Translated from the Spanish by Robin Myers
All poetry can be popular, which isn’t the same as populist. “I am not a poet for the crowds,” the Nicaraguan poet Rubén Darío wrote. “But I know I must irremediably make my way toward them.” In this sense, Diego Maradona was a poet too: a verbal factory fueled in public; a feverish, hedonistic inventor of expressions echoed by thousands. He could dabble in the sublime, as he did in his farewell game at a sold-out Bombonera Stadium in Buenos Aires. “Soccer is the healthiest, most beautiful sport in the world,” he said afterwards. “If one person messes up, soccer doesn’t have to pay. I messed up, and I paid. But the ball, the ball never gets stained.”
In a long public life, Maradona coined countless witticisms. “He’s so smart he can smoke underwater,” he once said of his sometimes-agent, partner in crime, and bromance buddy Guillermo Coppola—but he could have easily been describing himself. Summarizing his poverty-stricken childhood in the slums of Villa Fiorito, just outside Buenos Aires, he joked, “I was born in an exclusive neighborhood. Exclusive of electricity, running water, and telephone lines.” Painfully aware of his two-pronged fate as athletic icon and (as a friend pointed out to me) spokesperson for the Global South, his words were always sharpest when flung against the powers-that-be. “Faker than a sky-blue dollar,” he dismissed a local politician.
His ad-libbing could be crass: like when he claimed that his archnemesis, the Brazilian soccer god Pelé, had “lost his virginity to a young boy.” Yet he could be poignant too. “This really hurts, because they’ve cut off my legs, they’ve clubbed me in the head just when I had a chance of making a comeback,” he sobbed when he was disqualified from the 1994 World Cup for doping. Perhaps he married his gall to his eloquence when, after scoring an illicit goal in the 1986 semifinals against England (pretending it was a header, he’d actually raised his left fist to punch the ball past goalkeeper Peter Shilton), he told journalists that “it was the hand of God.”
He also relished the absurd, like when he mocked then-American ambassador to Argentina James Cheek, whose son’s pet turtle had (believe it or not) been reported missing: “His turtle ran away from him. Brother, how can a turtle run away from you? It takes them fifteen years to cover a hundred yards.” To this day, if you tell someone in Argentina that their turtle made a run for it, you’re implying that they’ve missed an all-too-obvious point.
In a way, Maradona took Peronismo to the next level: his politics wasn’t so much about redistributing wealth as about an equal access to happiness.
Famously, too, he liked doing lines as much as coining them. Who knows whether his torrents of caustic, exuberant wit were stoked by his constant consumption, or the other way around—maybe he liked cocaine because it let him revel more intensely in his legendary love of words. An addiction equally pleasurable at the peak of the high, if less harmful to him and to others. Without a doubt, Maradona paid a price for his dependency. “Who knows what kind of player I would’ve been if I hadn’t done cocaine!” he lamented in a documentary directed by Emil Kusturica. Maybe he would have been Messi: more constant, reliable, wholesome.
But the technically unparalleled Messi has never been as beloved as Diego. Messi is a genius who makes his teammates better, but Maradona’s gift was more precious: he made everyone believe they were great and could be greater. Maradona was at his best when representing the underdogs: the Argentine national team, of course, beating England and Germany en route to win the 1986 World Cup. Even more famously, though, at Napoli, where Maradona led a group of mostly average players (like the inconspicuous Careca and Alemão) to triumphs unprecedented for the small team: two Italian leagues, one Italian Cup, one Italian Super Cup, and one UEFA Cup.
There’s a YouTube video where Maradona is brought onto the set of Argentina’s Big Brother as a special surprise for the contestants, who jump and shriek when he removes his black hood and reveals himself. Maradona hugs everyone, looking euphoric, a little nervous. A soccer ball appears out of nowhere; he does some tricks. Before saying goodbye, he pulls in the contestants for a group hug—an excuse to drop a tightly packed oblong plastic bag full of white powder onto the ground as a furtive offering. The exhilarated participants go wild despite Maradona’s muffled protest: “Come on, don’t rat me out! Don’t rat me out!” Most people (including me, until recently) were convinced of what the white stuff was. I was riveted by the scene, by the extravagant openness of it; it was liberating to fantasize about a world where the recreational use of substances is not criminalized but regulated, consumers are educated about the joys and perils of drugs, and addicts are offered help instead of being judged and punished.
I later learned that the plastic bag contained a very different substance than the one everybody imagined: tobacco. The producers had banned it from the house when certain participants’ smoking addiction had gotten out of control. Even though the ambiguous prop was probably scripted, Maradona was happy to cooperate. Yes, he did play the part of the flagrant party animal, but only to assume another role that was far more important to him: the Promethean good thief who stole fire from the gods and bestowed it on humankind, who snatched the salt of the earth from the mighty and restored it to the common people. On a visit to the Vatican, he declared, “If they care so much about the poor, then why don’t they take the gold out of the ceiling [of Saint Peter’s Basilica] and give it to them?”
In a way, Maradona took Peronismo to the next level: his politics wasn’t so much about redistributing wealth as about an equal access to happiness. That’s why he was even more popular than Evita. He was the only Argentine to be loved by all social classes, precisely because he brought everyone joy.
The Spanish writer Paul B. Preciado argues that a body is defined by its prosthesis. If that’s the case, then Diego made at least three prostheses his own: the ball, the microphone, and the camera. They may have cut off his legs during the 1994 World Cup, but he kept inventing new games to play and new ways of staying playful in public. He embodied an imaginary people, an impossible but perfect collective united by joy, not judgment. He also personified a hodgepodge of popular evocations that sometimes clashed or even contradicted each other. Famously, he had a tattoo of Che Guevara and called Fidel Castro a friend, but was also cozy with Carlos Menem, a patriarch of neoliberalism in Argentina. Everyone mourns their own Diego, must swallow their own Maradonas.
My Maradona is the one who knew the violence and the fragility of having to be a man.
Diego wasn’t just an artist, an inventor of the body, a wordsmith and worldsmith. He was also a guinea pig, a laboratory of the unhinged future that is now our present: he was stalked by paparazzi everywhere he went. He lived a fabulously experimental life, but he was an experiment in himself. What happens to a body when it’s subjected to the particle accelerator—the collider of images and affects—of what digital culture has become? Today, there are more Diego Maradonas than David Bowies. Along with the art he made with and of his body, Maradona ended up on the internet when we couldn’t yet imagine there would be one. Maradona has been viral for a long time, refracted in countless photos and phrases: profiles of different people, or the same person in different networks. And here we are, still online: displaying ourselves, measuring ourselves, rubbing ourselves, ferociously clashing our cerebral tentacles together now that Maradona is gone. Now that we’re all left with our own versions of him.
What happens to a body when it’s subjected? Diego experienced it in his own flesh and blood. He was the people, he was clay: “earth and water,” in his own words. Regardless, defiant Diego still subjugated others, especially women. His mutant-body held many contrasting stories of masculinity, some unquestionably sinister: misogynistic violence (he hit his partner), a wake of children, abandonment, homophobia too. Irreconcilably, because Diego pushed the limits of that mandate with real relish and in full public view. We watched him kiss his male friends on the mouth in soccer stadiums; we gossiped about his passionate love for the transgender actress and dancer Cris Miró; we celebrated the cover of the sports magazine where Diego, drag queen, stares out at us with his beautiful, desolate eyes while the party rages all around him. Diego was constant, simultaneous feeling, all rush and gush, all blotch and mess, a jumble of humors and secretions. Spit, sweat, tears. Which is why: to each their own Maradona. Tears of joy in triumph, tears of sorrow in defeat, just as the rule book prescribes. And vice versa, even offside. He savored everything, suffered everything.
My Maradona isn’t the one who captured the 1986 World Cup or had his legs cut off in 1994. Not the glory or the climax, neither heaven nor hell. My Maradona is two exhilarating lines (penned on paper, not cut with a card) from César Vallejo: “match and match in the darkness / tear and tear in the dust.” My Maradona is the one who was always uncomfortable in his own skin but loved being there anyway: the mournful gaze that is the life of the party. The one who made a fool of himself, joyfully. My Maradona is the one who knew the violence and the fragility of having to be a man.