Friend of the downtrodden, enemy of imperialism: Diego Maradona transcended football to become a ‘voice for the voiceless’.
Argentine football legend Diego Maradona, who died yesterday of a heart attack at the age of 60, was one of the few that transcended his sport to become a global cultural icon. That his death is being mourned in equal measure from the streets of Buenos Aires, Napoli to Kolkota is a testament to how deeply he connected with people of all stripes, shades and geographies.
Nothing sums up Maradona better than the streets of Naples. Every working-class district has its homage to him, decades after he left Napoli. The People’s Champ. pic.twitter.com/h59tfVqZBH— Ronan Burtenshaw (@ronanburtenshaw) November 25, 2020
A painter draws a portrait of Maradona on the walls of a destroyed home in Syria.— Goal India (@Goal_India) November 26, 2020
Diego's legacy will live on across the world. pic.twitter.com/XvjtqZUrZg
As an athlete, the diminutive Maradona was the equivalent of Picasso with a football; his prodigious, otherworldly skills and raw genius saw him carry relatively mediocre teams on his back to the promised land – most famously Argentina to World Cup glory in 1986. His charisma and ability to elevate those around him to exceed their abilities on the pitch was incomparable.
Off the field, Maradona lived a life of excess and addiction, which undoubtedly put a strain on his heart; he was complicated, tormented, self-destructive — human. But he also lived a life with a huge spirit – one filled with unbridled passion and a streak of rebelliousness.
A figure with a range of eclectic views, Maradona was a man firmly of the world. And perhaps as notably, he was never afraid to stake out controversial political stances.
Maradona’s story was an archetypal rag-to-riches one – born as the fifth of eight children into abject poverty in the Villa Fiorito barrio of Buenos Aires, it was a harsh upbringing that he would never forget.
That experience explains why he saw himself as a champion for the downtrodden; he embodied the athlete that never strayed from his roots and chose to stand with the impoverished when he didn’t have to.
His parents were devout Peronists – the populist dynasty that has dominated Argentinian politics since 1945 – and they even had pictures of both Evita and Juan Peron at home.
Peronism was linked to and immensely popular with the club Boca Juniors, where Maradona first came up.
He called himself “the voice of the voiceless” and a “representative” of the people, and was generous with his money to a fault.
He played a public role championing leftwing leaders across Latin America, lending them international appeal.
He admired Cuban leader Fidel Castro and fellow Argentine revolutionary Che Guevara so much that he had gotten a tattoo of Castro’s face on his leg and donned another of Guevara on his arm.
He credited Castro for helping him kick his drug addiction after spending four years in Cuba. In a twist of fate, he died on the same date, Nov. 25, as his idol did four years ago.
He backed Hugo Chavez’s social reforms for the poor in Venezuela, stood by his successor Nicolas Maduro, and voiced his support for Bolivian President Evo Morales in the face of what he called a “coup” against the country’s first indigenous leader.
His steadfast opposition to the US was well documented.
In 2007, he made contentious statements about the US on a talk show hosted by Chavez, who was also critical of the US.
“I hate everything that comes from the United States. I hate it with all my strength,” Maradona said to audience applause.
It wasn’t the first time he criticised the US. In 2005, he donned a “Stop Bush” t-shirt (with the “s” in “Bush” written as a swastika) to protest then-President George W. Bush’s visit to Argentina.
“I’m proud as an Argentine to repudiate the presence of this human trash, George Bush,” he said.
More than a decade later, he likened President Donald Trump to a “cartoon character,” while praising Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Maradona’s political rhetoric was one unabashedly coursing with the Latin American populist tradition, one that stood for the self-determination and dignity of a region that long suffered from US intervention and imperial designs.
It was a translatable sentiment for global struggles too. He had long been vocal in his support for the Palestinian cause and criticised Israeli violence, and in 2018 he embraced Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and told him “In my heart, I’m Palestinian.”
“In my heart, I am Palestinian.”— Salem Barahmeh (@Barahmeh) November 25, 2020
RIP Diego Armando Maradona.
In our hearts we were all Argentinian, imitating your dribbling and goals in the neighbourhoods of Palestine. I’m sure like other kids all over the world. pic.twitter.com/6NU3PNeL2r
It’s not to say that sport itself could not be political. It was evident in the North-South divide in Italy during his legendary stint with the club Napoli, playing in a working-class southern city which he saw himself reflected in.
The 1986 World Cup quarter-final against England itself was shot through with political undertones. Maradona said that the goals that had been scored “a little with the head of Maradona and a little with the hand of God,” were revenge for the Falklands War between England and Argentina four years earlier.
In an excerpt from his book ‘Touched by God’, Maradona said that the Argentine team would prefer to “have gone out there with a machine gun” to take down the English, mentioning that the Falklands War was on their mind during the build-up to the game.
In many ways, Maradona’s legacy is analogous like another icon that transcended his sport, Muhammad Ali. Both were loved not just for being masters at their respective crafts, but for their (un)popular anti-imperialist positions and solidarity with the people of the Global South.
And like Ali, the mercurial Maradona refused to conform to how elite athletes were supposed to act and handle themselves in the sporting business. They were legendary iconoclasts – divisive during their time but eventually catalogued with enduring legacies that few can match.
As much as for his prowess on the football field, he will be remembered for his standing up for millions of people across the globe.
Diego Maradona: Hasta Siempre!