On November 25, 2020, the fighting peoples of the world lost a humble legend: Diego Armando Maradona. He was 60 years old at the time of his passing.
Arguably the greatest soccer player to ever grace the pitches, the spirited striker combined unparalleled skills in his sport and an unflinching outspokenness against oppression. No other sports figure’s public statements and transformation has equally captured the changing momentum across Latin America.
Maradona was for Latin Americans what Mohamed Ali was for Black people in the United States.
The Falklands War
Raised in the oppressed community of Villa Fiorito in the outskirts of Buenos Aires, “the golden kid’s” talent from an early age fetched him million dollar contracts first in his homeland and then in Spain and Italy. No stranger to controversy, “the soccer god,” with his rebellious natural hair, was irreverent before elites and defiant to the core. When a Spanish player hurled racist epithets at him because of his Indigenous ancestry, Maradona head butted him, leading to a brawl that was broadcast before King Juan Carlos, hundreds of thousands of fans in the stadium and half of Spain watching on television.
The 22-year-old player was radicalized by England’s 1982 Falklands War, which was an assault on his homeland, known in Latin America as La Guerra de las Malvinas. Causing untold agony and trauma, hundreds of soldiers died on both sides and hundreds of veterans committed suicide for years after. Former President Ronald Reagan claimed that the United States was a “mediator,” but stayed faithful to their colonial partner led by the much-reviled Margaret Thatcher.
This was the backdrop of the 1986 semi-final showdown between the two countries without diplomatic relations at the World Cup in Mexico City. Argentina was Latin America and Latin America was Argentina.
Maradona famously scored a crafty goal where slow motion highlights showed he illegally used his hand to redirect the ball into the English net. After the game when the English team accused him of cheating with his hand, he responded: “sería la mano de dios” (“it must have been the hand of god”). Sports analysts applauded the “picardia” or Argentine cunningness behind the maneuver. The second goal was a full sprint through a minefield of English defenders that went down in history as “the goal of the century.”
These heroic acts sealed Maradona’s destiny as an idol of the masses combatting neo-colonialism. To beat England in Latin America was to exact revenge on the invading enemy. The soccer field was an extension of the battle field. The arrogant English were expelled. This was the symbolic recuperation of Argentine and Latin American dignity.
“Patria es humanidad” (Our Homeland is Humanity)
Cuban revolutionary José Martí once wrote that “our homeland is humanity.” The relationship Maradona established with Cuba was the full expression of the Cuban poet’s words.
In 2000, an overweight and beleaguered Maradona traveled to Cuba to treat his drug addiction. Fidel Castro visited him in his worst moments and helped take care of him. The Cuban president took off his military coat and gave it to the patient. He said he adored Fidel because he was “genuine and cared about human problems that others brushed aside.” The down-and-out, “wretched of the earth” soccer player was not rejected in Havana. Instead, he was accepted, treated like a dignified human being and loved. This moment of healing was another of Maradona’s entry points to the tide of resistance that was flowing across the Americas.
The same year, Japan denied Maradona a visa because of strict laws barring anybody from the country who had a history with drugs. Always a “tribune of the people,” in the Leninist sense of the word, Maradona exclaimed he would never return to Japan. He fired back: “They will not let me into Japan because I did drugs. But they will allow gringos in who dropped two atomic bombs on them.”
The Frontlines in the Battle of Ideas
The Argentine took great pride in the rising of Latin America’s second independence, which began on December 6, 1998, with Hugo Chávez’s electoral victory in Venezuela.
In 2005, the Frente Amplio’s Tabaré Vázquez received former U.S. President George Bush in Uruguay in a move that was considered a betrayal by his party and the region. Bush was promoting the Free Trade Agreement of the Americas, known as the FTAA. “Free trade” to Maradona and millions of Latin Americans is the freedom of U.S. capital to expand its tentacles across more of the continent.
The Bolivarian Revolution was advancing across Latin America and had recently paid off Argentina’s foreign debt. Chávez traveled to Argentina in a showdown with the warmongering U.S. leader. La Plata River divides the two countries and the two sides of history. Rising to the historical occasion, with Maradona by his side donning a “Stop Bush” t-shirt, the Venezuelan leader famously chanted: “El que no brinca es yankee” (Whoever doesn’t jump is a yankee). Maradona gave credence to Evo Morales’ catch phrase: “the empire stands with the right wing, football stands with the left.”
This was the battle of ideas Fidel spoke of.
“To be attacked by the enemy is not a bad thing but a good thing”
It is difficult to appreciate Maradona’s greatness here in the U.S., where sports loyalties are divided between baseball, U.S. football and basketball. In Latin America and Europe, soccer is king. In Napoli, restaurants have alcoves reserved for hanging religious idols. There beside them is Maradona. The mayor has announced the famed Saint Paul stadium should be renamed after one of the city’s most beloved.
The mainstream press is also remembering the football titan, but consciously shying away from his political commitments. Other outlets are accusing Maradona of being “anti-American.” Like the political leadership he so admired, Maradona never expressed ire towards the people of the United States, but rather towards its political leadership, who thought they were “the county sheriff.” Through the years of the Pink Tide, Maradona was a regular on television programs and at rallies with Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva, Daniel Ortega, José “Pepe” Mujica and other anti-imperialist figures of the continent.
His tattoos of Ernesto “Che” Guevara and Fidel brought a new meaning to the phrase “he wore his feelings on his sleeve.” His program “De Zurda” on TeleSUR in 2014 with Victor Hugo Morales, the famed Uruguayan sportscaster, combined humor, sports analysis and leftest political commentary. Last year, following a coaching win in April, he stated: “I want to dedicate this victory to Nicolás Maduro and all Venezuelans, who are suffering. These Yankees, the sheriffs of the world, think just because they have the world’s biggest bomb they can push us around. But no, not us.”
Those who had the honor to meet Maradona remember him as a people’s person who was always accessible. Though he had his own personal struggles, he never wavered in his commitments to elevating the voices of the poor and defending the underdog. In plain proletarian English, Maradona never forgot about the hood. On November 25, 2020, the fourth anniversary of Fidel’s passing, one of his students and admirers joined him in eternity, having left so much for us all to savor and learn from.