Updated: November 27, 2020 3:04:24 pm
A jewellery shop in Kerala is perhaps the last place one would expect to find Diego Maradona. But for several years, he has been the shop’s ubiquitous face. He even visited the state to inaugurate a branch of the jewellery chain in the football-crazy northern Kerala city of Kannur in 2012. Thousands flocked to catch a glimpse of him, so that they could brag that they have seen Maradona in flesh and blood.
When he died on Wednesday, the state declared two days of mourning. From the chief minister to celebrities and sportsmen, everyone was busy rattling out their best memory of Maradona.
As if he is one of their own. As if they owed him something. A debt of gratitude for the football he played? Or just pure, spontaneous love?
It’s the transcendental charisma of Maradona — to be deified, mourned and loved in a part of the world so different from his own Buenos Aires or Naples.
It’s the emotional resonance Maradona always struck with people —the power to move even his sworn enemies or cast a spell over his fiercest critics. A people’s champion, he remained till his last breath.
Nothing symbolises his charisma more than the support he coaxed from the Naples crowd in the 1990 World Cup semifinal against hosts Italy. Until that juncture, Italy’s stroll through the World Cup had taken place in front of overwhelming home support, but the Argentina match took place in a muted, almost respectful atmosphere.
When Argentina won on penalty kicks, a large chunk of the 80,000 crowd were said to be secretly happy that it was Maradona’s team that had qualified for the final.
A few months before the World Cup, he had made an evocative speech in Naples, home of his then club Napoli, reminding the fans that the mainstream Italian society had always ignored them, and hence they were not obliged to cheer for the country. It’s hard to imagine too many other figures in world football with the guts to take such a bold step, much less pull it off.
Three years later, when he was playing a World Cup qualifier in Sydney, the 45,000-odd were all cheering for Maradona, so much so that the crashing of Australia’s dream was ringed in with thunderous applause. “The whole of Australia really got behind football for one of the first times because of the interest in Diego Maradona,” remembered former striker Graham Arnold in an interview to socceroos.com.au.
Years later, he landed in South Africa and won them over with his words.
Maradona lavished praise on everything from South African fans to the organising committee to the city of Pretoria. He cast himself as a defender of the host nation against those who doubted whether it could organise a competition like the World Cup. “Today South Africa answers the sceptics, ‘yes, it can!’” he said during an event. Between training sessions, he squeezed in time to visit slums and promote football. He was left in tears when he visited a disadvantaged school in Pretoria. “I have received many welcomes in my football career across the world, but the warmth you have shown me will make me not to forget this day in my lifetime. With each kiss and every hug, I felt I had a friend,” he later said.
The inherent compassion drove him to Mexico to manage a second-division club, Dorados de Sinaloa, in 2018, based out of the drug-dragged city of Culiacán. He made it his home, and later recollected his stay with fondness. “They said I only came here for a holiday. No, I came to get us promoted. But my footballing commitment here is not only about the ball. It’s about people who are in need, who’ve also lost many things,” he told the press.
He departed as a hero, like he was to Naples, Argentina, South Africa, Mexico and well, Kerala. An unusual geographic circuit, bound by the magnetic force Maradona was.
He counted among his vast canvas of friends the powerful and mighty, the religious and communists, premiers and dons, the dark and the deluded, writers and thinkers. He wore Fidel Castro on his calf and Ernesto Che Guevara on his bicep, he endorsed the politics of Eva Morales and Hugo Chavez, dined with the dreaded Giulianos of Naples mafioso and had friends in the Camorra. He inspired Peruvian novelist and Nobel Laureate Mario Vargas Llosa to scribble beautiful essays on him. “He was one of those living deities that men created to be able to worship in them. To admire such a champion is to admire poetry, abstract art, without any rational content”, he once wrote.
Maradona met two Popes. After meeting the first, Pope John Paul II, he told the press: “I was in the Vatican and I saw all these golden ceilings and afterwards I heard the Pope say the Church was worried about the welfare of poor kids. Sell your ceiling then, amigo, do something!”
To the next, the Argentine Pope Francis, he expressed gratitude for his reconversion to the Catholic faith in 2016. Maradona travelled to Rome several times to take part in several benefit games called ‘Matches for Peace’ whose proceeds went to a papal charity for education in developing countries and for victims of the 2016 earthquake in central Italy. At the same time, he defended Gaza, even saying: “In my heart, I’m Palestinian.” There were rumours that he would coach their football team.
It’s this gift of personal affinity that one could strike with Maradona that distinguished him from other footballing giants. Whereas Maradona is not alone in footballing genius — the debate whether he was the best or not will rage on for ages — he was alone in the personal resonance he struck with the masses. Be it in Pretoria or Palestine, Naples or Kannur, Mexico or Buenos Aires, Sydney or Riyadh. He was the hero they loved, and a hero that seemed to love them back.
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