The life of Diego Maradona epitomised the working-class soul of Argentinian football and mirrored the country he loved
In his native Argentina he may have been a god, but the end of his international career proved that he was human after all. For the 1994 World Cup, Diego Armando Maradona had shed 26 pounds, a superhuman effort to get back into physical shape. The fevered celebration after his goal against Greece, however, told a different story. The random drug test later found ephedrine, phenylpropanolamine, pseudoephedrine, non-pseudo-ephedrine and methylephedrine in his body. A medical official on FIFA’s executive committee stated, “Maradona must have taken a cocktail of drugs because the five identified substances are not found in one medicine.” After only two matches, Maradona, who had previously led Argentina to two World Cup finals in succession, was suspended for the rest of the tournament.
Of course, there was denial laced with self-pity (a fail-safe approach in such matters). Sitting in his untidy hotel room Maradona looked forlorn, like a child who had only just understood the consequences of its actions. “Me cortaron las piernas” (They have cut off my legs), was his response, laying the blame elsewhere. Had he read Rayuela by his fellow Argentine Julio Cortázar, he would have been struck by Jacques Vaché’s maxim: “Rien ne tue un homme comme d’être obligé de représenter un pays” (Nothing kills a man as much as having to represent his country).
Much has been made of Maradona’s duality, especially in the encomia that have followed the Argentinian’s untimely death last month. The two goals he scored against England in the Azteca stadium at the 1986 World Cup have come to epitomise two very different forces at play in his psyche. It is a point well made but, perhaps, made too often. First the sleight of hand—in this case “la mano de Dios” (the hand of God)—which took advantage of an oblivious referee; then the most elegant coup de grâce in a goal of sublime beauty. On the one hand the cheat; on the other the artist. Both goals—each in possession of genius—said as much about Argentina as they did about El Diego. Twenty years after the match, Maradona’s teammate, Jorge Valdano, sought to analyse what he had witnessed at close quarters:
With the second goal I realised immediately what it meant. Not only for Argentina. I have seen many goals but this one had everything. It had significance. In a match of the greatest importance symbolically, Maradona showed two characteristics of the Argentinian. In the first goal it shows the trick [cheat], that which is known in Argentina as picardía criolla [creole craftiness] or viveza [cunning]. Argentina is a country in which deceit [deception] is held in more esteem than honesty. But it also has another face. It is that of virtuosity and skill. With the second goal Maradona crowns the match with a work of art. It is skill, dribbling, la nuestra [our game]. Another esteemed factor in Argentinian football is that it is more important to know how to dribble than to know how to pass.
That England felt cheated reinforced a certain high-handedness prevalent in the English game, an innate ability to invoke “fair play”. A subconscious mantra had long obtained: foreigners cheat, we don’t. Steve Hodge, off whose boot the ball came before making contact with Maradona’s hand, was surprisingly impartial: “He took a chance, he cheated, and he got away with it.” Others weren’t so forgiving, especially the British press. But then both countries had form both on and off the pitch.
The unsanctioned and unsuccessful British invasions of the River Plate in 1806-1807 put paid to the idea of Anglo colonisation in South America. After all, the local criollos (creoles) were unwilling to substitute one colonial master for another. Even Lord Castlereagh realised “the hopeless task of conquering this extensive country against the temper of its population”. Thereafter the British employed a more nuanced approach to the region, and sought control “informally” through commerce. But it was through the British social clubs, established across the continent, that sport began to flourish.
In the 20th century, football would reinforce identity in a region made up of artificial borders. Each republic cast its own origin myth as exceptionalism. It was here that national spirit crystallised: in Uruguay it was la garra charrúa (tenacity), Brazil had futebol arte (art) and Argentina la nuestra (our game). The soul of the Argentinian game was a working-class one. In the potreros and baldíos (vacant lots) of Buenos Aires, the pibe (kid) would play with a pelota de trapo (rag ball), a sock stuffed with rags and a weight. This trope was furthered in the pages of the leading sports weekly El Gráfico. By 1948, football was being used in cinema to propagate a nationalist message. Pelota de trapo, which charts the rise of a kid from the barrio (neighbourhood) to the national team, unequivocally asked working-class Argentinians to define themselves not only parochially but also by their nationality.
In the same year, amidst great celebration, Argentina’s president Juan Domingo Perón nationalised the railway companies, the majority of which had been under British ownership. This was in effect an act of economic independence from Britain, one that Perón so firmly believed in that “if my political career, or even my physical life, were to end today I would die with the intimate satisfaction that I had paid off my debt to Argentina. Men perish. The patria [fatherland] remains and its well-being is what matters.” Perón also raised the question of Argentina’s “lost” territories and had school texts rewritten to include
Argentinian sovereignty of the Falklands. For a new generation of Argentinians, the British became synonymous with privateering—piratas (pirates) being the most common epithet, a sardonic nod to Francis Drake.
Born into the working-class slum of Villa Fiorito, El Diego would fulfil the myth of the pibe. His parents, Chitoro and La Tota, had come to the capital from the northern province of Corrientes on a wave of internal migration encouraged by Perón. Labelled los cabecitas negras (little blackheads), these urban poor were either darker skinned or of mixed race heritage. By extending the social rights of the working classes, Perón had engendered the loyalty of a swathe of society hitherto overlooked. Here was the Peronism’s heartland. Maradona would later state proudly, “Yes, I am a ‘blackhead’ and proud of it. I’ll never forget where I came from.”
Even as a ten-year-old, showing off his ball-juggling skills at half-time, he reminded spectators of a player from an earlier, more golden age. Before El Diego even started playing professionally he was already mired in nostalgia. He would become el pibe de oro (the golden kid) incarnate, having developed his skills on the hard-earth pitches of the slum. It was here he learned the art of being “clever” at someone else’s expense. As the saying goes: “El vivo vive del zonzo y el zonzo de su trabajo” (The smart one lives off the fool, and the fool off his job).
Driven on by an unshakable sense of his own destiny—and manifest destiny in case of Argentina—Maradona became the country’s most famous export, first at Barcelona then at Napoli. The realisation, shortly before the 1982 World Cup, that the Falklands conflict might have a different outcome from the one advertised by the junta, was a blow to El Diego. The tournament was also an unhappy one, which led Pelé to ask whether the Argentinian had the “sufficient greatness as a person to justify being honoured by a worldwide audience”. (The two would have an uneasy relationship over the years.) The fact that a junta with a stained human rights record had taken the country to war needlessly did not stop Maradona from exacting revenge on England four years later.
Once his playing days were over, El Diego’s life became a sequence of comebacks and conspiracies. He developed a penchant for Latin American populist leaders—Menem, Castro, Morales, Kircher, Chávez—who were always obliging both on and off camera. His private life, what was left of it, was constantly played out in public. A further low point was the firing of an air rifle at journalists outside his home in Buenos Aires. There was always umbrage to be taken and a fight to be picked.
It takes not only talent but also audacity and arrogance to become a great player on an international stage. So many have the former; so few the latter. However much El Diego believed in himself as a player, he was unable to maintain that same certainty for himself. The posturing, the verbal and physical aggressions, failed to mask that insecurity. Analysing the Argentinian’s career, one psychologist found that the “grandiose and delusional beliefs exact a heavy price on the psyche and Maradona paid in full. Flip over a messianic delusion and you’ll find doubt, insecurity and often self-loathing.”
Sadly, there will now be no regeneration, no resurrection, no return to former glories. In time, the failings and the false starts will be forgotten. Perhaps in death Maradona will be preserved. The myth will hold sway over the reality; the pibe de oro will no longer disappoint. But for Argentinians, Maradona will continue to epitomise a sense of Argentinidad (Argentine-ness) that they find difficult to articulate. In many ways, he mirrored the country that he loved. The irony was that he provided certainty for his people whilst unable to do so for himself.