When I worked as an analyst for the last World Cup, I was asked why people loved Diego Maradona so much. I was in Jamaica doing punditry work and the first thing I could answer was based on the first thing that I was able to see upon landing there. I saw Usain Bolt and Bob Marley.
When you thought of Jamaica, those are the first two people anyone else in the world would think of. They might not know where to look for it on the map, but they knew what they represented.
With Argentina, it’s the same. People might not know where Argentina is, but they immediately associated it with Messi and Maradona. This is one of the reasons why in that country, they are willing to forgive Maradona and love him for what he was, because he loved them just as fervently.
He made the masses happy. He brought them joy in his triumphs and put the country on the map for the rest of the world to appreciate. He was hardcore about it. He would figuratively go to “war” for those principles and would charge forth whether he was armed with a spoon or a machine gun. On most occasions, that was not the wise thing to do as he would leave himself exposed to criticism.
His life was filled with contradictions and his political leanings would show a level of cognitive dissonance that few would comprehend. He was a staunch socialist that was intimate friends with Fidel Castro, who ironically passed away on the same day as Maradona but in 2016. At the same time, he was living in a castle in the Middle East while he was coaching there.
He would insult the United States during the early years of the war in Iraq, only to years later hope to some day be able to take his grandson to Disney World. Yet with every visa denial, his disdain for the country became greater and would always talk about that 1994 World Cup.
A man and his contradictions
He was filled with contradictions, much like Argentine society and he embodied those virtues and shortcomings.
The Argentine FA came out with a video to give tribute to their former captain and coach and some of the phrases capture the essence of what he meant to them. He was human. He was flawed. He came from something that would make abject poverty seem “middle class”. Yet people expected a 15 year-old that was thrust into the limelight that also wore the hat of breadwinner and man of the house to live a normal life.
That promo also talked about “helping people overcome a stupid war” like the Falkland Islands War, where a generation of young boys ended up haunted and tormented for the rest of their lives.
Diego, siempre vas a ser #Eterno en nuestros corazones.
Gracias por todo 💙🇦🇷 pic.twitter.com/IDgheHobi4
— Selección Argentina 🇦🇷 (@Argentina) November 26, 2020
Internationally, Maradona did make the topic of drug dependency less taboo. “Imagine what kid of player I would have been if I didn’t use cocaine,” he said in an interview once. He was a man that turned up becoming a victim of his demons and it distanced him from his family. He had not seen his oldest grandson, who happens to be Kun Agüero’s son, since before being admitted to hospital to undergo brain surgery.
Maradona: The Cultural Icon
His feats at times seem like tall tales. In Latino cultures, those usually end up in songs. Maradona had songs written about him talking about his life and what singers would do if they were him.
Even if you go to and revisit the speech from director Paulo Sorrentino in the Oscars, he talks about Maradona being his inspiration.
Many of Maradona’s celebrated phrases ended up being a part of Latin American colloquialisms.
Maradona The Man
His defects are out in the open like very few public figures. His family was thrust into the spotlight because of him. His daughters had to deal with that type of notoriety since they were small children and there was nothing they could do about it. His legal battles with his exwife, Claudia Villafañe, were the stuff tabloids frenzied upon. It was always a part of the rocky relationship they had where his extramarital affairs and paternity suits that spawned out of them were like chum to sharks. But he battled on.
His relationship with the Giuliani crime family during his time in Naples was also the stuff of legends and a tribute to the excesses that he experienced.
He was extremely flawed, but real. Argentines want their gods to be real. His teammates knew how real he was. Every single one loved him. Because at the end of the day, in their eyes, he gave them more than they could ever imagine and reciprocate.
Yet in a life filled with excesses like drugs, women, alcohol and even black Ferraris, there was always something that was missing. Maradona died surrounded by people, but alone. His family was distant and the wedge that was created made the last days of this complex character one that had a sad ending. Yet in the closure that was acquired helped him find that one thing he was missing- peace.