be an acknowledgement of the complexity of a world that has changed faster than most of its inhabitants.
Or we simply accept there’s an irrational component in both love and football, and just mourn as every 25th day of every month goes by.
1 The former 90 Minutos de Fútbol (90 minutes of football), following the Disney-Fox merger’s effects in the Hispanic Latin American feeds. Unlike Brazil, it seems Argentina lacked anti-monopoly clauses that would force Disney to sell Fox Sports. So, they simply moved some journalists to ESPN and left Fox Sports to replay old games, as well as host games that aren’t of much interest- say, Dynamo Kiev-Ferencvarós playing simultaneous to Barcelona-Juventus.
2 The Malvinas/Falklands War, otherwise known as the South Atlantic conflict, was a war waged between Argentina and the United Kingdom from April to June 1982. From the Argentinian side, many young men doing their military service were sent to the near-Antarctic islands with poor equipment. Suffering the most losses, history still ran its course and the military junta who had terrorized the country since 1976 couldn’t keep their hold on power any further.
3 If you’d told me, a few years ago, the United Kingdom would be a particularly dangerous place to be a trans person, I would’ve found it hard to believe. Isn’t it the First World, after all?
4 By the way, she’s since gotten a job at TV chain C5N. She’s still not on speaking terms with her ex-partner’s daughters.
5 Mother of Dalma and Gianinna. Not the mother of Diego Jr., Jana and Diego Fernando. Of these three, two were conceived during their relationship, Diego Jr. (born in September 1986) being older than Dalma (born in April 1987). By the way, her recent triumph at Celebrity MasterChef was considered another Diego miracle, like Boca winning the tournament named after him following his passing.
6 Organization formed from the Madres de Plaza de Mayo, focused not only on their abducted children during the dictatorship of 1977-1983, but also on the whereabouts of their grandchildren, kidnapped at birth and placed into unlawful adoptions, robbed of their identities.
7 It’s up to the reader whether to read this word as if it had quote marks or not.
8 Since then, the problems faced by the country are different. I would hope, regardless, that dictatorship apologists would still feel ashamed enough to remain somewhat quiet and hide behind their dislike of Kirchnerism (and Peronism overall) instead of openly stating they are indeed cool with disappearing people and kidnapping their newborns.
9 Diego’s answer? Upon Galeano’s passing, he said “thank you for understanding me”.
10 As proven when there was nothing it could do to prevent the delay of its World Cup qualifiers, to UEFA clubs’ glee.
11 I read that last one on Twitter and I’m keeping it because it speaks volumes. Why do we women get flowers? If anything, we’d do away with the violence and keep the flowers. In fact, how about we exchange flowers and men don’t feel emasculated by it?
12 Not in the British sense of “try it” – the literal sense, involving the penis. And yes- when Shilton came in support of the Queen following Harry and Meghan’s Oprah interview, many non-Argentines were glad to remind him some words are immortal.
13 The Copa de la Liga Profesional became known for its last two thirds as the Copa Diego Armando Maradona.
14 As Dalma- Diego’s eldest daughter- wrote on her Instagram stories, Matías Morla- the last lawyer- is lucky he wasn’t allowed to go to the wake.
15 Both message-wise and quality-wise, obviously