“Giocò, vinse, pisciò, perse” (He played, he won, he pissed it away, he lost). This fitting quip is by Eduardo Galeano, who was a hopeless soccer player but understood things about soccer and people, stories and lives—and that of Diego Armando Maradona was larger-than-life and magnificent and extraordinary, with or without a ball at his feet. It’s hard to think of how to put it better.
In between playing and losing—at soccer and in life—lies that maze of contradictions that was Diego, the genius on the pitch and the madman outside, the hunter and the hunted of a media industry that alternately adored him and crucified him every other day. Perhaps the only key element that defined him was etched on his right arm: the image of Ernesto Che Guevara, a likeness taken by Alberto Korda and appropriated by Giangiacomo Feltrinelli.
Sure, he was not the only one: others also bore the effigy of “Saint Ernesto,” among whom “la Bruja,” Sebastian Veron, and Carlitos Tevez, while “il Pipita,” Gonzalo Higuain, chose to tattoo “Hasta la victoria siempre” at the base of his spine—to speak only of Argentine soccer players.
But Diego’s Che was the most prominent one—“No one has given me more powerful inspiration than him.” Over the years, the Che in the tattoo, who used to be thin and hollowed out, became more and more rounded on the arm, finally resembling Diego Abatantuono. But it remained there, unquestionable.
Was Maradona a communist? In a certain “resistance” sense, he certainly was. And a Castrist, Chavista, Peronist of the left, an Argentine nationalist avenger of the Falkland Islands—with his “hand of God” goal and the “goal of the century,” slaps to the face of Mrs. Thatcher, who some time before had conducted an operation to sink the General Belgrano cruiser, leading to the end of the power of the atrocious dictatorship under Videla.
There were the years of playing patriotism games, and his friendship with the con man Carlos Menem, “El Bigote,” the sideburn-wearing president who imposed the fixed peso-dollar parity and brought a whole nation to its knees—an impolitic friendship between characters prone to excess.
Maradona would make up for it, at home and abroad. For example, by meeting with Estela Carlotto, the first Mother of the Plaza de Mayo, at a world retreat in Argentina: “All of us want truth and justice,” he said—he did not add “and that they return alive,” like the Mothers had, because the latter had become grandmothers in the meantime, and 30,000 desaparecidos would never return, alive or otherwise.
And, for example, by showing up in Mar del Plata in 2005 after the Argentine default, at the enormous protest for the 4th Summit of the Americas that blew up the malicious ALCA free trade agreement for the Americas, one “giving equal freedom to the fox and those in the henhouse” (as Guevara would have said). He showed up in a “Stop Bush” T-shirt, with the “S” in Bush having a runic shape.
He had Che on his arm, but Fidel in his heart. The old Castro was the one who invited him to Cuba in 2000, to get himself off drugs after a series of failed attempts. Castro would die on November 25, just like Diego. Cuba is training doctors in great numbers and quality, including doctors specialized in addictions at the Centro de Salud La Pradera.
In Havana, Maradona managed to wean himself off the cocaine that had poisoned his nose and brain in the years in Naples—years of hope and southern redemption, but also friendships with the Giuliano clan, years in which he was snorting as much as he could and going to the drug tests with a fake penis. He would be the other Argentine player who contributed to getting Italy eliminated from the World Cup in ’90, together with Claudio Pol Caniggia—and Maradona would get the nickname “Claudio Pol Verina” (Claudio Powder) for it.
In the dressing room of the Italian team, two left-wing “extremists,” the Argentine writer Osvaldo Soriano and the Italian journalist Gianni Minà, witnessed in disbelief as he dribbled acrobatically with an orange. “Did I touch it with my hand? Are you saying ‘no’? But yes, I also touched it with my hand.”
And there were all the meetings and photo ops and friendships: with Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, with Evo Morales in Bolivia, with Rafael Correa in Ecuador, with Lula in Brazil—all dangerous caudillos according to the U.S. State Department. On December 26, 2019, he visited Casa Rosada, the residence of the President of Argentina, the left-wing Peronist Alberto Fernandez.
At his own insistence, he looked out from that famous balcony, shouted a message to former right-wing president Macri: “Nunca mas, go to Thailand!” and greeted the crowds. On that occasion, he acted like the head of state he truly was—of a nation that lives in the heart and the gut of anyone who has ever played soccer.
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