From his roots in a Buenos Aires slum to his irreverence for FIFA and his support for socialist governments of Latin America, Maradona was an icon for the left.
The death of Diego Maradona, the global sport icon and hailed as the best-ever football player by fans and top professional football peers alike, has attracted the attention of football lovers and leftists around the world.
An official three days of mourning was declared in Argentina with millions grieving and thousands waiting for hours to pay their respects to their idol laying in state outside of the presidential palace.
Villa Fiorito where Maradona was born and raised in poverty is a shanty town on the outskirts of Buenos Aires, not unlike many of our townships and “informal settlements” in South Africa where conditions of poverty are brutal and survival becomes the meaning of life.
Maradona is regarded as a genius of modern professional football, even surpassing the great Pele as the greatest of all time. Not one to shy away from controversy and always outspoken, Maradona famously objected to receiving the FIFA Player of the 20th Century award jointly with Pele after a global poll had voted him the best.
He refused the award and did not attend the ceremony. He is also quoted as saying, “There would be no debate about who was the best footballer the world had ever seen, me or Pele. Everyone would say me.” “Pele should go back to the museum.” As brash and unsportsmanlike as this might seem, the Manchester United legend, Eric Cantona agreed, “The crucial difference with Pele is that Maradona wasn’t surrounded by great players; he had to carry the team itself. If you took Maradona out of Argentina, they would not win the World Cup, but I think Brazil without Pele would still have won.”
This was with reference to the Argentinian team and Maradona’s feat in winning the 1986 World Cup in Mexico against all odds with the famous 2 – 1 victory over England in the quarter-final and Maradona’s forever remembered “Hand of God” goal and the winning second goal, hailed as the goal of the century where he literally dribbled and glided through nearly the entire England team from inside the Argentina half.
This ability to carry the team and lift it to great and unprecedented heights was epitomised by his lengthy spell at Italian club, Napoli during 1984 – 1991. It was here that Maradona first stepped into international anti-capitalist politics, boots and all to become a working-class hero.
He arrived in Naples and presented as a Napoli player on 5 July 1984 to a stadium packed by 75,000 supporters and hailed as the club’s saviour. A local newspaper stated that despite the lack of a “mayor, houses, schools, buses, employment and sanitation, none of this matters because we have Maradona”.
Until Maradona arrived, Italian football was dominated by teams from the economically more powerful northern and middle regions of Italy like Juventus, A.C. Milan, Inter Milan and Roma and no team in the south had ever won a league title. Soon after his arrival he took over the team’s captaincy and became the most loved star with near god-like status. The mid-1980s was a period of economic downturn and the introduction of neo-liberalism to Europe and most parts of the world, led by the imperialist regimes of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. The tensions between the northern regions of Italy and the poorer south were at an all-time high. It was in this context that Napoli, led by Maradona, won their first ever Serie A Italian Championship in 1986-87 that caused an outburst of mass celebration in the streets of Naples that lasted for over a week. This was followed by runner-up positions in the next two seasons and another league title in 1988-89. They also won the Coppa Italia in 1989, the UEFA Cup in 1989 and the Italian Super Cup in 1990. Maradona became the all-time leading goal scorer for Napoli, with 115 goals.
Maradona’s glory days at Napoli was topped by the pinnacle of his football career, the winning of the 1986 World Cup. Crucial too was the 2 – 1 quarter final victory over England that came four years after the British victory in an undeclared war against Argentina over control of the disputed Falklands Islands (in the Atlantic Ocean, 1,500km from the coast of Argentina). Maradona admitted later in a TV interview that the defeat in that war did influence the team’s attitude towards England and it was sweet revenge to restore some Argentinian pride.
Maradona’s anti-imperialism continued throughout his life after retirement with his consistent support for left-wing and socialist governments of Latin America – Cuba, Venezuela, Brazil under the Lula presidency and Bolivia under Evo Morales. He had images of Che Guevara and Fidel Castro tattooed on his body. When US president, George W Bush, visited Argentina in 2005, Maradona publicly wore a T-shirt with Bush’s face boldly inscribed with WAR CRIMINAL and the Nazi Swastika symbol.
After an audience with Pope John Paul II in November 2000, Maradona was upset that the Pope had not given him a special rosary and told the media afterwards, “I was in the Vatican and I saw all these golden ceilings and afterwards I heard the Pope say the Church was worried about the welfare of poor kids. Sell your ceiling then, amigo, do something!”
Maradona’s death is especially mourned by Palestinians. Palestine Chronicle editor and journalist, Ramzy Baroud said, “Maradona inspired in us as a collective – a man of small build, from a terribly poor background, brown like us, fiery like us and passionate like us, making his way to the top of the world. For us, it was not about football or sports. It was about hope. It felt as if anything was possible.” “You can only imagine our excitement when we learned that Maradona cared for Palestine, affirming once more, in July 2018 that ‘In my heart, I am a Palestinian’.”
Like Muhammad Ali, Maradona is revered by the world’s poor and downtrodden, the people of the South, for his consistent public support for them, standing up for the working class of the world and against imperialism. Unlike Ali who relied on his Islamic faith, he was unable to counter his demons of drug addiction and overindulgence that apparently led to his premature death. But through his weakness he showed human frailty that brought him even closer to his fans.
Throughout his life the mainstream, bourgeois media focused almost exclusively on his footballing prowess and bad boy lifestyle. Yet for decades they covered up for their criminal friends with glitz and glamour, for the paedophiles and rapists, the likes of Jeffrey Epstein and Harvey Weinstein of the Hollywood gliterrati. Such is the hypocrisy of bourgeois morality and as expected, hardly ever did they portray his pro-working class and anti-imperialist stance in a positive light. But who cares? The football and political legend, Diego Maradona, will forever remain our working class hero.