Diego Armando Maradona, a deeply human hero

If the death of Diego Maradona arouses so much emotion around the world, it is of course because of the quality of his exploits on the football fields but also because of an exemplary trajectory (at least until 1990 ) who had led him from misery to fame and fortune.

Maradona has remained the symbol of a player from the people, not forgetting his origins and proud to represent the less fortunate layers of the population.

Let's go back to the main stages of his itinerary and what they tell us about the evocative force of the champion.

Poor childhood and meteoric rise

Diego spent his childhood in Villa Fiorito, a poor suburb of Buenos Aires, with a large family (eight children). Her father, a former boatman, had become a forced laborer to feed his family, and yet there was no running water in the house. Passionate about football, more than studies, Diego joined the club ofArgentinos Juniors, quickly climbed all the ranks and played his first match in the first division in 1976 (he was not quite 16 yet).

The following year was marked by two prosperous events: his meeting with Claudia, from the same environment as him, of whom he had two daughters, his first selection for the national team, after having participated in only 11 matches in the first division. However, he was not retained in the team that won the World Cup in 1978 in Argentina.

It is a cruel disappointment but also the consolation of not having contributed to the recognition of the colonels' regime which then ruled the country. "Guys like Videla, he would say later, smear Argentina's name, conversely Che's name should fill her with pride." In the same year, he scored his first goal for the senior national team and, in 1980, his hundredth goal in the Argentinian first division championship.

Life has changed. Here he is taking his family to Disneyland in the United States. In four years, he went from Fiorito to Disneyland. The success does not end there. He transferred in 1981 to Boca Juniors, one of the two biggest clubs in Buenos Aires, the popular club par excellence. Boca is famous for its titles, its players and its stadium, la Bombonera; the other big club of the capital, more aristocratic, it is River Plate and the matches between these two clubs give rise to fiery derbies, what is called the classico.

In Diego's family, no doubt, we were supporters of Boca and, even if River's offers were more attractive, our young prodigy opted, in 1980-1981, for his favorite club, defeating, on this occasion, River and became champion of Argentina with his team at the end of the season.

But Argentina's economic situation had become catastrophic. It is transferred to Barcelona in 1982 for eight million dollars.

Maradona's jersey at the Barça museum.
Lluis Gene / AFP

While living conditions in the Catalan capital are good, the atmosphere both in the field and in the city does not suit the child of the suburbs. The football that the coach advocates is very physical (“run, run, run”) and the football artist does not adapt to it. The opposing defenders are brutal (one of them, a Basque, breaks the champion's ankle). But above all the mentality, "the idiosyncrasy of the Catalans", says Maradona, rejects him.

Virtuoso, facetious even rogue, lover of brilliance, moving with his family and friends (what we called in Barcelona "the Argentine clan"), leading a rowdy nightlife, the kid therefore did not adapt well to the "geometric" style of play of Barça, where players from northern Europe were preferred to South Americans for a long time, and to the style of life, a tad stilted that is taken in the capital Catalan.

This stay in Barcelona was "a difficult time, a disaster", in his own words.

The birth of the legend and the symbol of a community

At the end of this episode, the legend of Maradona was created in two stages: in Mexico during the 1986 World Cup and in Naples (from 1984 to 1991).

In either case, Diego helped restore the wounded honor of the community he represented. In this year 1986, the image of Argentina remains deplorable, soiled as it is by the military dictatorship (1976-1983) and by the disastrous defeat in the Falklands War (1982).

Argentina's World Championship victory restores this repressed national pride, especially thanks to the exploits of Maradona in the quarter-final against England who had administered a military lesson during the Falklands episode.

During the famous match against England in 1986.

Maradona beat the English with two extraordinary goals. The first was a revenge for popular cunning on the aristocratic fair play to which the English are heirs. Unable to reach the ball with his head, Maradona helped out with her hand to deceive the opposing goalkeeper. Commenting on this action, he declared: “I put my head and God my hand”. The second goal owed nothing to cunning. Starting from halfway for his team, Maradona dribbled five players, including, to finish, the goalkeeper. This feat, all in finesse and virtuosity, was unanimously qualified as the "goal of the century".

Popular support and the redemption of a decried collectivity were also particularly sensitive in Naples, whose pibe d'oro became the emblem. Let's come back to this episode so characteristic of the sporting and extra-sporting virtues of Maradona.

At the end of his two difficult seasons at Barcelona, ​​the only interesting offer came from Napoli, a then modest club in the Italian first division. Other more prestigious clubs have not shown interest in recruiting Diego. The president of the famous Juventus of Turin considered that he was too small; it is true that the pibe d'oro measures 1m 67 and weighs 70 kg, physical qualities quite insufficient at a time when one values ​​corpulence and robustness.

In Naples, Maradona was greeted with extraordinary enthusiasm: 70 to 80 people attended his “presentation” at the San Paolo stadium on July 000, 4. There was total osmosis with the Neapolitan population. Having become rich, Maradona has retained a culture of the poor.

This is how one chronicler presented it: “With his short legs, his rounded torso, his thug's face and his diamond in his ear, Diego had become for us a true Neapolitan. His love for beautiful girls and good food, his madness for racing cars […] and, at the same time his side of church and sacred family […], his dirty character, capricious, exuberant, undisciplined, all this made him a true legitimate son of the city ”.

The identification was such that one readily attributed to him Neapolitan origins, certified, one said by a malicious eye reminiscent of that of the scugnizi (children) from working-class areas of the city. Doubtless the Maradona family has Amerindian and Italian origins (but nothing indicates that Naples was the cradle) but the identification of the city with Diego was reciprocal.

Here is what our champion said: "I want to become the idol of the poor children of Naples because they are like I was when I lived in Buenos Aires". The parallel that can be drawn between Platini and Juventus, on the one hand, and Maradona and Napoli, on the other, illustrates the contrast between a prosperous and haughty Italy and a poor and despised South but also between rigor northern - the motto of La Juve is “Serietà, sobrietà, semplicità” (seriousness, sobriety, simplicity) - and southern fantasy.

The stigmatization of the city by the inhabitants of northern Italy ("Benvenuti in Italia", chant the supporters of northern clubs to the address of the Neapolitan team) reminds Maradona of the contempt for the poor that he experienced in his youth.

The sports facilities in the center where the players train awaken the memory of the setting in which he grew up: the walls of the changing rooms are crumbling like those of the father's house. In short, the two-way identification is total to the point that Neapolitan supporters do not hesitate to write on the walls with the humorous emphasis that characterizes the style of the city: "Diego, ti amo più dei miei figli" (Diego, I love you more than my sons).

Sports exploits in Naples as revenge

To achieve such popularity, sporting exploits had to be present. Thanks to Maradona, Napoli were champions of Italy for the first time in their history in 1987, winner of the UEFA Cup in 1989 and again won the national title in 1990, which aroused extraordinary jubilation.

These victories are experienced as revenge on a difficult history, like snubbing noses at those who habitually ridicule the city and its inhabitants. From Naples brocaded, shouted, even hated, Diego made a victorious city. These achievements make Maradona an idol.

We set up altars for him, we compose prayers for him, like this parodic Our Father where the name of Maradona replaces that of the Lord:

Our Maradona
You who come down to the field
We have hallowed your name
Naples is your kingdom
Don't bring him illusion
But lead us to victory in the league.

It is this legendary character, benefactor of the city, that the Neapolitans still commemorate today. In the year of his departure, intellectuals composed a Te Diegum. Today it is still the major reference in the city; when it is mentioned, we do not use its name but the personal pronoun of the third person which is reserved for it (he in italian or that in Neapolitan).

We continue to praise his behavior and his appearances at the San Paolo stadium are said to bring good fortune, victory for the team.

An altar to the glory of Maradona in a cafe in the heart of Naples. Christian Bromberger, Author provided (No reuse)

A sign of this devotion, the objects he touched are piously preserved. The son of the former stadium locker room has dedicated a museum to the idol in the basement of the building where he lives, in a popular area of ​​Naples. Prominently featured is the coffee maker used by the guardian's wife, the mother of our collector, to prepare Maradona's coffee. Even more coruscant symbol of this cult whose parody is not absent: installed in a bar in the city center, an altar to the glory of Maradona, comprising a relic (a hair taken from the back of an airplane). The merger between Naples and Maradona therefore remains complete.

The success of a hero of our time

If Diego enjoys such popularity throughout the world, it is because he embodies, in his own way, the dreams of our time; started from nothing, he reached the top on his own merit, without the help of well-placed parents.

This is the lesson we learn from most of the sports champions, emblems of merito-democratic societies. It is, moreover, symptomatic that competitions took shape in societies of this type: in ancient Greece (where, as Hegel notes, the principles of equality and individuality arose), in England of the XIXe century, even where social competition and the questioning of hierarchies are now conceivable.

The very idea of ​​these championships, in which everyone is invited to participate, could only emerge in societies which make equality an ideal, if not a reality. Can you imagine serfs participating in a tournament of knights?

To succeed in our societies, we also need luck, a helping hand from fate, which Maradona recognized after the bad omen victory of Argentina over Italy, on penalties, at the World Cup. 1990. It is also sometimes necessary to help a discreet cheating (a glance at the copy of the neighbor during an examination, an irregularity when the referee turns his back), which Maradona did, in particular to the occasion of his first goal against England in 1986. This roguery in front of the powerful, and his facetious account ("And God the hand"), increased the popularity of Maradona among the skeptics and the laughers.

Success by its own merits, a little luck and trickery on this path encamp the hero of our time.

Close to the people and black legend

But there is more. Many great players, who started from nothing, only owed their success to their personal qualities. Maradona, who has become an icon, knew - as Garrincha “the joy of the people” in Brazil in the past - to remain close to his supporters. Nothing to do with these champions, jealous of their tranquility, eyeing their admirers with a few distant gestures and hanging on their headphones.

Diego remained close to the people, responding to each other's requests, expressing his joy as well as his rage with everyday words, without that "wooden tongue" so characteristic of today's athletes. Maradona laughed, shed tears, gave vent to her emotions as our times dictate restraint.

But, it will be said, how can such popularity be combined with the black legend of the fallen angel who takes over from this golden legend from 1991?

To tell the truth, from his stay in Barcelona suspicions weighed on Maradona; he would take drugs cocaine. These suspicions were confirmed in Naples where he was "tested positive" at the start of 1991 and disqualified from any official match for 15 months.

This sanction is, according to him, the ransom of the defeat that Argentina inflicted on Italy during the 1990 World Championship. He is also accused, and these facts are attested, of suspicious relations with the Camorrist clan Giuliano, of an abundant use of the pink telephone and of an illegitimate paternity.

Maradona sheepishly returns to Argentina where he was arrested for cocaine use and where, due to his suspension, he can only participate in charity matches. After serving his sentence, he was recruited by the Sevilla club where, accused, among other things, of leading an unbridled nightlife, he quarreled with the leaders as well as with those of the Argentinian club of Newells Old Boys which he joined after having left Andalusia in 1993.

He takes cure after cure to regain the weight that suits him, but it is a player with a body and enlarged features who participates in the World Championship in the United States in 1994. At the end of a match against Greece (where he scores a superb goal), he is, again, "tested positive", this time with ephedrine. He is suspended, once again, for 15 months.

Failing to be able to play, he becomes technical director of a club but quickly gets angry with its president. His behavior, especially vis-à-vis the press, is increasingly violent and if the hero is always rewarded for his past exploits (France Football Golden Ball, invitation to Oxford ...), he is more and more more stigmatized for his misconduct.

He joined the Boca club in 1995 but he disappointed the supporters who had acclaimed him and came to whistle him. He tries to end his drug addiction in a Swiss clinic but nothing helps. In August 1997, at the age of 37, at the end of the match between Boca Juniors and Argentinos Juniors, he was once again "tested positive", which sounded the death knell for his playing career.

The rest will be, with a few nuances, a continuous personal and professional tumble. Maradona is gaining weight, undergoes detoxification cures in a Havana clinic, at the invitation of her friend Fidel Castro (he says to himself "Fidelista"). He suffered a heart attack in 2004, the year he divorced Claudia. The romantic story therefore also ends.

Maradona, and other sportsmen, with Fidel Castro. Ismael Francisco Gonzalez / AFP

Diego will remarry, divorce again, have relationships and, at the end of his sentimental journey, eight children will be assigned to him in all. Alcohol, cigars, bulimia will be at the origin of a new serious malaise in 2007. His appointment, at the end of 2008, as coach of the Argentina national team in 2008 seems to inaugurate a less calamitous cycle. It is not so. In that same year, he was sued by the Italian tax authorities, who demanded 37 million euros from him.

Under his leadership, Argentina however managed to qualify for the 2010 World Championship in South Africa but Maradona stood out once again by his outrageous behavior. During a press conference, he insults journalists by using coarse terms so that FIFA suspends him from his functions for two months.

As for the Argentine federation, it sacked him in July 2010, after a disappointing World Cup for the national team. Here he is then coach of clubs in the Arab Emirates, then Belarusian. His returns to South America for exhibitions are punctuated by fights and scenes of violence.

On his body, now obese, are tattooed portraits of Che and other revolutionary leaders. It was nevertheless in Argentina that he carried out his final coaching assignment, with the Gimnasia y esgrima la Plata club.

How can such popularity cope with so many sinister and degrading episodes where the antihero takes the place of the hero?

If Maradona is a model of identification, it is because her life, like that of everyone else, is made up of alternating happy and tragic episodes. Glory follows forfeiture, the victories of Napoli the setbacks of the Emirati clubs that it involves. Not everyone knows such top-down reversals, but the black legend of Maradona illustrates superlatively how unhappiness can succeed happiness. We are far from the smooth image offered by many champions whose life is "a long quiet river", made up of victories and rewards.

In all these aspects, Maradona is an extraordinary champion, arousing admiration, a knowing smile, proximity but also commiseration. In short, a hyperbolic digest of humanity.

Christian Bromberger, Anthropologist, professor emeritus, Aix-Marseille University (AMU)

This article is republished from The Conversation under Creative Commons license. Read theoriginal article.

Image Credit: Julian Schlaen / Shutterstock.com

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