The clichés about Diego Maradona being the ‘half-devil, half-angel’ of world football deliberately overlook his passionate, anti-imperialist politics, writes Mark Brown.
Diego Armando Maradona, who died in November aged 60, was an icon of the late-20th and early-21st centuries. A kid from Villa Fiorito — a desperately impoverished shantytown in the Buenos Aires province of Argentina — he rose to become the greatest footballer of his generation, perhaps of any generation.
The mass media coverage following Maradona’s death has focused on his sublime talent, his tempestuous private life and the consequent health crises that led to his untimely demise. However, few have spoken of the politics of a man who, like his compatriot and hero Che Guevara, despised US imperialism and instinctively sided with the poor and the oppressed.
Maradona was of mixed Italian and indigenous descent — his father Chitoro belonged to the indigenous Guarani people. The poverty and racial marginalisation of his childhood had a profound and lasting impact on his politics.
Being catapulted to fame in 1976 when, aged just 16, he was signed by Argentinos Juniors football club, he went on to play for the great Argentine club Boca Juniors (1981-82) and Catalan giants Barcelona (1982-84).
It would be during his seven years at southern Italian club Napoli (1984-91), however, that Maradona ensured his status as one of the greatest footballers of all time. Napoli was an unfashionable club, long overshadowed by the big, northern teams like Juventus, AC Milan and Internazionale.
When he arrived in Naples the club had never won the ‘scudetto’ — the ‘little shield’ awarded to the winners of Italy’s top league Serie A — nor had they enjoyed any success in European competition. By the time Maradona left, Napoli had won the scudetto twice (1987 and 1990) and the UEFA Cup (1989).
That he led the club to such heights is all the more remarkable given that his personal life had been plunged into crisis in Italy. As we see in Asif Kapadia’s superb 2019 documentary, Maradona was suffocated by his celebrity, leading him into the hands of the local mafia and cocaine addiction.
Although the love of the Neapolitan people was often oppressive for Diego, it was reciprocated entirely. As southern Italians, the Napoli fans were subjected to disgusting racist slurs every time they played a team from the north.
Given his own impoverished, indigenous background, Maradona associated himself entirely with the people of Naples. His revulsion at this bigotry drove his passionate desire to make Napoli the pre-eminent team in Italy.
In 1986 Maradona won the World Cup with Argentina — following his death, sections of the English media returned to their caricature of him as ‘half-devil, half-angel’. They complained, yet again, about his ‘hand of God’ goal against England in the quarter-finals. Maradona scored the goal by hitting the ball over England goalkeeper Peter Shilton with his hand, cleverly disguising the manoeuvre as a header.
The absurdity of this historical grumble is that in the very same match, Maradona scored what many consider to be the goal of the century. Receiving the ball in his own half of the pitch, he proceeded to dance past the majority of England players, scoring a goal of truly artistic beauty.
Here, too, Maradona’s politics came to the fore. Argentina’s victory over England was ‘revenge’ for British atrocities in the Malvinas during the so-called Falklands War of 1982, he said. During that conflict Margaret Thatcher infamously ordered the illegal sinking of Argentine ship the Belgrano, killing 323 mostly young, conscript sailors.
Throughout his life Maradona was absolutely consistent in his anti-imperialist politics. He sported a Guevara tattoo on his right arm and made numerous public appearances with anti-imperialist and leftist figures such as Cuban leader Fidel Castro and Bolivia’s socialist, indigenous president Evo Morales.
Following the US-British invasion of Iraq, Maradona appeared alongside Venezuela’s left-wing president Hugo Chavez while wearing a t-shirt denouncing George W Bush as a war criminal.
Unlike Pelé who is, arguably, the only real competitor for the title of greatest-ever footballer, Maradona was not interested in becoming a respectable and diplomatic elder statesman of world football. As rebellious and sometimes outrageous as he was earlier in his life, Maradona continued to speak out for the oppressed and the underdog.
In 2012, for example, he reiterated his long-held support for the Palestinians in their struggle against Israeli oppression. ‘I am the number one fan of the Palestinian people’, he said. ‘I respect them and sympathise with them. I support Palestine without any fear.’
The tragedies and human frailties of Maradona’s too-short life are well documented, as is his magnificent skill with a football. However, he would also have wanted to be remembered as a fighter against imperialism and injustice.