Shobhan Saxena and Florencia Costa

Sao Paulo: At the opening of the FIFA World Cup at Arena de São Paulo in 2014, Diego Maradona sat in a cabin with some journalists. When then Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff rose to speak, there was a commotion in the highly-priced boxes. Unable to understand what was being shouted, the Argentinian turned to a Brazilian columnist for help. On being told that Brazil’s rich were booing the president with abuses directed at her gender, Maradona said: “This is absurd. Just absurd.” A few months later, when the plea for impeaching Brazil’s first female president was accepted by Congress, Maradona called on Rousseff. “He said his heart was with me,” Rousseff recalled on Wednesday, paying tribute to the legend. “Maradona’s death is a great loss for all football lovers, who had the same passion for him as he led his life,” Rousseff said, adding that the Argentine deserves to be “admired for defending the rights of the peoples of Latin America and the Caribbean to sovereignty, democracy and social justice”.

In his last interview, given to the Argentine newspaper El Clarin on October 30, when he turned 60, Maradona had wondered if he “would be loved” after he was gone. Today, when the news of his death came, a pall of gloom descended on the entire Latin American region – from Buenos Aires to Havana and from Sao Paulo to Santiago, with TV news anchors breaking down and football pundits recalling the genius with tears in their eyes. The world at large may remember Diego Maradona as a genius who scored the “the goal of the century” or as a flawed character who lived dangerously. In Latin America, he will be remembered differently. In this part of the world, Diego (as he was fondly called by his first name) was more than the “god of football”; he was also a serious activist – a fighter for social and political justice.

Maradona scores the ‘goal of the century’ against England in the 1986 FIFA World Cup. Photo: Revista El Grafico/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain

Maradona stopped playing the beautiful game a long time ago. But he was never away from the people’s imagination and their concerns. In his last interview, amid his failing health, he was more worried about the pandemic ravaging his country, especially the poor. “I trust our president (Alberto Fernandez). I feel very sorry when I see children who have nothing to eat. I know what it is to go hungry. I know what it is like to spend days without having to eat. My wish is to see Argentines happy, with work and eating every day,” he said in the interview, speaking directly to the president.

On Wednesday, with the country plunged into a deep sadness and its streets jammed with an endless stream of mourners, the Argentine president spoke for the whole country. “You took us to the top of the world. It made us immensely happy. It was the biggest of all. Thank you for existing, Diego. We will miss you for life,” said Fernandez, the left-wing president of Argentina.

In Latin America, whose history is drenched in the blood of colonisation and slavery, football is taken more seriously than religion. The game has been a ticket out of poverty for the poor since it arrived here in the 19th century. It has also given hope to generations, especially those born on the wrong side of the tracks. Maradona, with his play and speech, truly represented those at the bottom of the social ladder.

Born in a slum in the suburbs of Buenos Aires, Maradona was discovered as a football prodigy at the age of 9. He made his debut for Argentina in 1977 at the age of 16. The rest, as they say, is history. But he never forgot where he came from. He never turned his back on the class from where he rose to international fame and stardom. After he hanged his boots up, Maradona turned to social and political activism, never mincing his words – in praising his friends or taking apart his foes. Two days before turning 50, he went to the funeral of former Argentinian president Nestor Kirchner, with whom he had met a month earlier. “He was a gladiator. He had learned things from Che Guevara, who is my idol,” he had said at that time.

Diego Maradona with Argentinian President Nestor Kirchner in December 2007. Photo: Commons CC-AR-Presidency

Few would ever forget the image of a bare-bodied Maradona sunning on a boat with a tattoo of Che Guevara on his right-hand bicep and a Cuban cigar jammed into the corner of his jaw as he stares into blue waters. He also had the face of the former Cuban leader Fidel Castro tattooed on the calf of his left leg. Maradona didn’t put the faces of these Latin American icons to make a fashion statement. A frequent visitor to Cuba, Maradona had a deep, personal – and political – relationship with Castro, whom he once called his second father “because he advised me and he opened the doors of Cuba to me”. Their friendship began in 1987, when Maradona visited the island for the first time, one year after he lifted the World Cup trophy for his country. Tormented by his addiction, Maradona was rather desperate in later years but clinics in Argentina had closed the doors to him. “And Fidel opened the doors with a heart,” he recalled in an interview.

Maradona smokes a cigar, with a tattoo of Che Guevara visible on his right shoulder. Photo: Reuters

Under Castro’s guidance, Maradona turned more political and vocal as he left the football world way behind. Starting with Venezuela in 1998, as more and more South American countries took a leftist turn, Maradona became a busy man, hopping from one country to another, campaigning in elections and speaking about social justice. At the Summit of the Americas in Mar Del Plata, Argentina, in November 2005, Maradona participated in a counter-summit along with Evo Morales of Bolivia and Hugo Chávez of Venezuela to challenge then US president George W. Bush’s push for Free Trade Area for the Americas (FTAA), which proposed that Latin American companies and states prioritise the sale of raw materials and products to American buyers. The opposition to the FTAA was successful. The American proposal fell through. “I am completely left-wing,” Maradona had said at the time as he became one of the icons of Latin America’s pushback against the US’s bullying of the region.

Diego Maradona, then in Cuba undergoing rehabilitation for cocaine abuse, shows Cuban President Fidel Castro a tattoo of him on his leg, inside Revolution Palace in Havana on October 29, 2001. Photo: REUTERS/Stringer/File

No other continent has arguably produced as many magical football players as South America. Most of them have the same life story and trajectory: born in poverty, learn the tricks of the game in shantytowns, don the national colours, sign multi-million dollar deals with European clubs, and look for a spot in the football establishment once their legs get tired. Not with Maradona. Even before he quit the game, he called FIFA a “mafia”, much before the deep-rooted and systemic corruption in football was exposed in 2015. Unlike other football greats like Pele and Zico, who never challenged the football or political establishment, Maradona continued to speak for the rights of players over the profits of clubs and for the welfare of common people over the greed of corporations. In the words of Eduardo Galeano, the legendary Uruguayan writer who was himself a chronicler of injustices in Latin America, it was Maradona’s “voice that gave worldwide resonance to uncomfortable questions to power”.

In recent years, as South America’s leftist governments came under siege with the rise of right-wing politics in some countries, including Brazil, Maradona missed no opportunity to defend the left and attack the right. In his native Argentina, as the government of Maurício Macri imposed neoliberal policies on the country, which severely affected the poor in recent years, Maradona often clashed with the right-wing leader on social media, thus setting the tone for political debate. “His decisions have taken the lives of two whole generations of Argentinians,” Maradona said of Macri, who was defeated in the presidential elections last year by Alberto Fernandez.

Maradona did not keep himself limited to Argentina. A frequent visitor to Brazil, he repeatedly expressed his support for former Brazilian president Lula da Silva against his “political and legal persecution promoted” by Operation Car Wash. On Wednesday, Lula was one of the first to mourn his death. “Outside of sports rivalry, he was a great friend of Brazil. His intensity in life and his commitment to Latin American sovereignty is commendable,” said the former president. “I have rarely seen a football player stop playing and yet not stop. Maradona continued to play. He continued to play in thoughts, in his political opinions, in his criticisms. He continued to play for poor people all over the world.”

Former soccer star Diego Maradona balances a soccer ball on his head at the 61st Cannes Film Festival, May 20, 2008. Photo: Reuters/Eric Gaillard/File

At the 2014 World Cup opening game, the abuse that Dilma Rousseff received deeply upset Maradona. He never hid his politics. He saw Latin America’s leftist leaders as his allies. “There is no other Chavez, just as there is no other Fidel Castro or another Lula,” Maradona had said once.

Just a coincidence, but Diego Maradona left the world the same day as Fidel Castro (November 25).

The world will miss Maradona for his game and flamboyance. Latin America will miss their Diego for hope and inspiration – on and off the field.

Shobhan Saxena and Florencia Costa are independent journalists based in Sao Paulo, Brazil.