The political power of Diego Maradona through five World Cups – Part 2

Diego Maradona landed from a helicopter for his unveiling at Napoli. Playing the messiah came naturally. It was the beginning of a phase that would catapult him to the greatest heights reached by a footballer. The first part of the story can be found here.
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)

Max Weber, one of the leading sociologists of the twentieth century, introduced the idea of ‘charismatic authority’ – a ‘certain quality of an individual personality, by virtue of which he is set apart from ordinary men and treated as endowed with supernatural, superhuman, or at least specifically exceptional powers or qualities’.

In the January of 1983, new national team coach Carlos Bilardo visited Maradona, offering him the captaincy. The move was a political masterclass, given Maradona’s stature in his country and the galvanizing power he held amongst his teammates. It raised some eyebrows and scorned some others, most notably that of 1978 skipper Daniel Passarrella, but Bilardo had no doubt about his central figure in the quest for Mexico ‘86.

A year later, Maradona joined Napoli. For one of the world’s leading footballers to choose a southern Italian club, going past Milan, Inter or Juventus, was uncharted territory. Naples is Italy’s most densely populated city, adorned by dingy alleys and littered footpaths; not quite the beautiful landscapes and walkways that will make the front pages of Italy Tourism brochures.

Diego often spoke about how he felt a responsibility to empower his hungry country every time he stepped on the pitch. Naples’ place in Italian history is similar: southern cities in the country have forever been looked at as the poor, ostracised child who made awkward appearances at plush family gatherings. He was their messiah, and as he descended from the heavens in his helicopter, Neapolitans saw in him a man who would use football to fight for their right to an equal socio-political stature in Italy.

Naples soon became Maradona’s second home; he was friends with the local mafia Camorra and could walk into any part of the city at any time of day and be treated like a king. His influence at the club itself grew by the day, and he was soon dictating which players Napoli should buy and sell. It fuelled his gigantic ego and thirst for a celebrity lifestyle – a heavy price for the mental space to excel at his craft. He catapulted the club into a steep upward path in his first two seasons, coming within two points of UEFA Cup qualification in 1986.

Maradona was by now the undisputed global face for Argentina as a nation, nevermind the football team. So when Raúl Alfonsín, then president of the country, wanted to get rid of the pragmatic coach Bilardo in early 1986, his office rang Diego Maradona in Naples. In his book, Diego speaks about that conversation with some passion.

“I told them ‘If you get rid of Bilardo, I’m out of the door. Just to make it clear, you’d be firing two guys instead of one.’ In those days, I was on César Luis Menotti’s side, but I did everything for the cause, for the team, because I was sure that we would get somewhere. And the cause had been limping along, truth be told. I wanted to put an end to everything that had been done to hurt the team, and that’s exactly what I did.”

One of the most fascinating things about studying sport is observing an elite athlete going about his job. These are beings who operate at a higher physical, mental and emotional plane than the common man, able to withstand the fury of an opposition full-back and hundred-thousand blood hungry fans without breaking sweat. What goes through their head right before they embark on an era-defining, and in Diego’s case, sport-defining performance? Even if they drink the same water and breathe the same air, one wonders if these induce the same chemical reactions in the body of a champion as it does for us mundane mortals.

There aren’t enough flowers blooming around the world to garland Maradona’s performance and showmanship at Mexico ‘86. Throughout the tournament, Maradona was on a plane very few could ever inhabit, carrying, goading his team over the line whenever it seemed like the pace was stalling. Carlos Bilardo event went to the extent of giving him complete freedom in choosing his routines, doctors and timings for family visits, such was the power of Diego’s genius. When confronted by press or his own players, Bilardo had a simple retort – “Would you rather return as world champions, or the most disciplined team who got knocked out in the quarter-finals?”

The midfielder asked to mark Maradona on the day of the final was Lothar Matthaus, the most German footballer of all. He was part Brietner, part Beckenbauer, part Rummenigge; hard, ruthless and talismanic in equal, scary amounts. Maradona won round 1, but the contest, one which he looks back at with great fondness and respect, would spill over to Italy.

Italy had been awarded the hosting rights for the next world cup in 1990, and the world’s elite wanted to play in the prestigious Milan and Turin clubs. AC Milan’s Dutch trio of van Basten, Gullit and Rijkaard helped Netherlands beat Germany in an extremely politically-charged match at Euro ‘88, and Inter were swift in landing Matthaus and Andreas Brehme that summer. Jurgen Klinsmann would follow a year after. While so many scampered for a quiet corner in the streets of north Italy, down South, Maradona had won Napoli the league and Coppa Italia double in 1987.

“The unique achievement of Maradona, when he is compared with the other contenders to be considered the greatest player of all time, is to have led, almost single-handedly, a moderately sized club to a major championship in an era in which money had started to be not merely an advantage but a decisive factor.”

– Wilson, Jonathan. Angels With Dirty Faces: The Footballing History of Argentina

With every victory, Maradona’s political voice grew stronger. He went from a football genius to a full-fledged campaign prop for Naples. The Napoli cupboard was richer with the UEFA Cup, another Scudetto and the Supercoppa by the time Pavarotti’s Nessum Dorma reverberated across San Siro to ring in Italia ‘90, but the city’s love for Maradona was straining. Reports about his transgressions and excesses had turned from blips into events of disturbing regularity.

Maradona was a public figure in the age of color television, and when his face was plastered on news channels with policemen in tow, Naples had a problem. They wanted a king and messiah, but not one who bore the scars of legal intervention.

At the World Cup, Argentina scraped through one round after another, taking time to recover from the most spectacular opening-day loss against Roger Milla’s Cameroon. Then, in a turn of fate fit for the climax of a Christopher Nolan film, they were drawn up against Italy in the semi-finals, at Naples. The man, who even today gives convoluted replies to “Did you hit it with the hand?”, didn’t miss a blink before making political remarks about Italy’s treatment of its southern cities. It was going to be a home match for Argentina, Maradona claimed, leading to uncomfortable bum shiftsing of chairs in the higher echelons of the Camorra office.

In his haste, Diego missed noticing something that should’ve occurred to him very naturally. Throughout his career, he spoke about the vulnerabilities of a normal human being and how he should be treated as one, irrespective of his athletic abilities. In many ways, the only cure to his emotional imbalance was to accept him as one of our own. Neapolitans wanted the same for themselves; Italy was their motherland and they were unequivocally devoted to it. Their problem was with the socio-political discrimination against them. His unabashed celebration after winning the penalty shoot-out took his relationship with Naples to the point of no return.

Striding out opposite him in the final, was Lothar Matthaus. The dictat for the German was the same as from four years back: keep Diego out, Argentina will crumble. Ninety minutes later, Diego was in tears again, just not the happy ones anymore. Argentina and Germany played a final that would put 65 year-old golfers to sleep, and it was the Beckenbauer-coached, mechanically efficient Germans won that evening. Diego himself didn’t last long in Italy, leaving Napoli at the end of the 1991 season, with the city, board, and even the Camorra getting sick of his tantrums.

Naples still keeps memoirs from the stormy love-affair with Diego. A walk down the streets will open up to walls with his murals, and you might even end up visiting the little shrine dedicated to him. The crests and troughs of Maradona’s life graph have never been long-lasting; instead, they’ve often overlapped. It was in Naples where he enjoyed his brightest sunshine as a footballer and public figure, and it was Naples where the sunshine turned into gloom as the dark alleys of his drug addiction started getting primetime media mileage.

Unable to hide from the flashlights anymore, and in severe need of weight-control, Diego called it quits. Without their cannon and battering ram, Argentina didn’t fire. With qualification for the next World Cup of 1994 on the line, coach Alfonso Basile’s cajoling capabilities brought back an astonishingly lean Maradona for the playoffs against Australia. United with their talisman, they went from outsiders to favorites in the matter of 90 minutes. USA is called the land of milk and honey, a country which enjoyed a glorious reputation back then, unlike the mockery it has made of itself today. People also called it the land of opportunity, where dreams see light of day. After a goal against Greece, which looked as sleek as his new waistline, Maradona screamed into the camera, seemingly to say he was back, goading the entire country of Argentina to dream again. For a man who shimmied past defenders like he was taking a stroll in the morning, how utterly tragic is it that the last footage the world remembers Maradona the player by, is a Red Cross nurse holding his hand and taking him off the field for a post-match narco test.

Diego was born short and stocky, but the pressure to perform from a very young age led to constant injections of growth hormones for muscular strength. He ran on his toes, fooling defenders to go one way as he sped to the other. In the race to get in shape for his last shot at international glory, he used one syringe too many. There were many who watched it unfold with sullen faces – the prospect of bidding goodbye to someone you’re emotionally invested in is never pleasant – but every single observer and their kin knew the extent to which Maradona was responsible for his catastrophe.

Diego Maradona, in his greatest ever moment.
Diego Maradona, in his greatest ever moment.

Twenty years since Maradona set the precedent for how not to finish a career, the man still holds a place in football no one else has been able to touch. Put him on in the blue and white, and an entire nation will happily fold hands and get on their knees in reverence.

“To understand the gargantuan shadow Maradona casts over his football-mad nation, one has to conjure up the athleticism of Michael Jordan, the power of Babe Ruth – and the human fallibility of Mike Tyson. Lump them together in a single barrel-chested man with shaggy black hair and you have El Diego, idol to millions who call him D10S, a mashup of his playing number and the Spanish word for God.”

– The Houston Chronicle

With Pele, you witnessed assured greatness; he was football’s iceman who had rhythm, cold-blooded in his ruthlessness, but never failed to entertain. In Cruyff, the world saw a marriage of elegance and acumen that was almost educative. With the ball, he was a ballerino, without it, a professor. With Maradona, in a tackle or dribble, in joy and tragedy, you were never on your seat, irrespective of the distance you were watching him from. He was football’s first theatre artist. Born in a country which reveres charisma and caudillismo, Diego Armando Maradona indeed was El Dios: the artist, the tragic, the god, the one everyone wanted a piece of.


Sarthak Dev

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