God, fave, Queen
It’s March of 1981 in Buenos Aires, and Diego Maradona and Freddie Mercury are kings. The former had just completed a $4mn transfer to Boca Juniors after running roughshod for five years with Argentinos Juniors. Mercury’s band Queen meanwhile had released their eighth studio album, the synthesizer extravaganza ‘The Game’, and were on the ‘South America Bites the Dust’ tour. The band was a fan — in a letter to Mercury’s biographer Leslie-Ann Jones, lead guitarist Brian May wrote of Maradona: “The spirit of the pursuit of excellence lives in the man” — and Mercury invited him on stage in front of 300,000-strong Estadio Velez Sarsfield .
Maradona peeled off his Argentina number 10 jersey, swapped it for the frontman’s Flash t-shirt and introduced ‘Another One Bites the Dust’. Backstage, he put on May’s Union Jack tee and posed for photos. Argentine press meanwhile first went after Mercury — citing the shirt exchange as a “demagogic act” — and a year later, when the photos resurfaced during the Falklands War, attacked Maradona. The footballer reminded people that the pictures had been taken a month before any conflict began. Argentina couldn’t stay mad at their prodigal son for long anyway.
Naples Stir Up
Naples was second home to Maradona who knew the San Paolo Stadium was Argentina’s best chance of beating hosts Italy in 1990. Italians from other parts of the country, wanted nothing to do with Naples which represented socio-economic faultlines that bordered on racism. The rich industrial north didn’t consider Naples, in the poor agricultural south, a part of Italy and during a Juventus-Napoli match, nasty fans would dub it “shame of Italy.”
Maradona made a miracle out of this misfit leading his team to two Serie A titles and a UEFA Cup win. Loved like a patron saint, a nurse is said to have left a vial of his blood “on a shrine in a Catholic church.” In a cemetery, a banner was suspended, taunting the dead that, “You don’t know what you missed.” A work of graffiti replied: “how do you know we missed it?”
Before the semifinal against Italy, Maradona would be quoted by The New York Times assaying, “’Italy makes it feel important one day of the year, but forgets about it the other 364.” He wrote in his autobiography ‘El Diego:’ “The Argentinian national anthem, for the first time in the whole World Cup, was applauded from beginning to end. For me that was already a victory. I was moved: these were my people.”
The visitors would win on penalties.
Why Mexico, Diego?
It’s ‘tranquilo’, said Maradona to a British reporter who had travelled all the way from Manchester to meet him. In one of his last attempts at coaching, Argentina’s gift to football found himself in the city of Culiacan in Sinaloa, managing their Mexican second division club, Dorados de Sinaloa. The Sinaloa cartel was flagged by US officials as one of the most powerful cartels in the world, the head of which was Joaquin ‘El Chapo’ Guzman. Locals said that Maradona didn’t live in a fancy hotel but instead in a home. He attended baseball games by himself without any guards and somehow managed to find – in his own words – some peace, right in that part of the world that has seen anything but peace.
There’s a picture of Maradona proudly showing his Fidel Castro tattoo to the man himself. He would once call the revolutionary leader from Cuba his ‘second father’. The Argentine’s politics routinely careened towards Latin America’s left and his admiration for Castro knew no bounds. Stories ranging from the Cuban clearing up his schedule and spending time with Maradona in his office for three hours playing football to Castro appearing on Maradona’s TV show talking about the re-election of George W Bush added to the lore both held in the eyes of their supporters. It would be no surprise that Maradona would pass away on the same date that his hero did four years earlier. When Bush visited Argentina in 2005 for a summit, Maradona, who was very vocal against neo-imperial tendencies of earlier England and later the US, would proclaim, “I hate everything that comes from the United States. I hate it with all my strength.”
A cheeky birthday wish
Diego Maradona’s‘the hand of God’ goal against England in the 1986 World Cup remains one of the most iconic events to take place in the history of the sport despite its deceitful nature. The eccentric Argentine just days ahead of his 60th birthday made a reference to that iconic moment in a rather cheeky manner. In his last major interview, he was asked by the France Football what would his dream gift for his 60th birthday would be? Maradona replied: “ I dream of being able to score against England again… this time with my right hand”. Needless to say, he burst into laughter in typical Maradona manner.
Ten & Tennis the Menace
“#FuerzaDiego” wrote World No 9 Diego Schwartzman on a camera after beating Richard Gasquet at the Paris Masters in early November. The message, ‘Force Diego’ was for his namesake.
“Everyone knows Argentina because of Maradona. That’s why I put ‘Fuerza Diego,’ because he’s struggling, he’s not healthy right now and he had surgery last night.”
In an interview with the ATP during the Tour Finals last week, Schwartzman, a Boca Juniors fan – where Maradona finished his career – claimed, “I think 98 percent of my name is because of Maradona. Everyone whose name is Diego, (born) between 90’s to 2000 is because of Maradona.”
The 1986 World Cup star’s been photographed with the Big 4 – and you couldn’t tell who was the ‘fan.’ But Maradona isn’t just there for the polaroid moments.
In a packed stadium in Buenos Aires for Argentina’s Davis Cup semi-final against Australia in 2006, he brought football fanaticism to the arena – overpowering all tennis etiquette. Dressed in his fabled number 10 national jersey, he whipped the crowd into a frenzy, with orchestra conductor-like chants of ‘ARGENTINA’ between points, and celebrating wildly by waving a shirt after winning a crucial point.
Even before that tie, when news broke of Aussie star Lleyton Hewitt hiring two bodyguards for the duration of the matches, Maradona called for the national team to ‘ruin him.’ Argentina won the tie 5-0.
A decade later in 2016, when Argentina reached the final against Croatia in Zagreb, he sat in the VIP box, suspending the national flag with “Aca estamos familia Maradona (Maradona family is here)” on it. His countrymen won their first Davis Cup title.
Argentina faced a must-win match in their last group game against Nigeria at the 2018 World Cup in Russia, and had their greatest icon in attendance. The Albiceleste had had a stuttering campaign thus far and were coming off a thrashing at the hands of Croatia.
But with Maradona in the stands, he was bound to catch more attention than events in the middle. He was seen praying for divine help before kick-off and even unveiled a banner depicting himself – who else? He celebrated wildly when Lionel Messi opened the scoring before falling asleep. It got tense when the African team grabbed an equaliser, but Maradona was at hand with a double middle finger salute when Marcus Rojo scored the winner in the 86th minute. By some accounts, Maradona needed medical treatment after the match.
Shooting at reporters
In February 1994, a bunch of reporters landed at his home in Buenos Aires unannounced. Upset, Maradona took his air rifle, crouched behind a car and shot at them, which led to injuries to four people. In 1998, he received a suspended prison sentence of two years and 10 months for the offence, according to the BBC.
No love was lost between him and the reporters in the years that followed. Maradona was on his way to Argentina’s squad announcement for the 2010 World Cup when his car was surrounded by reporters. Unable to keep driving, he forced his way out by reportedly running over the foot of a photo-journalist. To rub salt into the injured photographer’s wounds, Maradona – as per the Press Association – shouted: “What an a**hole you are! How can you put your leg there where it can get run over, man?”
Inputs: Gaurav Bhatt, Shahid Judge, Shashank Nair, Andrew Amsan, Mihir Vasavda, Tushar Bhadhuri
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