Opinion: from Argentina to Naples, the player's success was defined as much by politics as the magic he created on the pitch

In 2021, Amazon Prime Video released the series Maradona: Blessed Dream based on the life of Diego Armando Maradona, arguably the most renowned and controversial footballer of all time. The programme follows the life of Maradona from childhood until his mid-twenties, when he reached the peak of this career, fictionalised for the screen.

The credits sequence is made up of real archival footage of Maradona playing football, edited alongside other images that appear fleetingly. These include a shot of Raúl Alfonsín, the first democratic president of Argentina after seven years of a brutal dictatorship. Another is of British prime minister Margaret Thatcher, and others that relate to the Falklands/Malvinas War in 1982.

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Credit sequence for Maradona: Blessed Dream

These choices could appear to be out of place. What do Thatcher or the war have to do with the goals and dribbles of Maradona? In truth, his success was defined by politics as much as football. Although he was one of the most gifted footballers of the modern era, he would probably not have achieved the same status of global myth and icon without the wider socio-political coordinates in which his career unfolded.

The Falklands War began in April 1982, when the unconstitutional military junta that ruled Argentina since 1976 decided to invade and recover the Islands. Two months later, when the 1982 World Cup in Spain was just beginning, the conflict ended with the surrender of the Argentinean armed forces.

At the time of the tournament, expectations around the Argentinean team were high. It had won the previous tournament, held in Argentina in 1978 (a controversial decision by FIFA, since the tournament legitimised the dictatorship, already heavily questioned for its human rights abuses). The team also now included Maradona, who was being recognised internationally as a hugely promising player, despite having only played in the domestic league. However, the team performed poorly and exited the competition early.

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Maradona's two goals against England in the 1986 World Cup

The event that transformed Maradona into a national hero and a symbol of rebellion and resistance is the famous football game between Argentina and England in the 1986 World Cup quarter-finals in Mexico City. By then, democratic rule had returned to Argentina, but its citizens were still struggling to come to terms with the recent past. Beating England was always going to entail a sense of redemption and retribution following the War. Those feelings were magnified by the way the victory arrived: Maradona scored the two most well-known goals of his career, the "Hand of God" goal, and the "Goal of the Century."

As a result, the wider sense of (metaphorical) retribution that beating England implied was subsumed within an act of personal heroism. Football may be a team sport, but it was the talent of Maradona - his skills, dribbling, and trickery - that made the victory possible, restaging the myth of the individual fighting against all odds.

This, of course, was the Argentinean take, echoed across the world, particularly in the global south. In England, Maradona's first goal, scored with his hand, was perceived (and still is perceived) as cheating and lack of sportsmanship. It must be added that the same was not said about the English team’s violent fouls against Maradona.

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From Altitude Films, Maradona arrives in Napoli in 1984 (taken from Asif Kapadia's 2019 film)

From that game onwards, Maradona become a worldwide phenomenon, but his image was further cemented the following year in Italy, when he led SSC Napoli as they became first division champions in 1987. At the time, no team south of Rome had ever won the scudetto.

For the people of Naples, this sporting victory represented much more than a football trophy. For the impoverished Italian south, this was also a vindication in an unequal competition in which the teams of the richer, industrialised north (Juventus, Milan, Inter) held an advantage. With Maradona in their team, Napoli supporters could now to travel to cities such as Milan, Turin and Verona, where they would suffer racist abuse from rival fans, and come away with a victory that turned the tables on the established order.

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From Télam, Maradona's birthplace was declared a national historic site by the Argentinian government in 2021

Maradona was brought up in extreme poverty in a deprived suburb of Buenos Aires, in a house without running water or sewers. He embraced the role of protector and defender cast upon him. He was turned into a signifier that could absorb a number of meanings. The most common ones revolved around Maradona as somebody who stood up for the people, particularly those marginalised for.

Once his career was over, Maradona became an outspoken supporter of the regimes of Fidel Castro in Cuba and Hugo Chávez and later Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela. He even got images of Castro and Ernesto 'Che' Guevara tattooed on his body. However, it is highly debatable that endorsing autocratic leaders who headed regimes that violently suppressed dissent and individual freedoms could be still considered genuinely radical. In fact, the most eminently political aspect of Maradona will not be found in his often-contradictory discourse, but on a few, more pragmatic gestures.

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From The Guardian, what Maradona meant to fans in Naples and Buenos Aires

One example stands out in this sense. It dates to his career in Naples, where he was unrestrictedly venerated. This gave rise to the mass production and circulation of the widest variety of merchandise with his name and image on it: replica shirts, caps, books, magazines, VHS recordings of his goals and games, toys, and so on. None of this was done legally: no image rights or commissions were paid to player or the club.

Maradona’s managers tried to put a stop to this practice, but Maradona refused. As he explains in the documentary Maradonapoli, he would never seek any legal actions against working class people who made and sold this merchandise trying to make a living. Would something like this be conceivable in football today?

Diego Maradona: A Socio-cultural Study is edited by Prof Pablo Brescia and Dr Mariano Paz will be published by Routledge in December 2022


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ