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Maradona's Second Coming: The Metamorphosis of the football deity into an anti-American activist

By N.U. Abilash/The Hindu, India, February 12, 2006

IN his autobiography El Diego, Diego Armando Maradona writes that when he started kicking a ball in the poor Buenos Aires suburb of Villa Fiorito, his dream position was that of the libero. "I could see the whole pitch, get a feel for the match in its totality, think strategies, and run the length of the pitch," explained Maradona. Twenty years after consummating his first life as a footballer with his World Cup win in Mexico, he is into his second life — that of an anti-American activist — with the participatory zest and holistic vision that marked his first one as the most popular player of the most popular sport in the world.

Argentina's football deity discussed anti-capitalism and anti-Americanism in one of the episodes of his television show "La Noche Del Ten (The Night of the Number Ten") and then challenged George Bush in a stadium rally in Mar del Plata. The rally was against American trade policy and was staged to oppose the visit of the President to the Argentinian city to meet some Latin American leaders at the Summit of the Americas.

Criticism

John Tierney, columnist for the New York Times, slammed Maradona as a hypocrite who benefited from lucrative endorsement deals with global corporations in his playing days, now masquerading as a saviour of the poor.

Tierney, like many other conservatives, looked at the football icon from the "other" side of the fence. Maradona's life, like his football, is all about subversion. Fellow Argentinian footballer Jorge Valdano, who scored the winning goal in the 1986 final against West Germany, writes that the concept of gambeta is central to understanding the lives of people growing up in Argentinian slums. Gambeta comprises two elements: supreme skills, creativity and taste for deceit. Just as the second "Miracle Goal" against England in the quarterfinal in Mexico 1986 is one component of gambeta, so is the first controversial "Hand of God" goal. "I realised the goal was illegitimate. But, the referee allowed it. I told my team-mates that anybody who robs a thief gets a 100-year pardon," Maradona said on his show. Clearly, there is a yawning gap between people who evaluate sportsmanship through models devised in elite English public schools and a Villa Fiorito product.

Maradona considers himself to be the representative of the poor. "Nobody has given these people a chance. They have had to come up through ingenuity and hard work. I am the voice of the voiceless. I get microphones shoved in my face and I get the chance to speak for them. I use television to make the rich aware that fellow human beings exist. I cannot change the world, but I become human by speaking the truth," he writes in his autobiography.

Personal problems

Maradona split with his childhood sweetheart and wife Claudia during the height of his cocaine problem between 2002 and 2004 and was on the verge of death in April 2004 after a drugs-induced heart attack. Claudia is currently his manager and agent. In early 2005, he underwent stomach stapling to fight obesity and reappeared sporting a slimmer look for the TV show in August, the first episode of which featured bete noire Pele.

In 1987, he declined to sign a $100m contract with IMG because the management group wanted him to be a dual citizen of Argentina and, hold your breath, the U.S. He made sure that both his daughters were born in Argentina.

Maradona, as he writes in El Diego, picked up his cocaine habit during his playing days when he was depressed fighting against powerful interests that exploited players. That was the time he made powerful enemies such as directors of football clubs, the head of the Italian League (which was then the most powerful league in the world), and the powers-that-be of Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA). He successfully waged a battle to open up the balance sheets of leading Italian clubs so that player wages could increase. He fought against powerful business interests being sought to prevail over the glorious uncertainties of the game. His team's win over hosts Italy in the semi-final of the 1990 World Cup upset the advertiser's dream of a Italy-Germany final and Argentina, almost as ritual punishment, was done in by a penalty that did not exist in the final. "I cried on the ground after the game because of the injustice of it all, not because we lost," he explained.

Post-1994

Maradona was the global face of poverty and oppression. In 1994, he was disqualified from the World Cup for testing positive for Ephedrine. More than a hundred poor football fans in Bangladesh committed suicide, according to the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC). Maradona hit out against the ill treatment meted out to the poor south Italian club of Napoli in the posh north. "There is nothing wrong if the people of Naples support Argentina and me," he said before the Italia 1990 semi-final. "How can they support Italy when the north has always behaved as if the south did not exist?" When the Milanese crowd cheered Cameroon, Argentina's first opponents of Italia 1990, Maradona said, "I am happy that because of Diego Maradona, they forgot their racism."

As Maradona enters 2006, he feels the outlines of the face of George Bush appearing to blend with the faces of all the FIFA and Italian League honchos (after all, the President was formerly a baseball team owner). Round One has gone to Maradona — Bush left Mar del Plata without a trade agreement. The second life has begun.

* * *

Down the years

1960: Born in a Buenos Aires slum.

1982: Sent off in the World Cup against Brazil; Signs for Spanish giants Barcelona.

1986: Player of the tournament in the World Cup in Mexico, which Argentina won.

1989: Marriage to Claudia Villafane

1990: Argentina lose to Germany in the title clash of the World Cup in Italy

1991: Tests positive for cocaine; banned for 15 months

1994: Plays in the World Cup but sent home after testing positive for Ephedrine.

1997: Retires from football

2000: Fidel Castro invites him to Cuba; voted by FIFA as the `Player of the Millennium' (Public choice).

2003: Divorced

2004: Suffers a heart attack; on the verge of death

2005: Stomach stapling; launch of TV show; takes on George Bush in Mar del Plata in November.

2006: Condemns U.S. invasion of Iraq

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