Among the many tragedies that 2020 has brought us is the untimely death of Diego Maradona. The legendary footballer died on November 25 at the age of 60 of a heart attack at his home in Argentina.
Maradona is more than the greatest soccer player of all time. He took football beyond the pitch, elevated it to a political act, and gave hope and a sense of redemption to millions of poor and marginalized fans. He proved that competence alone does not make a lasting difference; it also takes courage, awareness and resilience.
Maradona is remembered as much for her transcendent talent as for her rebellion and challenges to authority and power – something that is absent from so many sports figures today, let alone scientists, writers and artists. . These acts, like those of Muhammad Ali, were always aimed at protecting the weak, those who could not defend themselves on the world stage.
Maradona has become the legend that he is not only because of his performances on the pitch, but also because of the close bond he has forged with the fans. He always insisted that he was playing for the people rather than the owners and the powerful elites who occupied the luxury lodges. And even in his fight against addiction, he has always remained honest and down to earth. “I made mistakes and paid for them, but the ball never gets stained,” he once said.
Maradona was proud to be born and raised in Villa Fiorito, a slum in the southern suburbs of Buenos Aires, where her parents left the province of Corrientes, in the far northeast of the country. Their house was built from bricks and sheet metal and had no running water or electricity. Maradona’s talent was discovered at the age of 11 by youngsters from Argentinos Juniors club, los Cebollitas (the Little Onions), where he quickly became a national phenomenon.
After playing for Boca Juniors, a popular Buenos Aires team for a few years, in 1982 Maradona moved to Europe to play for elite teams. His first team was the wealthy FC Barcelona, where he failed to adapt due to injuries and strong racism towards South Americans in general.
This is why, in 1984, he decided to put his talents at the service of one of the poorest cities in Western Europe: Naples in Italy. It should come as no surprise that Maradona immediately identifies with his teammates in Naples and the Neapolitans, often called the “Africans of Italy” by the Northerners. The rich north of Italy has always looked down on the poorer and less developed south, causing a lot of tension between the two regions, even on the football field.
Maradona shattered the established domination of the north in the Italian football league, leading Naples to win their first Serie A title in 1985. As Italian writer Roberto Saviano wrote in an article in La Repubblica newspaper, “Maradona was the redemption. Yes, redemption… because a southern team had never won an Italian league, a southern team had never won a UEFA Cup, a southern team had never been the center of world attention. .
In Napoli, Maradona also didn’t hesitate to confront club owners over unfair wages and policies. For example, in 1984 he went against the will of the rulers and organized a charity game on a muddy field in one of Naples’ poorest suburbs to help pay for medical treatment for a poor child.
Because of this and many other acts of solidarity with the local population, the Neapolitans came to adore Maradona to such an extent that many supported Argentina in the 1990 World Cup semi-final against Italy who , coincidentally, took place in Naples.
In her home country Argentina, Maradona was also much loved. The fact that Argentines of all ethnicities and social classes cherished him was an indication that they saw much more than a sportsman whenever he appeared on or off the soccer field. In 1986 he became a national hero after scoring two extraordinary goals in what is considered the most politically charged World Cup match in football history.
Just four years after Argentina’s military attempted unsuccessfully to regain control of two British-occupied territories in the South Atlantic during the so-called Falklands (Falklands) Wars, England and the Argentina met in the quarterfinals of the World Cup. Maradona knew this was an opportunity to honor the memory of the hundreds of Argentines who died in the war, but also the millions of people across the Global South who had been killed by colonial forces over the centuries.
The first goal scored by Maradona became the “hand of God”. The second, the “goal of the century”. The English fans never forgave Maradona these goals; they still feel a burning humiliation at the deception of the first and the transcendent skill of the second.
The Argentines, meanwhile, celebrated a savior who succeeded in shaking England from Margaret Thatcher at the height of her neo-imperial power. Asked in October by France Football what would be his dream gift for 60 years, Maradona ironically replied: “Score another goal against the English, with the right hand this time!”
For Neapolitans and Argentines – and millions of other fans – Maradona was a symbol of redemption for all who despised and subjugated them. After his retirement as a professional player in 1997, this challenge took on a more global dimension.
Maradona has publicly supported a union of professional footballers and has publicly denounced the corruption that has ravaged FIFA. He also supported the Palestinian cause and left-wing South American leaders such as Fidel Castro, Hugo Chavez and Evo Morales, who were united in their opposition to US imperialism. In 2005, he marched in the huge protest for the Fourth Summit of the Americas, wearing a T-shirt that proclaimed George W. Bush a war criminal.
The Maradona rebellion and its challenges to authority and power have a lot to do with the belief that social justice cannot be separated from sport. Sadly, today, with growing corporate pressure to take politics out of sports arenas, professional players and athletes are being penalized for political statements and acts of solidarity with marginalized and discriminated communities.
As we remember and honor the memory of Maradona, we must also embrace her legacy and continue to resist the commercialization of sport and the marginalization of social justice within it.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Al Jazeera.