For kids in the south of Iran who grew up with little, having a good football was everything. When it was flattened under a minibus, it was a death to be mourned. For a week after, we were ready to beat up the kid who had caused it.
Our distraction from life was football, our passion was football, and our heroes were footballers. And it seemed at the time that our heroes were immortal.
Perhaps because of the similarity of the climate or because of the resemblance of our complexions, those heroes were always from South America. And, for most, chief among them was Diego Maradona. Whenever someone could dribble well, everybody cried: “Wow! Watch Maradona.” We cried with joy when Maradona scored a goal and cried like babies when Argentina lost.
When we grew up, we learned that we shared idols with Diego. “Look,” we said, “he has Che tattooed on his arm and Castro on his leg.” He never forgot where he came from, and he identified with these champions of the poor. Of course, as we matured, we learned that all our idols were flawed, Maradona perhaps more than most. But this only cemented the appeal — he is like us; he makes mistakes; he is real.
But for many Iranians, Maradona was still more than that. In Iran, there’s a common saying expressing the Iranian distrust towards the English. Whenever things go bad, people say, “It is an English job.”
I was born in Masjed Soleyman in Khuzestan province in the southwest of Iran. This town is known for two reasons. The first successful oil field exploitation in the Middle East began in this town in 1908. Second, Masjed Soleyman is known as a traditionally leftist town, producing more than its fair share of revolutionary activists and intellectuals. Sports were never far removed from politics.
You can imagine what it meant for kids in a big Masjed Soleyman family when Argentina defeated England in 1986 and later went on to win the FIFA World Cup. It was not just a victory in an important match, and Maradona was not just a footballer. The victory was the defeat of the imperialism that created our terrible situation. Maradona was thus fighting alongside us Iranians, then, and even before with those who had previously fought alongside Mohammad Mosaddegh against imperialism.
The leader of the movement for the nationalization of the Iranian oil industry, Mosaddegh was the democratically elected secular prime minister with a popular mandate. His government was toppled in a coup orchestrated jointly by British and American forces in 1953.
For those of us in Iran that marveled as the talents of Maradona on the pitch and associated his brilliance with the memory of Mosaddegh and what he represented, we’ve been mourning the loss of not just a footballer but a comrade.