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Maradona: San Diego

On Diego Armando Maradona's thirty-seventh birthday, he received news that his father had died. Then he received news that this news was not true. Shaken by the experience, and doubtless reading into it various arcane and mystical significances, Maradona immediately announced his retirement.
David Hawkes

Issue #35, November 1997

October 30, 1997, was Diego Armando Maradona's thirty-seventh birthday. That day, he received news that his father had died. Then he received news that this news was not true. Shaken by the experience, and doubtless reading into it various arcane and mystical significances, Maradona immediately announced his retirement from soccer. This is the sixth time in his career that he has made such an announcement, but it is probably the last. In August, Maradona tested positive for cocaine after a match for his present team, Buenos Aires' famous Boca Juniors. The first time he tested positive for cocaine, in 1991, he received a fifteen-month suspension. He received another fifteen month suspension in 1994, after being thrown out of the World Cup in disgrace, the "performance enhancer" ephedrine coursing through his veins.

Like almost everyone else, only more, world soccer's governing body FIFA hates Maradona. They will certainly persecute him to the fullest possible extent. Unless he can prove his claim that someone spiked his tonic water with cocaine, Maradona's playing career is over. As his previous experiments in that direction have proved, Maradona conspicuously lacks the "leadership" skills required to function as a coach. It is possible to imagine all sorts of interesting futures for Diego Maradona, but they do not involve an active role in soccer. Nor is Maradona likely to follow the dignified footsteps of Pele to a ministerial position in his national government.

Although one never knows. Diego has always shown a keen interest in politics. Over the last couple of years, he has increased the distaste with which he is viewed by soccer's governing bodies by campaigning for the formation of an international union of players. He speaks admiringly of Castro, muses about moving to Cuba, and it is reported that he has agreed to play in Iraq, wearing the Iraqi national colors to protest the embargo. Of more significance is the tattoo of Che Guevara that Diego now sports on his forearm. Like Maradona, Che was a porteño -- a native of Buenos Aires -- and a man of grandiose aspirations to heroism and fierce lust for martyrdom. Guevara essentially committed suicide in the hope that his death would provoke the third world war. In the rash of studies and biographies that has broken out with this year's thirtieth anniversary of Guevara's death, as well as the reunion between los Manos del Che and the rest of him, it seems likely that, secluded in rehab, Maradona would have found a moment to learn and reflect on the life of his countryman.

There is a famous photograph of Maradona, under arrest for cocaine possession in 1991. Unshaven and leather-jacketed, Maradona is being hustled bodily through a doorway by a white, mustachioed Argentine cop. It is like an image from recent South American history; the continental Dirty War, in which Guevarist students in every country took up arms in the mountains, taking Che's martyrdom as a blueprint for practical revolutionary action. They did not recognize a futile gesture when they saw one, nor did they understand the importance of futile gestures. The tragic mistake of the Latin American Left in the 1960's and 70's was to assume that the pattern of the Cuban Revolution could be repeated, that a small group of armed men could conquer a nation, or a continent.

In reality, Cuba was a freak. Castro's aim was martyrdom, not conquest. He fully, and reasonably, expected to die in the raid on the Moncada barracks, and again when he decided to fight on following the deaths of all but eleven of his troops. Similarly, it is hard to believe that Che expected his Bolivian adventure to end otherwise than it did. He was addressing himself to a peculiarly Latin American conception of martyrdom. This was immediately recognized by the Indian women who spread the word of the dead Guevara's resemblance to Christ, by the CIA officer who captured him and carried his last plug of tobacco in his pistol handle as a relic, and by the soldier who actually killed him, who is tormented by nightmares and remorse. Surely this is the aspect of Che that appeals to Maradona, a man who has reason to understand the value of martyrdom and the importance of futile gestures.

He is not alone in this. As with all folk heroes, there is a sense in which Maradona, like Che, embodies and represents the aspirations of entire communities. The recent history of Argentine soccer is intimately involved with that country's internal politics, foreign relations, and collective psyche. In 1982, a young Argentine priest arrived on the Falkland Islands, to boost the morale of the young conscripts who had just snatched the territory from Great Britain. The time had come, he told a television interviewer, for Argentina to have some real heroes: "No, I'm not talking about footballers, I mean heroism in the Greek sense of the word." The comment is almost touching in its candid pathos.

The invasion of the Falklands was the desperate gamble of a society which saw itself in catastrophic decline. Before the Second World War, Argentina had a more prosperous economy than Sweden or Australia. Its citizens won a reputation among Latin Americans for arrogance, for snobbery, for looking to Europe rather than America for cultural inspiration. By the 1970's, however, Argentina felt itself to be mired in the third world. Hyperinflation, military dictatorship punctuated by demagogory, guerrilla warfare and a general atmosphere of terror and chaos were prominent features of its experience. In 1976 the most brutal and effective military coup yet displaced Isabelita Peron. In the ensuing "Dirty War" tens of thousands of young Leftist Argentinians "disappeared," suspected of ties to the various guerrilla groups who were also being systematically exterminated by the army.

It was in this atmosphere that FIFA, the intensely conservative governing body of world soccer, went ahead with its decision to hold the 1978 World Cup in Argentina. Like fascists everywhere, General Videla viewed national sporting success as essential to the prestige of his regime, and he was proved right when Argentina's victory in the competition produced a euphoria which distracted his countrymen from more depressing matters. The manner of the victory, however, was less than heroic. Indeed, there were mutterings about the performance of "El Loco", a Peruvian goalkeeper who allowed six goals in a game where Argentina needed to win by four in order to advance. There were even grumblings about the referee in the final, where an uninspired Argentinian team gouged and hacked their way to victory against an artistic Dutch eleven.

The Argentinians did not know it, but by behaving in this ostentatiously unsportsmanlike manner, they were confirming certain deep ideological prejudices in the minds of some observers. I recall how in Britain, in particular, the final was interpreted as a conflict between honest Protestant Nordics and devious Catholic Latins. Soccer relations between England and Argentina had always been as bad as political and cultural ties had been close. The many English sailors and railway workers who settled in Argentina at the last turn of the century had introduced soccer, and even today the names of Argentina's most illustrious soccer teams, such as Newell's Old Boys, have an English Victorian flavor. But the style of the game, and its social function, developed in different and contradictory ways in South America as compared to Europe. When London's Chelsea toured Argentina in 1929, they were so horrified by the conditions in Buenos Aires -- the moats and barbed wire around the pitch, the gun-toting spectators, the ungentlemanly conduct of their opponents, the flares and whistles, the bias of the referee -- that they wrote a letter of complaint to the Football Association.

During the 1960's, British teams gradually ended their sniffy isolation and began to compete in the big international soccer tournaments. The reaction of the public and press to seeing their boys competing against various breeds of swarthy coves was predictable: they invoked every Anglo-Saxon prejudice about Frogs, Krauts, Clogs and Sprouts they could think of. But the most dastardly opponents were reputed to be the Latins. British boys' comics of the period regularly featured stories in which Melchester Rovers triumphed over the machinations of FC Machiavelli or Sporting Torquemada. A favorite Dago trick was to pretend to be injured, and when the fair-minded Englishman tried to help them up, dig their long, effeminate nails into his flesh, thus provoking him to retaliation and ensuring his expulsion from the game. Such preconceptions undoubtedly colored the public's perception of an admittedly brutal encounter between Argentina and England in the 1966 World Cup, which was hosted and won by England. The game descended into a brawl, and culminated in the dismissal of the Argentine captain, Antonio "el Rata" Rattin. Rattin, who resembled Eli Wallach in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, confirmed the anticipations of the English crowd by spitting at the referee and cursing and stamping his way off the field. Following the English victory the coach, Alf Ramsey, happily described his opponents as "animals" and "scum".

The Argentine victory of 1978 was regarded by Argentines as revenge for past injustices, and by the English as the result of Fascist tactics imported to the football pitch. One Argentine who also had cause to complain of political intrigue was the seventeen year-old Diego Maradona, the most remarkable prodigy ever seen in Argentine soccer. Maradona was deemed too "immature" for selection, but he smarted over the injustice all his life. Born dirt-poor in the slums of Buenos Aires, he was impelled by family pressure to liberate himself and those around him from misery. He therefore did not allow the setback of the World Cup to impair his genius, and he quickly became recognized as the best player in Argentina, some said in the world. He reached the apogee of his early career with Buenos Aires' famous Boca Juniors, with whom he won the League title in 1981. La Boca is a tumultuous proletarian neighborhood in Buenos Aires' dockland. It is the heart of the city's huge Italian community. Most of its residents are one or two generations removed from Sicily, Calabria or Naples. Boca Juniors have always been regarded as the team of the working-class. This is born out in their deadly rivalry with the bourgeois River Plate, whose English name and nickname of "the millionaires" testify to their class associations. Games between Boca and River thus evoke connotations of class warfare. In a country where class conflict is also being waged on the streets and in the jungles, this can be dangerous: seventy-four people died at a Boca v. River game in 1968. In 1994 the murder of two River fans by Boca "ultras" caused a national uproar. The River-Boca rivalry is of an intensity and of a political and social significance which is perhaps matched only Glasgow's "old firm" of Rangers (Protestant) and Celtic (Catholic).

It was no accident that Diego Maradona should reach his greatest fame in Argentina with Boca Juniors. More than any other sportsman in history, Maradona has always been identified, and has identified himself, with the poor. By the time of the Falklands War, Diego had already made politically outspoken comments to the press: as the popular hero of a nation under military dictatorship, his every move was watched closely, and his relationship to the military was wary.

Of course, the Junta self-destructed shortly after being unceremoniously booted out of the Falkland Islands. Another resident of Buenos Aires, Jorge Luis Borges, described the conflict as "two bald men fighting over a comb", and his words accurately convey the sense on both sides that the war was waged in the service of national pride rather than for any tangible purpose. Like Argentina, Britain conceived of itself as sadly fallen from its pre-war glory. In 1982, Margaret Thatcher was the most unpopular Prime Minister in British history. Faced with industrial unrest and widespread rioting in all major cities, Thatcher seized the Argentine occupation as a Godsent lifeline. No one living in Britain in 1982 can forget the universal hysteria which swept the land then.

This was especially true of the tabloid press, which exploited the war to consolidate their dictatorial power over public opinion, and their influence within the Thatcher government. Murdoch's British frontman, Kelvin MacKenzie, editor of the Sun, the biggest-selling newspaper in the world, was in his element. The headlines are too well-known and too distasteful to bear repeating; suffice it to say that the nation was very effectively whipped to a froth of anti-Latin vitriol and "Argie"-bashing frenzy. Best of all, their pathetic inadequacy as human beings did not prevent "Galtieri's Gauchos" from torching quite a few of "our boys", thus providing a useful well of bitterness from which to draw as needed.

Among the first victims of the Falklands War were Osvaldo Ardiles and Ricardo Villa, two Argentine soccer players who were unfortunately spearheading the experiment of allowing Johnny Foriegner to play in the English League. Ardiles managed to return successfully to English soccer, but Villa was not so lucky, probably because he fit so precisely the Hispanic stereotype then in vogue. It was also a bit bothersome that England and Argentina were due to play in the World Cup while the war was actually going on, but of course both governments knew that their publics would certainly cease support for the war if it meant they missed the soccer.

It was a disastrous World Cup for Maradona, who was sent off for a completely pointless psychopathic assault on a Brazilian. But by now it hardly mattered: his brilliance with Boca had made him an international superstar, and in 1982 he made the predictable move to Europe, joining Barcelona for a fee which broke the record he'd established when signing for Boca. In Spain, Maradona came up against much tougher defenders than he'd been used to in South America, where the emphasis is more on attacking skills. Standing only five feet five, but with something intensely arrogant and provocative in his demeanor, Diego got kicked to pieces, and spent much of his time in Spain injured. To kill the pain so that he could play, the trainers pumped him full of cortizone, disregarding the long-term consequences of such abuse. Following the same logic, Maradona began using cocaine, getting drunk in public, carrying on with prostitutes, and living what he probably imagined to be a rock-star life style.

Maradona has admitted to being a cocaine addict and an alcoholic, claiming that both habits began in 1982. This is truly remarkable. From 1984 until 1991, Diego Maradona was the greatest soccer player the world has ever seen. Pele, his only serious rival, always played on great teams -- throughout his career his exploits were assisted by the likes of Didi and Jairzinho. But Maradona's Argentina were a mediocre bunch, and would never have won the World Cup in 1986 or reached the final in 1990 without him. Furthermore, any one of six or seven teams could have won those competitions if Maradona had been playing for them. And by his own admission, he spent most of the ë80's as a rabid cokehead. Anyone who has met a rabid cokehead can tell you that the most pronounced consequence of this condition is dramatic physical deterioration, and that cocaine use is likely to diminish one's stamina, co-ordination and motor skills to a significant degree. It makes you think: what would Maradona have been like at his peak if he'd been sober?

Maradona spent these seven glorious years in Italy, playing his heart out for Napoli. There is a long tradition of Argentine players moving to Italy, dating back to the "orsini" of the 1930's. As with Boca, Diego chose a team which was strongly identified with the poor and the underdog. The aristocracy of Italian football were the great Northern teams, Juventus of Turin, and A.C. and Inter of Milan. No team from the South had ever won the Italian championship. Through the auspices of Maradona, Napoli won it in 1987, and again in 1990. The Neapolitans worshipped Maradona -- not in a metaphorical sense, but literally. Particularly among the "popolino" -- Naples' vast lumpenproletariat -- and among the denizens of the "abbient" -- Naples' capacious underworld -- Maradona became a living saint, performing miracles on a regular basis.

A trade in Diego icons flourished. The Mestizo features of Maradona adorned five-story murals. Millions, possibly a majority, of Argentines can trace their families back to Southern Italy. The sacramental awe in which Maradona was held spanned the ocean. This caused a few problems in the 1990 World Cup, hosted by Italy, in which Argentina had to play Italy in Naples. Maradona urged the Neapolitans to put their loyalty to him above their patriotism -- "What has Italy ever done for you?" -- and many obeyed him. It was a serious concern to the Pope when, as frequently happened, Maradona demanded that the wealth of the Vatican should be distributed among the needy.

Playing for Boca, Maradona endured chants from the River fans regarding his background, his supposedly Indian heritage, his drug abuse and poverty. Playing for Napoli, he faced the hostility of infernos like Milan's San Siro stadium, plastered with banners proclaiming him a "nigger", Neopolitans "Africans", and expressing the hope that a new Hitler would arise to exterminate Southerners. He developed a defensive cockiness and a racy lifestyle, mingling with the Camorristi, who command more loyalty among Neopolitans than the state. His playing style evinced the Neopolitan "arte di arrangiarsi" (living by one's wits), and Maradona acquired a ruthless opportunism which evoked the Neopolitan adage "Ajutat'ca Dio t'ajut" (God helps those who help themselves). But Diego Maradona's finest hour was the 1986 World Cup, which he won for Argentina single-handed. The most portentious game of that competition was the quarter-final, which pitted Argentina against England. This was a nightmare for the organizers, but a boon to the gutter press in both countries, which had been praying for this ever since the Falklands. The tabloids invoked all the war propaganda about greasy Hispanics, and it was helped by the fact that "Diego" is almost indistinguishable (and may even be the root form of) "dago", which is the standard English slur for Latins.

For many reasons the quarter final of 1986 was sure to be the mother of all grudge matches. As expected, the teams were evenly matched, the game tight, the action tense, Maradona effective though tightly marked. The score at half time was 0-0. Five minutes into the second half, a loose ball bounces high towards the England penalty box. Maradona is the only outfield player who's read the game properly, and he charges down the field in pursuit. From the opposite direction comes Peter Shilton, the English goalie, once among the world's greatest but now lacking a yard of pace at age forty. But the ball is 50-50, and Shilton has two huge advantages over Maradona: he's seven inches taller and he's allowed to use his hands. As they jump together, it seems it must be Shilton's ball. Maradona doesn't hesitate. In front of an audience calculated at more than one third of the world's population, he reaches up, his fist clenched, his arm rising above Shilton's, and he punches the ball into the England goal.

Everybody in the world saw him do it, and he knew it. In the seconds after that goal, Maradona's behavior is a case-study in the psychological effects of guilt. He runs wildly, frantically, trying to fake the usual orgasmic reaction of a soccer goalscorer, but repeatedly casting furtive glances over his shoulder at the referee, as if already persued by demons. His luck was in. Stranded at the other end of the field, the referee was practically the only person in the world who did not see what Maradona had done. The goal was awarded, despite the gentlemanly protests of the England players.

No one had ever witnessed such a blatant act of chutzpah. Maradona had brought the morality of a Buenos Aires street hustler, the low tricks of a two-bit con artist, the trickery of the abbient to the greatest sporting event in the world. As long as he could derive immediate advantage from it, he didn't care who knew of it. Asked about it after the game, Maradona smirked and made the famous (though usually bowdlerized) attribution of the goal to "the Hand of God and the balls of Maradona". In England, the commentators couldn't quite bring themselves to say what they'd seen; there was much consternation and deferrals to the referee's decision. But the howls of outrage echoed from the living-rooms and pubs throughout the land.

Maradona Two minutes later, the stadium still a seething cauldron of celebration and recrimination, Maradona receives the ball inside his own half. He puts his head down, and begins to run past the English midfield, outpacing one man, out dribbling another, being forced out towards the wing, cutting back inside, working his way through the defence, beating a fifth man, then a sixth, until it seems that he is bearing in on the goal. In England, the commentator falls silent in mid-sentence. Terry Butcher, the aptly-named England defender, employs the time-honored, simple but effective English league tactic against such flamboyant foriegn tomfoolery: he attempts to kick Maradona in the testicles. But Diego shrugs him off, leaves the two remaining defenders flat-footed, and charges towards the goal. Shilton comes out to meet him, and Diego seems to lose control of the ball, tapping it a little too far forward. Shilton dives at it, and immediately Maradona reveals his feint. He still has the ball in control after all. He prods it under Shilton's diving body, leaps over the prostrate goalie, and taps the ball into the England goal.

Even those who are so blinded by Maradona's vices as to deny the full extent of his virtues have to admit that this was the best goal ever scored. Maradona had run sixty meters in ten seconds with a soccer ball at his feet, beating the entire English team in the process. If Maradona could do this, there was no need for any other Argentine player to take the pitch: he could score goals all on his own. Those two minutes encapsulate the contradictory nature of Maradona, saint and sinner. The most dastardly act of soccer history, immediately followed by the most sublime brilliance. The English looked like Salieri to Maradona's Mozart.

In the 1990 World Cup, Maradona again led Argentina to the final, which they lost to West Germany in one of the most thrilling games in the tournament's history. But it was all downhill for Diego in the 1990's. First he left Napoli amid acrimony and bitterness. He tested positive for cocaine and was banned for over a year. His ties to the Camorra were investigated. Prostitutes on five continents augmented their fees by telling tales to the tabloids. He was busted for cocaine possession in Argentina. There was talk of trafficking charges. Girlfriends were beaten up, associates were bumped off. His manager and closest friend was charged with being a major dealer in cocaine. Maradona's behavior became erratic: he wrecked elevators and hotel rooms, he locked himself in his room for weeks, he gave bizarre and aggressive interviews. He was reported to be "brain dead" from drug abuse; it was said that he could not control his aggression, that he could not sense people behind him and kept swinging around in a paranoid panic.

The 1994 World Cup was to be his comeback. Now thirty-three and paunchy, Maradona nevertheless played well, and Argentina looked to be in with a chance. Diego scored a brilliant goal against Greece, after which he memorably ran snarling and shouting into the television camera, prompting Terry Butcher, the defender Diego humiliated in 1986, to remark that he seemed to be on drugs. As turned out to be the case. With Maradona out of the tournament following his positive test, Argentina floundered and were soon defeated. The world's press was delighted, especially in England, where the squeaky-clean soccer star Gary Lineker's comment "good riddance" was widely echoed.

It was an offence against the order of things that such a grubby little sleazeball should be so outrageously favored by the gods; now that he had finally squandered his gifts, a moral order was restored to the universe. The English attitude to Maradona was roughly that of the Servant to Cornwall: "I'll never care what wickedness I do,/ If this man come to good." If there was any kind of ethical justice in the world, it was necessary for Maradona to fail, for him to be not simply defeated but disgraced.

Now, it seems, the righteous have got their wish. Before his latest and presumably final comeback in the Argentine league, Maradona got it into his head that it would be fun to hire as his trainer Ben Johnson, the Canadian sprinter whose own failed drug test cost him an Olympic gold medal. Whatever these two got up to together, the end result seems to be that Maradona has failed a drug test for the last time. Its always been hard to get much sense out of the man, and he doesn't seem to be getting any more lucid with middle age, so the world may never know how it feels to be Diego Maradona. But it must be like being so prodigiously gifted that the gift comes to seem a curse, that you come to hate and resent the gift enough to destroy it, to give it back, by any means necessary. But that is to assume that Maradona's gift is the ability to play soccer. Maybe that isn't true. Maybe his true gift is the one he shares with Che Guevara, drawn from the tradition of Latin martyrology: the gift for the futile gesture, the ability to lose. The value of losing, of failure, is often underestimated, but it has always been understood in the slums of Naples and Buenos Aires, and that is Maradona's proper milieu, from whence he came and to where, in one role or another, he may yet return.

David Hawkes is Assistant Professor of English at Lehigh University. His first book, Ideology, was published by Routledge in 1996. He can be reached at

Copyright © 1997 by David Hawkes. All rights reserved.