Diego Maradona mural Diego Maradona mural. Photo: Alessandrobottone / Wikimedia Commons / cropped from original / CC BY-SA 4.0, license linked at bottom of article

As El Diego leaves us, Enrico Tortolano pays tribute to the boy from the barrio who never forgot where he came from

The best there was. No one could stop him, except himself. Sadly, that has happened: a longstanding heart condition took the life of Diego Armundo Maradona on 25th of November 2020 aged only 60. He came from Villa Fiorito, a shanty town near Buenos Aires, where life was often short and brutal, and survival was a way of life. But even amidst the violence of poverty it was clear from an early age Maradona was never meant for an ordinary life. His genius with a ball took him to the pinnacle of European and world football, as well as the corridors of power. 

At 10, Maradona joined Los Cebollitas, a youth team of Argentinos Juniors, one of the biggest clubs in Argentina. Showing unprecedented ability, Maradona single-handedly took them on an incredible 136-game unbeaten run. He was only 15 when he made his professional debut for the senior team. He went on to lead Barcelona and Napoli and was captain when Argentina won the 1986 World Cup, scoring twice against an English side intent only in kicking him off the park in the quarter-final. One of his goals in that game could be described as pure genius, the other the best display of close control at speed the game has seen.

He was always much more the people’s champion than an establishment lackey. An internet poll conducted by the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) named Maradona top player of the 20th century and he rightly objected when a ‘special panel’ was created to ensure that Pele would be jointly honoured. He said no to the FIFA cabal, and refused to attend the ceremony. Silence was never an option for this gifted maestro.

Of course, football is a large part of his legacy, but his passion for politics is not stated enough, especially by the corporate media. He unequivocally supported the rise of the left in Latin America and the Bolivarian Revolution that transformed not just Venezuela, but the entire continent. Despite the media campaign of relentless vilification against Chávez and other leaders, Maradona showed no hesitation in showing his solidarity. He continually offered support not only to Chavez, but Evo Morales, Fidel Castro and Lula da Silva: “I believe in Chavez, I am Chavista… Everything Fidel does, everything Chavez does for me is the best”. 

Even towards the end after he had undergone gastric-bypass surgery and was frequently hospitalised, he was standing shoulder to shoulder with Nicholas Maduro in Venezuela. In 2017 when Maduro faced attacks from the usual suspects, Maradona was willing to fight his corner: “We are Chavistas until death,” Maradona wrote on his official Facebook page.

“When Maduro orders, I am dressed as a soldier for a free Venezuela, to fight against imperialism and defend our flags, which is the most sacred thing we have. Long live the revolution!”

He was never afraid to speak truth to power. He told Pope John Paul II to sell the gold ceilings at the Vatican if he wanted to help the poor. He allegedly shared this view with reporters when he visited the Vatican before a charity football match. According to reports in the Spanish press he said:

“I went into the Vatican and saw that golden roof. And I said to myself how could somebody be such a son of bitch as to live with a golden roof and then go to poor countries and kiss children with empty bellies? I stopped believing.”

However, it’s believed Maradona’s faith was restored by fellow Argentine, Pope Francis.

Despite the fame and glamour, his life was never easy. He was subjected to a manipulative press since his childhood and they hounded him until the end. Ruling elites around the world painted him as a drug addict and cheat, but the truth is more complex, and far more interesting. Everybody wanted to be with him, everybody wanted a piece of him. The pressures were enormous, but he raced through life with pride and an indefatigable spirit.

Maradona’s life glowed with human warmth and an unquenchable passion for justice. He mesmerised us with his football, and won our hearts fighting for those at the bottom of the pile. The world has lost so much more than the ‘greatest ever footballer’: it’s lost a champion of humanity.

RIP El Diego.

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