Diego Maradona was 5 ft 5 inches (1.65 meters). He stood on the field as a “short-legged bull” as Eduardo Galeano said, with ball in between his legs. Due to his low center of gravity, high agility and short stature, Maradona could wade past defenders and overcome tight human walls with ease. The world watched him with mouths agape to grasp what had happened on the pitch. Was that a dribble, a step over, a rainbow or a rabona? How did he do that? What is this small man doing against an entire army of rivals waiting just to take him down? These questions never had satisfying closures than his sudden death yesterday after a cardiac arrest.
What made Maradona such atowering personalityto inspire generations to obsess over him? What was that aura which made people across social, political and geographical boundaries to follow him as rats (or children) of Hamelin? Let us try to dive deep into such a giant cult by examining professional and social aspects of his life.
Maradona the Footballer
This insatiable urge for playing impulsive and beautiful football was Maradona’s important proclivity. Hailing from the rich tradition of Creole football, the game to him was more an art achieved through creative and imaginative efforts than disciplinary progress of players. His high metabolism, exceptional skill and techniques, acceleration, close control, high level intelligence on closed spaces, outstanding vision and leadership qualities had attracted many big clubs.
People began calling him “El Pibe de Oro” (The Golden Kid) watching his advanced style of play. Maradona broke all transfer fee records by migrating to Barcelona for 5 million euros in 1982. Europe had never seen such a blistering talent before and the press called him a prodigal talent no one could stop.
Then came his legendary stint at Napoli. The port town club was founded by sons of prostitutes and ship workers of color and was denigrated as scums of south in Italian league. People came to watch Napoli’s games just to shout racist slurs and abuses since they thought maggots of south should remember where they stood.
Maradona came and Napoli had begun winning. His inspiring individual football and motivating field presence resurrected the club which irked many opponents. Napoli was redeemed from centuries’ old humiliation and Maradona was their messiah. But people from north called Maradonaas “ham with curls”.
Maradona played fourWorld Cups in 1982, 1986, 1990 and 1994 and he had led the team in three tournaments. They had reached finals in 1986 and won the cup. The ‘86 World Cup saw Maradona playing the most impressive episode of his international career scoring 5 five goals. And the most memorable of them came in quarter finals against England. The first one was a cunning left hand goal and named the mysterious goal as “the hand of god”. The second was an unparalleled run of Maradona dribbling past five defenders and legendary English goalkeeper Peter Shilton. This is called the “goal of the century”. The whole world stood with their mouths open to comprehend what had transpired in EstadioAsteca of Mexico.
Argentina reached World Cup finals again in 1990 under Maradona. His foots were swollen up and could not move unlike in his prime but managed to get his team till finals. And 1994 World Cup saw the infamous ouster of Maradona from the tournament after failing in dope tests. A weight-loss drug Ephedrine was found in his urinal samples and made him a fallen angel among his rabid followers. Maradona was suddenly became just a sparring street thug who wanted to taste eternity through crooked ways.
Maradona was earlier arrested for cocaine use in 1993 at his home town of Buenos Aires. The media had covered it live and people got their satisfactory release for it. Maradona had used cocaine to stay out of pressure the same paparazzi had exerted.Ephedrine scandal was a convenient incident they could point to malign Maradona as a street phony who brought shame.
Why were the press, football elites and authorities this outraged by a short man who had nothing but very common human flaws? Does this desperateness point to something more hideous? Something more structural?
Maradona the Socialist
Maradona was highly vocal about many injustices in football and in the outside world. He first spoke of television’s dictatorship in fixing tournament schedules in 1986 World Cup along with his teammate Valdano..The 1986 World Cup television rights were given to Televisa, a Mexican private television network owned by Guillermo Canedo, who later served as FIFA’s vice president in several terms. Players had to play under scorching sun of Mexico to telecast the matches at dinner times in Asian countries. Maradona had come up with same criticism again in 1990 during United States (U.S.) World Cup. But he had already become the street wannabe who never deserved any appreciations the world had showed!
Maradona also spoke for organizing professional players and forming a union for raising issues of labour rights. At the end of 1994 after his infamous expulsion from World Cup, Maradona along with Stoichkov, Bebeto, Francescoli,Laudrup, Zamorano, Hugo Sánchez, and other players started organizing footballers to form a union. They had successfully formed one named “International Association of Professional Football Players”. And their continuous deliberations, demonstrations and strikes had won better contracts and pays but to not much avail.
What irked the elites and authorities about Maradona was this firm opposition to commercialization of football.
Outside football, Maradona was a staunch anti-imperialist and supporter of self-determination of Latin America. He had proudly sported tattoos of Argentinian revolutionary Che Guevara on his hand and former Cuban president Fidel Castro on his leg When Maradona fell ill of his overweight and drug addiction, Cuba came to his rescue. He spoke highly of their world class health system ever since. Maradona was friends with Venezuelan socialist leader Hugo Chavez and Bolivian leader Evo Morales. He supported Chavez when the latter had introduced an income redistribution scheme for the poor when he was the president.
Maradona stood firmly against imperialist advances of U.S.governments in Afghanistan and Iraq. He came out in public wearing T-shirts with captions calling the then U.S. president George.W. Bush as a war criminal. And he had famously said: “I hate everything that comes from United States”. He was also a sharp critic of Israeli occupation in Palestine. He said in 2018, “in my heart I’m a Palestinian”and “I am a defender of the Palestinian people, I respect them and sympathize with them, I support Palestine without fear”.
Maradona visited India thrice in 2008, 2012 and 2017. The first and last visits were to West Bengal. And he had met with veteran communist leader JyotiBasu during his first visit. Basu, former chief minister of the state, had shown pictures of him with Fidel Castro from 1973. Maradona had famously said, “you have seen Fidel Castro closely whom I regard in high esteem. So, in that respect, I consider you close to me”. Next visit was to inaugurate a bronze statue of him holding the 1986 World Cup. In 2012, Maradona came to Kerala to inaugurate a Jewelry showroom in Kannur. A huge crowd turned up to see him and express their affection.
Maradona the symbol
Maradona was a liberating symbol for many inside and outside football. His free flowing football had immense emancipatory potential and space for unbound fantasies. It embodied the break away from shackles of disciplined football of the times. He had redefined the game and set new aesthetics to analyse it. People were at awe to watch such a liberated, beautiful and outstanding performance by someone who looked very much incapable of it. Maradona stood against whole armies of rival players and inspired his teammates to confront themwith freewheeling ballet movements. He was also inviting the world to take part along with him. This confrontational nature with his immaculate football techniques made Maradona a hero people have obsessively been worshipping. Maradona still is a symbol for such emancipatory football though there were blots on his professional career and massive campaigns by elites. This should be seen along with his strong political expressions inside and outside football. Maradona stood firm for footballers’ rights and anti-imperial, socialist movements across the world. He openly announced solidarity for historical injustices such as in Palestine. His thirst for freedom was not just limited to football but spread over to the liberation of humanity from shackles of any forms of oppression. People saw him not just as a miracle, but a genuine hope for liberation. Hence, for millions he was the David who stood up against many Goliathsof systemic oppression and his death is as shocking as of their own kins.