Maradona, both football legend and redeemer
Among the countless tragedies 2020 brought to us was Diego Maradona’s untimely demise. The legendary Argentinian football player passed away on November 25 at the age of 60 due to a heart attack at his home in Argentina.
Maradona is definitely so much more than just the greatest football player ever. He took football way beyond the pitch, elevated it to a political act and gave hope and a great feeling of redemption to millions of poor and marginalized football fans. He proved that skill per se does not make a lasting difference; one also needs to have courage, conscience, and resilience.
Maradona is remembered as much for his amazing skill as for his rebelliousness and challenges to authority and structures of power– something that is conspicuously absent in so many sport figures today, not to mention scientists, journalists, and artists. These acts, like those of Muhammad Ali, were always meant to provide protection for the weak, those who could not defend themselves on the global level.
Maradona became the legend he is today not just because of his performance on the pitch but also because of the close ties he established with fans. He always insisted he was playing for the people rather than the owners and the powerful elites who had the luxury boxes. And even in his struggle with addiction, he always remained honest and down-to-earth. “I made mistakes, and I paid for them, but the ball is never stained,” he once noted.
Maradona was proud to have been born and raised in Villa Fiorito, a shantytown on the southern outskirts of Buenos Aires, to which his parents moved from the province of Corrientes in the far northeast of the country. Their house was built from loose bricks, sheets of metal, and had literally no running water or electricity. Maradona’s talent was discovered at around the age of 11 by the youth side of Argentinos Juniors club, los Cebollitas (the Little Onions), where he soon became a national phenomenon.
After playing for Boca Juniors, a popular Buenos Aires team for a number of years, in 1982 Maradona moved to Europe to play for top teams there. His first team was the wealthy FC Barcelona, where he failed to adapt because of injuries and strong racism towards South Americans in general.
This is mainly the reason why in 1984 he decided to take his talents to one of Western Europe’s poorest cities: Naples in Italy. It should not come as a surprise that Maradona immediately identified with his Napoli teammates and the Neapolitans, who were often called the “Africans of Italy” by the Northerners. Italy’s rich north has always looked down on the poorer and less developed south, causing a great deal of tension between the two regions even on the football pitch.
Maradona broke the established dominance of the north in the Italian football league, helping lead Napoli to win their first Serie A title back in 1985. As the Italian writer Roberto Saviano wrote in an article for La Repubblica newspaper, “Maradona was the redemption. Yes, redemption … because a team from the South had never won an Italian championship, a team from the South had never won a UEFA Cup, a team from the South had never been the center of world attention.”
In Napoli, Maradona never hesitated to confront the club owners over unfair pay and policies. For instance, in 1984, he went against the will of the executives and organized a charity game on a muddy field in one of poorest suburbs of Naples to help pay for the medical treatment of a poor child.
Because of this and many other similar acts of solidarity with the local people, Neapolitans came to worship Maradona so much so that many supported Argentina in the semifinal of the 1990 World Cup against Italy which, coincidentally, was played in Naples.
In his home country, Argentina, Maradona was also very popular. The fact that Argentineans from all ethnic origins and social classes cherish him is an indication they saw much more than a sportsman whenever he appeared on or off the football field. In 1986, he turned into a national hero after scoring two extraordinary goals in what is considered the most politically charged World Cup game in football history.
Just four years after the Argentinian military unsuccessfully tried to seize control of two British-occupied territories in the South Atlantic in what is known as the Malvinas (Falkland) wars, England and Argentina met in the World Cup quarterfinals. Maradona knew this was a good chance to honor the memory of the hundreds of Argentinians who died in the war but also the millions of people across the Global South who had been murdured by colonial forces over centuries.
The first goal Maradona scored became widely known as the “hand of God”. The second, the “goal of the century”. English fans have never really forgiven Maradona for these goals; they still feel a burning humiliation after the deceit of the first and the transcendent skill of the second.
Argentinians, however, celebrated a savior who managed to upset Margaret Thatcher’s England at the peak of its neo-imperial power. Asked in October by France Football what his 60th birthday dream gift would be, Maradona ironically answered, “To score another goal against the English, with the right hand this time!”
For Argentinians – and millions of other fans – Maradona was a true symbol of redemption from all those who looked down on and subjugated them. After his retirement as a professional player in 1997, this defiance took an even greater global scale.
Maradona publicly supported a union for professional football players and publicly decried the corruption that engulfed FIFA. He also supported the Palestinian cause and such leftist South American leaders as Fidel Castro, Hugo Chavez, and Evo Morales, who were united in their opposition to America imperialism. In 2005, he marched at the enormous protest for the fourth Summit of the Americas, with a T-shirt that described George W Bush as a war criminal.
Maradona’s rebelliousness and challenges to authority and structures of power had much to do with the conviction that social justice cannot be kept separate from sports such as soccer. Unfortunately, today with increasing corporate pressure to take politics out of sport arenas, professional players and athletes are severely penalized for political statements and acts of solidarity with poor, marginalized and discriminated communities.
As we remember and honor Maradona’s memory, we also have to embrace his legacy as well and continue to resist the commercialization of sport and the marginalization of social justice within it. His life is full of valuable lessons for everyone in the world, especially the people of African whose home continent has been the subject of exploitation and oppression by western superpowers.