Football was only part of it: Diego Maradona transcended sport

<span>Photograph: Ricardo Moraes/Reuters</span>
Photograph: Ricardo Moraes/Reuters

For a nation prone to frequent lamentation over its missed opportunities, crashing from the world’s 10th wealthiest economy per capita in 1913 to a constant teetering at the edge of economic and social collapse for the better part of the past century, Argentina has produced an astonishing array of instantly recognisable global icons.

Eva Perón, unanointed queen of Argentina’s “shirtless” working class, was transmuted into Santa Evita, whip-master of Argentina’s oligarchy, by Andrew Lloyd-Webber and Tim Rice. There’s Che Guevara, who traded the rugby pitch of Argentinian high society to trudge through revolutionary Cuba alongside Fidel Castro. And Pope Francis, detested by the medieval-minded conservative wing of the Roman Catholic church for his championing of the poor.

And then there is Diego Maradona, arguably the world’s greatest ever footballer, but a man who transcended the sport to become something much more than a soccer star to millions around the world. To the world’s neglected and marginalised, Maradona became a figure of hope, for some almost a god. Such is the power of the Maradona icon that even his death of natural causes on Wednesday, most likely brought on by decades of substance abuse, still feels like a kind of martyrdom.

Here in Argentina, Maradona is everywhere present, in people’s hearts, in people’s minds. Friends have been crying non-stop since his death. Whatever side of the political chasm you are on – and in Argentina that chasm is wide – Maradona is there. “I love him, I love him,” I have heard grown people shouting for over four decades now, continuing years after he retired from the soccer field.

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“Do you realise the happiness he brought to us, the poor? You have no idea!” A short video of a crying fan, his face mask wobbling loose at his chin, lighting a candle on the street for Maradona on Wednesday, went viral in Argentina. To countless fans like this, Maradona represented a signal of defiance towards everything that is unfair in our unequal world.

To the church of Maradona, most came for the soccer, but almost all stayed for the gospel. On Wednesday afternoon, minutes after the announcement of his death, a 36-year-old artist ran out on to the streets of Argentina’s central city of Rosario carrying a large crucifix upon which an effigy of Maradona was nailed.

O mamma mamma mamma, sai perché mi batte il corazón? Ho visto Maradona! Ho visto Maradona! Eh mamma, innamorato son!” Emiliano Paolini kept repeating the words that Maradona’s Italian fans chanted in Naples. (“Oh mamma, do you know why my heart beats so? I’ve seen Maradona! Oh mamma, I am in love!”)

The crucifix was the work of Paolini and his partner Marianela Perelli. “For the kind of people I identify with, people working their way up from the bottom, the kind of kids who play ball barefoot in the street, Maradona was the Malcolm X of those people,” Paolini told me later.

Argentina’s sizeable Afro-Argentinian community, which once comprised half the population in some provinces, was decimated by deliberate policies such as forced recruitment into the nation’s 19th-century wars, segregation, mass imprisonment and mass executions. Today less than 1% of Argentinians identify as being of African descent, though the “black” epithet is still used familiarly for anyone with slightly darker skin because of their indigenous or Afro-Argentinian ancestry.

The term survives as well in Argentina’s lexicon of prejudice, either discriminatory or affectionate according to the context of its use. In both Argentinian senses, Maradona was definitely “black”. Racial pride and class pride played a strong role in his magnetism.

Maradona stood proudly with the Latin American left: with Fidel Castro and Che Guevara, both of whose likenesses he had tattooed on his body, and with Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez. “I am a Chavista. Everything Fidel does, everything Chávez does, for me is the best,” Maradona said after a meeting with Chávez in 2005.

When the US president, George W Bush, visited Argentina that year, Maradona was photographed wearing a T-shirt with Bush’s face, and above, in bold capital letters: “war criminal”.

Yet for all his fiery politics, Maradona seems to be the only fire around which Argentina’s constantly warring progressives and conservatives can agree to warm their hands. “The only left that brought us happiness,” says a meme circulating on conservative WhatsApp groups, showing Maradona making one of his famous left-foot strikes.

Strangely for a man with such strong political opinions, that might be Maradona’s legacy to his divided nation. A token of peace around which progressives and conservatives can join hands for a moment to remember their departed god.

• Uki Goñi is a writer based in Argentina and the author of The Real Odessa: How Perón Brought the Nazi War Criminals to Argentina