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Remembering Maradona, A Soccer Superstar and a Champion of the Poor

“He carries the ball sewn to his foot and he’s got eyes all over his body,” one admirer wrote of Diego Maradona. In retirement, Maradona became outspoken about his leftist beliefs and was close friends with Fidel Castro.

Steven Wishnia Nov 27, 2020

The “hand of God” claimed Diego Armando Maradona, the player who Argentine fans sang was “mas grande que Pelé,” with a heart attack on November 25. A son of the Buenos Aires slums who said after visiting Pope John Paul II that if the church really cared about the poor, it’d sell the gold off the Vatican’s ceilings, he was 60.

He was not quick, the Uruguayan author Eduardo Galeano wrote in El Futbol a Sol y Sombra (Soccer in Sun and Shadow); he was “more like a short-legged bull, but he carries the ball sewn to his foot and he’s got eyes all over his body. His acrobatics light up the field.”

Born Oct. 30, 1960, Maradona was a star from the age of 12, when his Las Cebollitas youth team won more than 100 games in a row. He was the youngest player ever in Argentina’s top league, joining Argentinos Juniors when he was not quite 16. At 25, he led the country’s national team to the 1986 World Cup championship, his quick, sharp pass setting up the winning goal against West Germany with four minutes left. He won league championships with clubs in Argentina and Italy, and Argentina was runner-up in the 1990 World Cup despite Maradona playing with what Galeano described as “one foot swelled up like a pumpkin.”

His legend was cemented by the two goals he scored when Argentina beat England in the 1986 quarterfinals, one dubbed the “Hand of God,” the other the “goal of the century.”

The game was laden with off-the-field portents: Four years before, Argentina’s sadistic military dictatorship, deciding that a war might shore up its crumbling popular support, invaded Britain’s Falkland Islands colony off the coast to reclaim the islands they called the Malvinas. British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher decided that a war against the Argies would be more popular than her class war on British workers. Britain won after torpedoing an Argentine battleship, killing more than 300 sailors.

With the score 0-0 early in the second half, Maradona, left fist cocked against his head, outjumped English goalkeeper Peter Shilton to intercept a backpass and send it into the net. The broadcast film was unclear whether it was his head or his hand that hit the ball, but other angles showed that he’d punched it in. Maradona famously said the goal was scored “a little with the head of Diego Maradona and a little with the hand of God.”

The “goal of the century” came less than five minutes later. Stealing the ball in the Argentine half, Maradona raced down the pitch, juked through more than half the English eleven, and lined the ball into the net with his left foot as the last two defenders converged on him and sportscaster Victor Hugo Morales screamed “Genius! Genius!”

With professional soccer globalizing in the 1980s and the big European clubs buying up players from the Latin American and African leagues, Maradona spent most of his career in Europe. The Buenos Aires club Boca Junior sold him to Barcelona, but his time in Spain was plagued by injuries and racist taunts about his half-indigenous ancestry. He led Napoli to two Italian championships, in 1986-87 and 1989-90, but left the team after he was suspended for using cocaine in 1991. He was kicked out of the 1994 World Cup after he tested positive for the over-the-counter stimulant ephedrine.

Jugó, venció, meó, perdió,” Galeano commented. “He played, he won, he peed, he lost.”

Later that year, Maradona joined an unsuccessful effort to organize a union of international players, seeking a voice in scheduling and a fair share of World Cup revenue. He returned to Argentina and retired in 1997.

In later life, he became outspoken about his leftist beliefs. He was also hospitalized several times for heart problems, cocaine and alcohol addiction, and severe obesity. After he went to a Cuban rehab clinic in 2000, he became close to President Fidel Castro, and eventually got tattoos of the faces of Fidel and Che Guevara. When U.S. President George W. Bush came to Argentina in 2005, Maradona, then a TV talk-show host, called for a protest march against the “murderer.” He also denounced President Mauricio Macri’s 2017 veto of a bill to limit layoffs when “people can’t fill their pots and millionaires are becoming richer,” as well as the overthrow last year of Bolivian President Evo Morales.

Maradona fist-bumps Hugo Chavez as Fidel Castro looks on (2011). Photo: Globovision/Flickr.

It is hard for people in the U.S., where soccer is mostly played by suburban kids and immigrants from Central and South America, to understand the devotion to Maradona. When I was in Buenos Aires during the 2002 World Cup, commerce and traffic the day of Argentina’s game against England shut down like a Hasidic neighborhood on a Saturday morning, except for the secular temples of the cafés and bars showing the match. A song called “Tanta Gloria, Tanto Futbol” lauded Maradona, and with Argentina facing elimination if it couldn’t beat Sweden, TV ads for the game, which began at 3 a.m., depicted him pushing all the buzzers in an apartment building to wake people up.

“The ball never pricked the ground, he elevated it with his head, a juggler, a performer,” Buenos Aires rock musician Jorge “Gitano” Castle, who as a boy saw Maradona play for the Argentinos Juniors youth team, wrote on social media. “The greatest footballer of all time, the Muhammad Ali of football.”
Victor Hugo Morales’ commentary on the “goal of the century” makes a fitting epitaph. “Gooool! Goool! I want to cry!” he screamed. “Holy God, long live football! Golazo! Diego! Maradona! It’s enough to make you cry, excuse me. Maradona, in an unforgettable run, in the play of all time! Cosmic comet, what planet did you come from?”

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