Diego Maradona, anti-imperial symbol

For the peripheries and proletarians of the world—most of the world—Maradona is a symbol of defiance against the football aristocracy, corporate bosses and empire itself.

La Boca, Buenos Aires, Argentina. Image credit Wally Gobetz via Flickr CC.

Even in death, Diego Maradona continued to torment the peculiar empire-nostalgic milieu that is conservative England. The scars of Mexico ’86 have clearly still not healed. The Times painted a portrait of a “self-obsessed” and “self-destructive” figure whose “rare gifts were ruined by self-indulgence,” with paternalism dripping from the page: “That such a supreme talent could be so undisciplined, that he felt he needed to cheat … was perhaps a pointer to the unhappy times ahead.” The Telegraph obituary could wait no longer than the end of the first sentence to denounce him “a liar, a cheat and an egomaniac,” concluding that whatever about his talents, “ultimately Maradona remained a boy from the barrios.”

This was not meant as a compliment, and the snobbish tones were nothing new to British media depictions of Maradona. In contrast to Latin American perspectives of “one of the most intelligent and astute beings to have graced the game,” for example, a 1994 BBC television report asserted that “the background provides one clue to the flawed make-up: Maradona, the fifth of eight children brought up in a Buenos Aires working class slum, never received an education that would remotely prepare him” for his life ahead.

Peter Shilton, the England goalkeeper turned Nigel Farage supporter who Maradona humiliated on that famous day in the Estadio Atzeca, wasted little time cashing in on his death with a column in the Daily Mail. Shilton’s post-mortem dusted off the same broken record he has been spinning for years in his parasite punditry on Maradona’s travails: “what I don’t like is that he never apologized. Never at any stage did he say he had cheated and that he would like to say sorry. Instead, he used his “Hand of God” line. That wasn’t right.”

This brand of moralizing speaks to more than simply the bitter whining of reactionary newspapers or aggrieved footballers. It conjures up the myth of a civilizing mission in which the colonial gentlemen made the rules for natives to adhere to for their own betterment. When the civilizers bypass or re-write the rules themselves, they are the wiser judges. When the natives defy the rules, they are uncivil and impudent, and deserve their comeuppance.

This was Maradona’s unforgivable offence: surviving England’s own violent disregard for “the rules,” before overthrowing them with those two sublime, otherworldly goals—la mano di dios, and then, just moments later, barrilete cósmico. The European empires were built on a duplicitous combination of brute force and rule of law. Maradona eclipsed both that day. For little England, this remains unpalatable. More than thirty years later, it continues to drive some of their players from that team deeper into conspiracy theory territory.

For the peripheries and proletarians of the world—most of the world—however, Maradona is a symbol of defiance against the football aristocracy, against the corporate bosses, against empire itself. What he did to England on the pitch and what he represented in his refusal to be co-opted spoke to so many not merely in Argentina and the Americas but across the colonized and postcolonial world. As one comment captured it, the magic of Maradona “is having taught us in many different ways, from Argentina to Naples, that the periphery can win.”

The tributes flowed in after his death, from Syria and South Africa to Iran, India, and Ireland. He is an “icon not just of football but of the barrio poor.” He is a working class “subaltern hero.” He is “for the people of South America what Muhammad Ali was for Black America.” He is ‘the Malcolm X of those people’ racialized as Black in Argentina: “anyone with slightly darker skin because of their Indigenous or Afro-Argentinian ancestry.” He is a “comrade of the global South.” He is an example of Thomas Sankara’s vision of nonconformity as revolutionary courage. He is a Bolivarian “idol of the masses” in their struggle against neo-colonialism.

Such a worldly weight of expectation and cult of personality is clearly more than any one person could ever live up to. Maradona was not a political leader, and never claimed to be. He was under no illusions that “by winning the World Cup, we didn’t change the world, we didn’t bring down the price of bread.” But he was a political icon and symbol—one created and imagined as something far loftier than the reality of one footballing man could be, but one nonetheless that had very real meaning for many.

We know all too well the toll that Maradona’s addictions took on him. He was undoubtedly a victim of his combined vulnerabilities and surroundings; his own exploits and the exploitation of him. As his team-mate Jorge Valdano reminds us, he was also granted impunity from an early age. Like too many other football men, Maradona was neglectful and abusive towards some of those closest to him. While we cannot judge him without also judging the patriarchal society and consumption cultures that enabled him, there are some abuses that no context can justify. The allegation of violence against his girlfriend Roció Oliva cannot be reconciled or excised from his broader legacy.

Appearing in many of the obituaries was the famous line from his trainer Fernando Signorini that there were two people: wonderful, insecure Diego, who Signorini would go to the end of the world for; and Maradona, the scarecrow character who he wouldn’t take one step with (though most fail to mention what Diego said to Signorini in response: “yes, but if it wasn’t for Maradona I would still be in Villa Fiorito”). With a figure as operatic as Maradona, these tropes of duality resonate neatly—angel and devil, hero and villain, genius and cheat, maestro and mess. But ultimately they are both over-inclusive and overly reductive. He was one complex person with many, many layers, and his was a “lifetime of struggle” with all of its Dionysian excess and tragedy amplified.

An anti-imperial story

Maradona as story and symbol of the wretched of the earth is one of these layers. Valdano sums it up eloquently: “because of where he was from, he grew up proud of his class. Such was his symbolic, sentimental power that with Maradona the poor defeated the rich and the unconditional support that came from below was proportional to the mistrust from above. The rich hate to lose. But in the end even his greatest enemies were forced to bow to him.” Daniel Arcucci describes him in similar terms: “a little black kid from a very poor neighborhood. Who fights. Who stirs things up. Who wins.”

The 1986 World Cup was one such moment, and obviously the defining one in Maradona’s international career. Argentina against England was, of course, much more than a football match between two teams that happened to be from different hemispheres. Eduardo Galeano, chronicler of Latin America’s opened veins and extracted labor, celebrated Maradona’s “two lefty goals” against England as a modicum of vengeance for a series of historical injustices.

The long process of settler colonialism in Argentina reached a point of escalation with the series of genocidal wars against Indigenous peoples in the late 19th century. This underpinned the “nation-building” project of the Generación del ‘80 ruling oligarchy, led by Julio Argentino Roca whose first term as president began in 1880. Organized football had been instituted in Argentina from the 1860s through Britain’s quasi-colonial economic and educational structures. British schools, catering primarily to the “expatriate” settler community but also other strands of the Argentinian elite, used football to promote the “muscular Christian virtues of discipline, strength and endurance.” Sporting clubs were set up by British capitalists, with their stated aims being to uphold “British values” and “to play well without passion.”

These Anglo teams remained strong until the 1910s, by which time popular participation in football had taken hold and newer clubs of the Spanish-speaking working classes and Italian immigrant laborers were in the ascendancy. The power of the Generación del ’80 was also waning in the face of democratization and labor agitation. Argentina as state, society, and imagined community was still struggling to provide a coherent narrative of what defined and bound its multiple circles of settlers and immigrants as a “nation” (while Indigenous people were excluded as not Argentinian). With the self-confidence of the working class growing and fears of socialism taking hold, the evolving ruling class sought, out of necessity, to build cross-class unity through a shared sense of cultural identity.

Jonathan Wilson writes that over the ensuing years it was football which was raised up on a pedestal as the great national unifier. And, the narrative has it, the “Argentinian” vision of the game was honed very much in opposition to the British style. We can think of it, as such, as a form of anti-colonial aesthetic. It revolved around the toughness, technique, trickery, speed of feet and craft of mind required of the street footballer, as against the gentlemanly “fair play” and high-energy, big-running, mechanical power game that had flourished on the grassy expanses of the British schools.

When he emerged, Diego Maradona—a child of the working class potreros; of the Guaraní people on his father’s side and southern Italian migrants on his mother’s—was seen as the prophesized epitome of all of this, and embodied so much of what the colonialists had abhorred in the natives. He took the racial-classist insult of cabecita negra and turned it on its head, declaring: “Yes, I am a “blackhead” and proud of it. I’ll never forget where I came from.”

While most professional footballers come from working class backgrounds, not forgetting their roots typically takes the form of school visits and charity projects. Maradona was distinct in articulating and embodying poverty as political. He saw his family’s social class as a product of material realities and injustice in the world. He understood it as something to be challenged politically, and his identification with the poor remained political rather than philanthropic.

Confronting Europe

By the 1980s the British empire had faded, but the jingoism around the 1982 Malvinas/Falklands war temporarily revived its spirit and gave Margaret Thatcher the electoral boost she needed. A 22-year-old Maradona was “radicalized” by Las Malvinas. The period between that war and the 1986 World Cup was formative to his political development. The anti-imperial consciousness stoked by the war with Britain might well have taken a more nationalist trajectory, but Maradona’s left-Peronist upbringing and his intuitive class consciousness and social solidarities oriented him towards a socialist and internationalist sensibility. His anti-war tendencies were a logical derivative of organic opposition to Argentina’s military junta, and his anti-imperialism more broadly would emerge as an extension of his class politics.

As he recounted himself: “The truth is that the English had killed a bunch of kids. They were guilty, but the Argentines were just as guilty, sending those kids out in Flecha tennis shoes to fight against the world’s third-largest military power. … I remember well when we got to Spain in ’82 and saw the first uncensored coverage of the war: it was a massacre, a pile of legs and arms, of all those Argentine boys snuffed out in the Malvinas, while those military sons of bitches in Argentina kept telling us we were winning the war.”

Maradona then moved to Europe where his experiences further shaped his politics. He was subjected to intense racist and physical abuse during his two years playing for Barcelona, which ended with the notorious 1984 cup final against Athletic Bilbao. When a Bilbao player “hurled racist epithets at him because of his indigenous ancestry,” Maradona headbutted him and a mass brawl ensued. He then joined Napoli—the world’s most expensive player going to one of Western Europe’s poorest cities, as the cliché had it—conscious of wanting to inspire the working class kids of Naples, in whom he saw himself. He quickly “realized what he had gotten himself into” as he was exposed to the visceral reality of anti-southern racism across the north of Italy.

The Northern bourgeoisie had “subjugated the South of Italy and the Islands, and reduced them to exploitable colonies,” as Gramsci put it. The football terraces of the north certainly expressed colonial levels of contempt for Naples and its people. The figure of Maradona, representing all that was an affront in the “uppity poor” seeking to disrupt the status quo, was further fuel for their ire. The extent to which he was reviled in northern Italy—and revered in Naples—cannot be overstated. And ultimately, as Galeano wrote, “thanks to Maradona the dark south finally managed to humiliate the white north that scorned it.”

His loyalties at Napoli were always to the masses not the bosses, who during his first season refused his request to arrange a game to raise funds for a local kid in need of medical treatment. Maradona convinced his teammates to play anyway, organized a game on a muddy field beside the child’s house, and covered the insurance costs himself. A crowd of 4,000 turned up, and the necessary money was collected. While he would never became a political organizer of comparable rigor to footballer-activists like Sócrates, Maradona’s story is sprinkled with acts of real solidarity like this which help explain the affection for him among the working classes of the world.

Resistance and reparation

When fate brought England and Argentina together again in 1986, the shadow of Las Malvinas loomed large. There were sporadic outbursts of fighting between the fans in Mexico City, and even fears that tensions around the game might spark racist violence against minority communities in London. England defender Terry Fenwick remembers the Tory government’s Minister for Sport being brought into the dressing room to give the team a pep talk before the game and warn them of the “partisan crowd” and the risks of any international incident. For Argentina, as Maradona recounted, “It was our way of recovering Las Malvinas …We said the game had nothing to do with the war. But we knew that Argentines had died there, that they had killed them like birds. And this was our revenge. It was something bigger than us.”

Galeano had noted that during the tournament, “well-informed sources in Miami were announcing the imminent fall of Fidel Castro, it was only a matter of hours.” That didn’t happen; instead, “this was Maradona’s World Cup” and not long afterwards he went to Cuba for the first time. It was a trip that would mark the start of a long and close relationship with Fidel Castro in particular, and the Latin American socialist movements generally. “I just had to raise my voice after seeing the world, from visiting Cuba, reading Che Guevara,” Maradona told Emir Kusturica. Inspired by Maradona’s activism over the ensuing decades, Evo Morales would say that while “the empire stands with the right wing, football stands with the left”—a somewhat optimistic view of “football” writ large perhaps, but certainly true of Maradona. While Diego’s politics may not have amounted to a fully-formed and always-consistent praxis, his instinctive alignment with the oppressed and his insistence on using his voice placed him on the right side of most of the political history that he lived through.

Maradona evolved from temporary aberrations such as “an impolitic friendship” with neoliberal-Peronist “con man Carlos Menem”, as Roberto Zanini characterised it in il Manifesto, to sustained support for socialist, emancipatory and revolutionary projects across Latin America. He championed Palestinian and Tibetan freedom (though not that of Western Sahara), and demonstrated his fierce opposition to US imperialism in all its manifestations from military aggression to malicious free trade impositions. He was there to support and lead the momentous demonstration and counter-summit at Mar de Plata in 2005 against “murderer” George W. Bush and the proposed Free Trade Area of the Americas. Castro reflected on the significance of the successful mobilization: “It was a grand battle against the FTAA … with an enormous mass of people, they gave an unforgettable lesson to the empire” in defeating “those who want to get three things from us: raw materials, cheap labor, customers and markets—a new form of ruthless, savage colonialism.”

At root, Maradona’s politics were proudly working class, leftist, internationalist—at least in the defiant, rhetorical resistance sense. For the global sporting superstar of their time to have taken these positions, to become a symbol of anti-capitalist and anti-imperial defiance— particularly through the “end of history” period of defeat for the left and increasing commercialization of sport—is something profoundly significant in the popular battle of ideas and in contributing to mass politicization.

There are two recurring and abiding elements that particularly struck home in the world’s collective memories of Maradona. For so many, what stands out is not just the memory of watching him play, but the memory of how it felt to watch him play. As Miguel Delaney articulated: “It was the way he made you feel when watching him. … He fired the imagination.” The unbounded freedom with which Maradona played himself reflected an escape from the inner demons and outer chaos of his life: “when you’re on the pitch, life goes away,” as he said himself. Witnessing that freedom and the artistry he produced with it instilled in us a sense of the radical possibilities of our own unrealized freedom.

This connects to the second element: the global chord that Maradona struck with his defiance on the terrain of political rhetoric. As Galeano described it, the ruling class and the mainstream “accuse him of talking too much. They aren’t wrong, but that’s not why they can’t forgive him. What they really cannot stand are the things he says … things that stirred up the hornet’s nest. He wasn’t the only disobedient player, but his was the voice that made the most offensive questions ring out loud and clear.”

Ultimately, perhaps like the projects of third world decolonization and Latin American anti-imperialism themselves, Maradona represented a profound rupture with the established order that hit up against a combination of self-limitations and crushing counter-revolution from the powers that be. He remained unapologetic to the last, however. He denounced the attempted right-wing coup in Bolivia in 2019 and continued to support the Movimiento al Socialismo. He never apologized for taking the side of the working class, whatever the contradictions that he lived out in his own life. Maradona’s final political intervention, in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic this year, was to invoke his own childhood experience of hunger and call for the imposition of a wealth tax in Argentina – which was indeed passed the week after he died. He was also intuitively aware that even if he did apologize for the hand of god goal, that would still not placate his conservative and classist adversaries in England. He continued in any event to see it as an act of anti-imperial reparation: “For me, it was like stealing from a thief: it’s no crime in my opinion.” Not only did he never apologize, he went out of his way to deny any suggestions that he had. He wrote of his dispute with The Sun: “I won a lawsuit against an English newspaper that ran the story title, ‘Maradona says sorry.’” This was, he insisted, “a thought that never once crossed my mind. Not then, not thirty years later, not on my deathbed.”

Further Reading

El Negrito

Eduardo Galeano once described Diego Maradona: “… a short-legged bull, [who] carries the ball sewn to his foot and he’s got eyes all over his body.”