The political power of Diego Maradona through five World Cups – Part 1

Diego Maradona is probably the biggest enigma football has known in its history. He was regaling local audiences by the age of 5, and became a subject for national news before he could sign a cheque.
There has rarely been a more political figure for a nation's football ecosystem than Diego Maradona for Argentina. (Art by Fabrizio Birimbelli)
There has rarely been a more political figure for a nation’s football ecosystem than Diego Maradona for Argentina. (Art by Fabrizio Birimbelli)

In the most damning visuals from Spain’s 6-1 recent demolition of Argentina, Leo Messi was seen walking off inside from the stands, unable to witness  his national team getting massacred anymore.

In about seventy days time, he will be leading the same group out in Russia, in hope of retribution for the silver medal he had to put around his neck four years back. Part fortunate to even have tickets to the World Cup, the Argentina national team are far from the image of confidence and inspiration you’d otherwise expect them to be.

If there’s one blot on Messi’s otherwise colossal career, it’s this lack of silverware in national team colors. After losing a third consecutive final with Argentina in that wretched 24-month streak between 2014 and 2016, Messi had contemplated walking away from international football, even if for a very brief moment. It took his country a lot of pleading and begging to set his mind straight. One would imagine Russia will be his final attempt at scaling the Everest, and he doesn’t have very many sherpas around him. Many have made the steep climb, and Messi certainly won’t be the first from the banks of River Plate to haul the ropes alone.

Back in 1514, Nicolaus Copernicus had first floated the idea of the sun as the stationary centre of the universe, while the rest of the solar system orbited around it. Some three centuries later, the Argentines waged a six-year long war and snatched independence from the Spanish empire. The sun in the middle of their flag is called The Sun of May, as a reference to the May revolution which led to their war of independence.

Argentina have a deep-rooted history of such larger than life figures, monuments around which societies have functioned, but no one has signified the fire and radiance of the sun more than the person Messi will look to emulate at Russia: Don Diego Maradona.

In many ways, the World Cup is a legacy tournament, a month-long extravaganza fuelled by nostalgia. Make no mistake, tears are still shed at knockout-round exits, but the stocks of a world event in the football calendar have indeed fallen. Even international breaks have somewhat been rendered as painful speed-breakers in the eight-lane highway that is the domestic season. Diego Maradona became the face of football’s main event in an age when it meant everything to players and fans alike.

As the world disembarked at Buenos Aires for the 1978 edition, the first whispers of his name began to be heard. All of 18 years of age, Maradona was already the talk of the nation, and the noise generated because of his omission from Cesar Luis Menotti’s squad now rung around every corner of the country. The national team coach had no dearth of talent at his disposal and cited genuine concern for young Diego.

“Can you imagine what could’ve happened had we lost in that World Cup? We had a tough group with France, Italy and Hungary. Moreover, he was still in the process of muscular development and risked suffering a long-term injury.”

The World Cup of 1978 was held against the backdrop of nationwide political unrest against the military regime, and Cesar Luis Menotti was as political as a football man as they came. The Argentina national team, to put it simply, needed to win the tournament. Menotti was a brazen leftist, and it was his opportunity to make a political statement through football. People who had worked with and around him spoke of a man with tremendous ego and pride, one who couldn’t risk another figure matching or superceding his stature. In the words of Dr. Ruben Oliva, member of Menotti’s staff at Huracan and the national team –

“Menotti saw the World Cup as his big chance. He didn’t want anyone else assuming the role of number one. He was paranoid of Maradona and the effect he’d have on the team and their fans.”

By the time Spain 1982 rolled into town, Maradona was the world’s most spoken about footballer, coming fresh off leading Boca Juniors to the domestic title in his first year at the club. Cesar Menotti was still in charge of the national team, now virtually untouchable after 1978. He had tasted his big victory, and immediately mended all fences with Maradona, calling him back to the national team within six months of the ‘78 World Cup. Over the next three years, Menotti built his team around the most precocious talent South America had seen since the heady days of Pele and Garrincha.

Menotti staring down dictator, General Videla.
Menotti staring down dictator, General Videla.

Maradona entered the tournament in the middle of a terrible stretch of injuries, the latest coming four short days before the opening ceremony. A pulled hamstring with days to go before a match is usually grave news, but with some help from his trusted medical staff, Maradona recovered in time before Argentina squared up against Belgium. Maradona and Argentina never really took flight in the tournament. In the second round, the deceptively named Claudio Gentile man-marked Diego to oblivion and begun the slide. Against Tele Santana’s all-conquering Brazil, Argentina were 3-0 down before a kick to Joao Batista’s groin earned Maradona a red-card and confirmed Argentina’s flight out of Spain. After four years of build-up and hype, the entire world was left with a sour aftertaste from what they saw of Maradona at a World Cup.

The Spanish media were unforgiving, circulating pictures of the Diego and the entire national team spending most of their time indulging in excesses that wouldn’t fit a side defending a world title. For years, Diego had only seen the media fawning, tripping over themselves to get a single picture or a sound byte from him. The post-1982 World Cup experience was the onset of his paranoia about journalists and media in general.

Argentina’s exit from the tournament coincided with Argentine troops surrendering at the Falklands War, and the presiding military regime collapsing as a result. Ever since General Leopoldo Galtieri had begun planning the conquest of Las Malvinas in the British-owned Falkland Islands, the public had been fed a lie that the military junta were ahead of the curve. After hundreds of young men had been killed at war, and the full scale of domestic atrocities by the media brought to light, the pressure was too much for regime to bear. Newspapers from Spain carried reports of how the national team were distraught after seeing uncensored footage of the war.

“We were convinced we were winning the war, and like any other patriot my allegiance was to the national flag. But then we got to Spain and discovered the truth. It was a huge blow to everyone on the team.”

– Maradona.

By this time, Boca Juniors, as indeed Argentine football, needed him more than he needed them. His medical problems were no secret, but the financial pressure meant both teams were forced to play him for a lot of matches where he should’ve been rested. The burden of being responsible for the health of an entire nation was evidently too heavy for Diego to bear, resulting in interviews which sounded more like pleas to the powers that be. It was a pattern that would become staggeringly common with a man who often had to remind people that for all his genius with the ball, he was human with faults and frailties.

The ‘82 tournament came seven years after the death of General Francisco Franco, the dictator who held Spain by the throat for the entirety of his reign. The loudest voices against him came from the land of Catalunya, a region that has always kept Spain at an arm’s length, even if sharing the same government. After his demise, the face of Catalan football, FC Barcelona, turbocharged their metamorphosis into a global superclub. Acquiring Maradona right after the 1982 World Cup was a huge part of the puzzle, and it got them all the attention they wanted and some more. They even got Cesar Luis Menotti as coach the year after, just to optimise and lengthen Diego’s stay in Catalunya. Barcelona had hoped for a long-term romance, and ended up with a fling, but for Maradona, there probably couldn’t have been a better runway to refine his power settings before taking flight.

In the documentary ‘Which One Is Pink?’, Roger Waters talks of the album Meddle, especially the track Echoes, as some sort of apprenticeship. Putting out that album felt like graduation, he would mention. They had learnt how to maximise their talents and were ready to unleash The Dark Side of The Moon.

Maradona’s stint at Barcelona was a similar crash course. There was an array of dizzying displays, there were flashes of the temperament and emotion that were fast becoming synonymous to him, and there was pain, the kind you feel when your ankle snaps into two. In a couple years at Barcelona, Maradona had seen and given everything there is to elite European football and stardom. It was also the period that would open up a dark sideway on Maradona’s path to success and fame.

“Forbidden to be an artist” – Marca headline the day after that match against Athletic Bilbao where Andoni Goikoetxea’s tackle broke Maradona’s ankle.

Maradona would face Goikoetxea again, in the Copa Del Rey final of 1984. Thirty four years hence, the result of the match has nothing more than mere academic significance. It’s what happened after the full-time whistle that lives long in the memory of those who witnessed it.

In audience that evening, at the Santiago Bernabeau, was Spain’s king Juan Carlos. More than half of the country was said to be following the match on their televisions and transistors. As they prepared to leave, the pitch erupted in a frenzy of head-butts, kicks and punches. At the centre of it all, Diego Maradona. Barcelona had had enough, and they weren’t the last to reach the threshold of patience with him.

The second part of the story can be found here.

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Sarthak Dev

Computer engineer, pianist and writer; not necessarily in that order. Can kill for a good football story.