Football fans often call Leo Messi the best player of his gene-ration, if not of all time. For most Argentines, however, Messi can only ever rank second — after all, all he’s ever done is kick a ball.
Diego Maradona, on the other hand, was always more than an athlete: he’s a cultural icon, a political heavyweight, and a damn fine footballer, in that order. He became El Diego, a sports demagogue — and, if you subscribe to the Iglesia Maradoniana, he’s an actual demigod, too.
The Buenos Aires barrio boy who made it to the top, Diego scaled the heights and brought the whole neighborhood with him. As Maradona made his teammates better around him, he restored the nation’s self-image after a devastating war and years of violent dictatorship.
Diego follows in the grand tradition of Latin American populists. His politics come from visceral emotion rather than nuance — they are flawed and poorly thought out, but also not entirely the point. He cultivates an everyman image that mixes with his well-publicized love of fast cars, women, and cocaine. His skills on the pitch defied logic; his political maneuvers do so even more.
He gets away with it because he enjoys a level of popularity that no actual politician could ever achieve. Just as every party in Argentina tries to claim Juan Perón’s legacy, so every government tries to bring Maradona into its fold, knowing that he will bring the masses with him.
As a boy, Diego idolized the Boca Juniors, the slums’ club, the perennial rivals of the River Plate millonarios. When he joined the team he delivered championships, but, more importantly, fans saw one of their own on the pitch — the hooligan who made it.
When he moved to Napoli, his play was so beloved that graffiti appeared on the walls of a cemetery that read, “You don’t know what you’re missing.” His personal demons never left him, however, and his career in Italy ended after he tested positive for cocaine, having spent a fair amount of his time enjoying camorra parties. His commitment to social justice never motivated him to pay taxes, a violation for which the Italian authorities still want him.
Diego achieved immortality with the Argentinian national team. In the early 1980s, the country lost the Falklands War to the United Kingdom. By 1986 — still fresh from the bloody years of the Videla dictatorship — Argentines lacked morale. When their team drew England in that year’s World Cup, Diego led them to victory singlehandedly — seriously, look up his goals from that game — achieving more for national pride in one afternoon than the junta had ever managed. They went on to win the tournament.
The timing couldn’t have been better. Diego was untainted by the dictatorship, since he was too young to have either supported or resisted it. He belonged to the same generation as the boys who had been sent to the Malvinas. This time, however, he beat the British, and in a style that used all the wiles of the barrio. He became the living embodiment of viveza criolla, the “creole cunning” that eschews rules and responsibility. Sure, he was a playboy, but given the chance, wouldn’t we all be?
The political cult of Diego was built on this reputation. Perónist president Carlos Menem shared an agent with Maradona and happily exploited the connection. In the footballer, he recognized a fellow fighter against Argentina’s criollo aristocracy, a striver like himself.
Menem, son of a Syrian immigrant, boasted about his humble origins and used Diego’s reflected glory to cast himself as the people’s champion. He named Maradona “ambassador for sport” and gave him a diplomatic passport, which Diego gladly accepted because it protected him from the drug and tax cases against him in Europe. In return, he helped give Menem cover to enact an infamous program of neoliberal restructuring.
His politics grew more consistent after he retired, when he began to support figures who both wore trappings of the working class and fought for its interests. He dedicated his autobiography to the Cuban people, got tattoos of Fidel and Che, and called Hugo Chávez a close friend. In 2005, he courted controversy by wearing a T-shirt blaring “Stop Bush” — with the president’s name written with a swastika. Nor did his staunchly Catholic outlook did stop him from criticizing Pope John Paul II when he found himself unable to reconcile the Vatican’s opulence with the poverty Catholics endure all over the world.
He has even politicized his sporting legacy, as he rarely conceals his disdain for Pelé, the only other legitimate candidate for the title of “greatest of all time.” Diego casts Pelé as an establishment shill who advertises boner pills and cozies up with the FIFA hierarchy. Only El Diego can be the popular champion.
Of course, the legitimacy that matters to Maradona comes from the people who produced him, and his status there is unquestioned. In the back streets of Naples and the barrios of Buenos Aires alike, El Diego remains the icon.