Maradona, the redeemer

2020 took away from us a legend who turned playing football into a political act.

Argentine football icon Diego Armando Maradona talks to a young fan while sightseeing after training with his new team, Napoli in Castel Del Piano, Italy on July 27, 1984 [File: Massimo Sambucetti/AP Photo]

Among the many tragedies 2020 brought to us was Diego Maradona’s untimely death. The legendary football player passed away on November 25 at the age of 60 from a heart attack at his home in Argentina.

Maradona is so much more than just the greatest football player of all time. He took football beyond the pitch, elevated it to a political act and gave hope and the feeling of redemption to millions of poor and marginalised fans. He proved that skill alone does not make a lasting difference; one also needs courage, conscience, and resilience.

Maradona is remembered as much for his transcendent skill as for his rebelliousness and challenges to authority and power – something that is absent in so many sport figures today, not to mention scientists, writers, and artists. These acts, like those of Muhammad Ali, were always meant to protect the weak, those who could not defend themselves on the global stage.

Maradona became the legend he is not just because of his performance on the pitch but also because of the close bonds he established with fans. He always insisted he was playing for the people rather than the owners and the powerful elites who occupied the luxury boxes. And even in his struggle with addiction, he still remained honest and down-to-earth. “I made mistakes, and I paid for them, but the ball is never stained,” he once said.

Maradona was proud to be born and raised in Villa Fiorito, a shantytown on the southern outskirts of Buenos Aires, where his parents moved from the province of Corrientes in the far northeast of the country. Their house was built from loose bricks, sheets of metal, and had no running water or electricity. Maradona’s talent was discovered at the age of 11 by the youth side of Argentinos Juniors club, los Cebollitas (the Little Onions), where he quickly became a national phenomenon.

After playing for Boca Juniors, a popular Buenos Aires team for a couple of years, in 1982 Maradona moved to Europe to play for elite teams there. His first team was the wealthy FC Barcelona, where he failed to adapt due to injuries and strong racism towards South Americans in general.

This is why in 1984 he decided to take his talents to one of Western Europe’s poorest cities: Naples in Italy. It should not come as a surprise Maradona immediately identified with his Napoli teammates and the Neapolitans, who were often called the “Africans of Italy” by the Northerners. Italy’s rich north has always looked down on the poorer and less developed south, causing much tensions between the two regions even on the football pitch.

Maradona broke the established dominance of the north in the Italian football league, leading Napoli to win their first Serie A title in 1985. As the Italian writer Roberto Saviano wrote in an article for La Repubblica newspaper, “Maradona was the redemption. Yes, redemption … because a team from the South had never won an Italian championship, a team from the South had never won a UEFA Cup, a team from the South had never been the centre of world attention.”

In Napoli, Maradona also did not hesitate to confront the club owners over unfair pay and policies. For example, in 1984, he went against the will of the executives and organised a charity game on a muddy field in one of poorest suburbs of Naples to help pay for the medical treatment of a poor child.

Because of this and many other acts of solidarity with the local people, Neapolitans came to worship Maradona to such an extent that many supported Argentina in the semifinal of the 1990 World Cup against Italy which, coincidentally, was played in Naples.

In his home country, Argentina, Maradona was also much loved. The fact that Argentineans from all ethnic origins and social classes cherish him was an indication they saw much more than a sportsman whenever he appeared on or off the football field. In 1986, he became a national hero after scoring two extraordinary goals in what is considered the most politically charged World Cup game in the history of football.

Just four years after the Argentinian military unsuccessfully tried to regain control of two British-occupied territories in the South Atlantic in what is known as the Malvinas (Falkland) wars, England and Argentina met in the World Cup quarterfinals. Maradona knew this was an opportunity to honour the memory of the hundreds of Argentinians who died in the war but also the millions of people across the Global South who had been killed by colonial forces over centuries.

The first goal Maradona scored became known as the “hand of God”. The second, the “goal of the century”. England fans have never forgiven Maradona for these goals; they still feel a burning humiliation over the deceit of the first and the transcendent skill of the second.

Argentinians on the other hand celebrated a saviour who managed to upset Margaret Thatcher’s England at the peak of its neo-imperial power. Asked in October by France Football what his 60th birthday dream gift would be, Maradona ironically responded, “To score another goal against the English, with the right hand this time!”

For Neapolitans and Argentinians – and millions of other fans – Maradona was a symbol of redemption from all those who looked down on and subjugated them. After his retirement as a professional player in 1997, this defiance took a more global scale.

Maradona publicly supported a union for professional football players and publicly denounced the corruption that engulfed FIFA. He also endorsed the Palestinian cause and such leftist South American leaders as Fidel Castro, Hugo Chavez, and Evo Morales, who were united in their opposition to the US imperialism. In 2005, he marched at the enormous protest for the fourth Summit of the Americas, wearing a T-shirt that proclaimed George W Bush a war criminal.

Maradona’s rebelliousness and challenges to authority and power had much to do with the conviction that social justice cannot be kept separate from sport. Unfortunately, today with increasing corporate pressure to squeeze politics out of sport arenas, professional players and athletes are penalised for political statements and acts of solidarity with marginalised and discriminated communities.

As we remember and honour Maradona’s memory, we have to embrace his legacy, too and continue to resist the commercialisation of sport and the marginalisation of social justice within it.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.