If Argentina can be symbolized by one person, then that figure has to be Diego Armando Maradona.
For those not too familiar with ‘El Diego’, here’s a brief recap (otherwise skip to the next section):
Diego is born in a Buenos Aires slum in 1960. At 3 he receives his first soccer ball. At 10 he begins flirting with fame. At 16 he is on the national soccer squad. At 18 he leads the national team to victory at the Football World Youth Championship.
At 21 he plays in his first World Cup; he is ejected for a violent retaliation. The team makes an early exit. He lands a $8 million contract with Barcelona. He discovers cocaine. He changes clubs and goes to Naples. He discovers more cocaine and the local mafia, the Camorra. He single handedly takes Naples to the top of Europe. He is deified in Naples.
At 25 he travels to his second World Cup. Single handedly carries Argentina to the cup. He is unanimously declared the best footballer in the world. Back in Naples he is busted for cocaine. Banned for 15 months.
At 29 he travels to his third World Cup. Single handedly carries an even weaker national side to the final. He plays with ankles swollen twice their size. I saw them in a magazine. This time they lose in the final. Diego cries. The nation cries. He is battered yet doesn’t quit.
At 33 he travels to a record tying fourth World Cup. I go to see him score his last goal in Foxborough, MA. Argentina beats Greece 4-0. A brilliant display. It turns out he cheats. This time he is taking a performance enhancing drug: ephedrine. Diego cries again. The nation cries again. The team is eliminated two games later.
In 1997 he retires from football. His career with cocaine carries on. In 2000, he suffers from an overdose induced heart attack. He turns to Fidel Castro’s health care system for help. He becomes quite obese during his therapy. Gastric bypass surgery in Colombia. At least 60 pounds are lost. He becomes Vice President of Boca Juniors Football Club. He starts his own talk show. He claims to have conquered his coke addiction. Argentina still loves him.
Now that I have summarized Diego’s career, let me get to the point I was making. Argentina’s rollercoaster ups-and-downs, its ever diverging qualities and defects, are curiously symbolized by Maradona’s chaotic career:
Argentina’s desire to be admired by the planet, was momentarily fulfilled when Maradona took center stage of the soccer world and became the greatest, if not second greatest, footballer ever.
In 1986 Maradona single handedly won the World Cup.
Argentina’s do-or-die, no-holds-barred attitude was epitomized by Maradona’s determination and sacrifice on the field.
Top: Maradona garnered the utmost attention of the synchronized Belgian defenders.
Bottom: the karate kicking Koreans figured out the best way to stop Maradona.
Argentina’s embarrassing defeat at the hands of the English in the battle over the Falkland’s was revenged by Maradona’s legendary performance at the 1986 World Cup.
Maradona is captured using what he calls the “Hand of God” to punch in the first goal against the English. His second goal, a stunning individual performance which is often recognized as the best goal of all time, sealed the victory. This past week Diego recognized that he punched the ball into the net and doesn’t regret it. He then referred to the English capturing Las Malvinas (Falkland Islands) and said: “el que roba a un ladrón, tiene 100 años de perdón.” Translation: he who robs a thief is pardoned for a 100 years.
Argentina’s bold, and often destructive, attempts to join the First World are comparable to Maradona’s narcissistic efforts to become a God among men.
The title of his autobiography, “I Am The Diego”, alludes to the unparalleled fame he has acquired. Maradona is so famous that he can refer to himself in the third person (Shucks! That means that my name is already taken). I found a great quote from a former teammate, and soccer great, Jorge Valdano: “Poor Diego. For so many years we have repeatedly told him, ‘You're a god’, ‘You're a star’ ... we forgot to tell him the most important thing: ‘You're a man’.”
Argentina’s indifference towards its impoverished and marginalized, makes it easy for Maradona to forget his humble origins.
Maradona (center) in his hometown of Villa Fiorita, a slum outside Buenos Aires, spending time with family shortly before moving to Europe and making millions.
Argentina’s bumpy boom-and-bust cycle has been mirrored by Maradona’s rapid rise from poverty to extreme wealth and then an even faster fall into financial trouble.
Maradona with his 1996 Ferrari F355 Spider. He eventually had to sell it. It is now be auctioned on the internet. Go here to bid on it. The highest bid so far is $670,550.
Argentina takes pride in its beauty. Both on and off the field Maradona is a proud show off.
Argentina is a society replete with corruption and cheating. Maradona a poster boy for devious behaviour.
In the 1994 World Cup my dad and I drove down to Foxborough, MA, to watch Maradona score his last national goal, in a 4-0 victory over Greece. The following game he was busted for using a performance enhancing drug: ephedrine. I actually thought there was something suspicious about his psychotic celebration.
Argentina’s obsession with leisure and entertainment has been taken to danger levels by Maradona.
After almost 20 years of cocaine use, and several overdoses, Maradona had a near fatal heart attack. Enough was enough. He sought medical attention in Fidel Castro’s medical paradise. According to this Mexican newspaper, cocaine, sex and videotapes were readily available at the clinic.
Argentina’s ever expanding national debt has been replicated by the equal or greater extension of Maradona’s waistline.
During his rehab the 1.68 metre (5’6”) Maradona inflated to 121 Kgs (266 pounds)!
Argentina’s propensity to surgically alter one’s body was embodied by Maradona’s easy way out of obesity.
A post-stomach stapling Maradona on his new talk show, “La noche del diez”. During the first episode he received is eternal rival, Pele. They chatted, reminisced, laughed, sang, headed a ball back and forth, and talked about Pele’s son’s drug problems. Pele told Maradona that he is a role model to his son for having conquered his addiction.
Argentina’s complex love-hate relationship with politicians is exemplified by Maradona’s dubious choice of political friends.
Top: Maradona with new friend Hugo Chavez. Maradona later said: “The truth is I like women, but I fell in love with him (Chavez).”
Middle: Maradona showing his long time friend Castro, a tattoo of Fidel’s face on his leg.
Bottom: Maradona showing off his famous Che tattoo.
Maradona also spent time some time in Libya with Qadaffi and trained his son, the captain of the national soccer team, with his good friend Ben Johnson (yes, the scandal ridden, ex-fastest man in the world). A close source tells me Ben and Diego indulged in copious amounts of cocaine, while frequently complaining about the lack of prostitutes and alcohol in the Libya.
Argentina is proud of its twisted sense of humour, however when shots are taken at Maradona, reactions are quite mixed.
Top: Brazilian “Super Size Me” gag on Maradona’s cocaine diet.
Middle: A piggish Maradona using a straw to snort a cocaine laced field.
Bottom: Instead of playing soccer, “The Maradona’s Team” inhales the white powdered lines on the field.
Argentina is often quick to forgive and forget its corrupt and criminal leaders. Maradona enjoys this impunity as much as anyone else.
During his farewell match at Boca Junior’s stadium, Maradona was thanked for everything he has done for the country. When he recently recovered from his addiction, he was given the Vice President title at the club. I am sometimes taken back by how much his ass is kissed, but then I remember that I am in the land of fútbol, and El Diego es Dios.
Argentina is constantly searching for the next Maradona, could Messi be him?
Lionel Messi, 18, led Argentina’s under-20 team to the world championships. He is under contract with Barcelona FC through 2010, with a buyout fee of 150 million euros. Earlier this month, he debuted with the adult national team. He lasted less than two minutes as he got ejected for retaliating against a jersey hungry Hungarian.
Finally, in Argentina it doesn’t pay off to dislike Maradona. For this reason I have learnt to love Diego like everyone else. To prove it, I bought this T-shirt:
Che’s and El Diego’s mugs side-by-side. The caption reads: Fútbol Revolución.