From the balcony of my Buenos Aires apartment, I can see Diego Armando Maradona.
The greatest football player of all time, who died half a mile up the road from my home last week, is down on his knees, in worship. His enormous head is thrown against the iconic number 10 on the back of his Argentina football shirt, and his little arms are raised triumphantly—or imploringly—towards the Heaven he now occupies.
The billboard sprung up some time in the past few days, but I must have been too busy to notice. There were just way too many stories to read about Diego Maradona, way too many people calling to talk about Diego Maradona, way too many friends wanting to meet to talk about Diego Maradona, way too many TV shows to watch on way too many channels devoted for days on end to nothing but Diego Maradona. Who had time to stand around on balconies, admiring views of Diego Maradona?
Above Maradona’s famous mop of black curls, in huge capitalised letters, is a single word: “ETERNO”. That’s been the theme of the past days here in Argentina. Diego Maradona is dead—but not really. Everywhere I look, I’m reminded that Diego Maradona lives forever. Walk past the national Congress, and the message is made official in a gigantic projection on the Palace’s façade: “Diego Armando Maradona, 1960 – ∞”.
Admittedly, “D1OS”, as he is known here, has been laid to rest, six feet under—on national TV, at that. So, he is dead—just not really. Because you can’t kill God, everyone knows that. D10S ES ETERNO. Obviously.
People didn’t seem ready to let their ‘D10S’ rest in peace
And in case the newspaper stories, the phone calls, the friends, the colleagues, the strangers in the street, the TV shows, the celebrity tweets, or even the Palace of Congress aren’t enough to convince you, just take a look around. Every traffic sign flashes, “Gracias Diego”. Every subway sign flashes the same. Every poster on every street says, “AD10S”. That’s His face watching down on you from atop the Obelisk of Buenos Aires in the Plaza de la República. That’s His number 10 branded onto the bronze hindquarters of equestrian statues. That’s His likeness being sculpted and erected in the national airport for new arrivals to worship. After all, as we’ve established, in the words of Samuel Eto’o, former star of FC Barcelona: “He is God and God never dies.”
The Good News is beamed into homes by the TV stations. A permanent banner accompanies the grief-stricken programming: “MARADONA IMMORTAL”. The morning after his acute pulmonary edema and chronic heart failure, an ageing, impoverished woman shuffled past me in the street. She’d pinned a photograph of “D10S” torn from the pages of a magazine onto her ample, low swinging chest. I stared for way too long, then my gaze lifted upwards, over the top of her facemask, fixing on her dark, sorrowful eyes. I nodded, as respectfully as I could in the circumstances, and she crossed herself, mumbling a prayer as she made her way up the hill, her shabby slippers catching the cobblestones. Glued to the spot, I watched her enormous backside sway back and forth, thinking, Where the hell am I?
The pilgrimage began in earnest an hour or two later, on the first of three days of national mourning. Maradona’s body was to lie in state at the Casa Rosada, the historic Presidential Palace, where mourners would be permitted to file through and pay their final respects. And come they did. In vast numbers. Numbers that—unfathomably—only the BBC had predicted, and that were now flagrantly violating every single one of the year-long Covid-19 protocols decreed by… the President. True to form, utter chaos ensued.
The frenzied crush kicked off the moment the Palace threw open its doors. Barriers draped in the national flag toppled and I immediately wondered what would happen to the coffin, which was also draped with the flag, along with football shirts bearing his number 10. His people didn’t seem ready to let their “D10S” rest in peace.
People chanted in their hundreds of thousands for ‘El Diego’, like they believed it could resurrect him
“Tense scenes,” said the reports. “Incidents.” In reality, it was a clusterfuck. “On a scale of 1 to Lady Di (10), it’s a 1000!” wrote a friend, putting it into context for me. “This is going to end really badly,” messaged another friend at the scene, just as I was adjusting my facemask and heading for the door. “I need to get out of here.” He’d been reporting live for a European sports channel and by the time he showed up to meet me, he was rubbing pepper spray from his bloodshot eyes. Barras bravas (ultra-fanatics) had somehow invaded the picturesque internal courtyard of the Palace and appeared to be bathing in its fountain. Security forces kept out the next wave, but that only encouraged the mobs to storm the fortress, scaling the walls and setting off fireworks, smoke grenades and flashbangs. They chanted in their hundreds of thousands for “El Diego”, like they believed their collective passion could resurrect him. Wailing and weeping and chest-thumping accompanied their songs, along with litre bottles of cooling beer and hot sausage sandwiches fresh from makeshift grills. If I muted the TV, I could hear my proud and prosperous Argentine neighbours slapping their botoxed foreheads.
Was Maradona starting a revolution from inside his coffin? I refused to put it past him. “If the world hates you, remember that they hated me before you.” The irony, if that’s the word for anything (or everything) that happens in Argentina, is that “D10S” was a supporter of the President and his government. Maradona was a Peronist, and/or a Kirchnerist—however one defines these things—and the worshipping, rampaging fans who swayed shoulder-to-shoulder in the Plaza de Mayo were widely recognised to be the government’s chief support base. President Fernandez arrived in his helicopter, flashing the “V for Victory” sign and taking selfies with the baying mob, while a swarm of his hangers-on changed direction in lockstep every few seconds in a desperate bid to keep up with him. Inside the Casa Rosada, Fernandez laid an Argentinos Juniors shirt on the coffin, said a prayer, and crossed himself. He appeared genuinely upset.
“An outpouring of grief in Argentina,” screamed the international headlines. “What the hell’s going on over there?” a friend texted me from Paris, as if I, or anybody else, knew. “Storming the Bastille,” I said, putting it into context for him. “Because of a FOOTBALLER?” was his irritable-sounding reply, which I admit, made me stop and think. Then I remembered how the pointy-headed French Revolution turned out, and I shrugged my shoulders, figuring, Well, why the hell not?
“MAS INTENSO” read the latest chyrons. The Palace doors were closed, so that Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, former President of the Republic and current Vice President, could have a private moment with the casket. She and the current President were both looking worried. What had they set in motion—and could it be stopped? Cristina disappeared, and rumours circulated that she had been whisked off to a fortified panic room somewhere inside the Palace. Outside, the security forces blocked the Avenida de Mayo, cutting off the line to see Diego’s coffin, and the furious crowds started hurling missiles at the riot police.
Rationale doesn’t seem to exist here, in anything
A friend called. “Are they shooting?! I can hear gunshots. What’s happening? Where?” On the TV, at the intersection of the Avenida de Mayo, and the Avenida 9 de Julio (the major thoroughfare through the city, celebrated here as the widest boulevard in the world), the police were discharging shotguns into the crowds. Rubber bullets, I hoped, but people were dropping like flies. The air filled with tear gas, then came the water cannons. This triggered a stampede on the Avenida de Mayo towards the Palace. Cameras pointed into the faces of people in Maradona shirts lying face down on the streets as they were knelt upon, handcuffed, then dragged away. All of which, by the way, was happening in the shadow of the former Ministry of Public Works Building, with its gigantic steel image of Evita Perón delivering a passionate address to the shirtless multitudes. Because, you know, this is Argentina—and nothing can be done here without multiple layers of apposite and massively unsubtle symbolism.
They’re going to steal Diego’s body, I thought. The way they stole Evita’s. Evacuation was essential. But how? The President’s helicopter? It was an option under consideration, said the reports, but would they let it leave? The hearse pulled up to the portico as the sea of mourners continued to scale the fences. A reporter friend contacted me from the frontline of the revolt, which he’d stumbled upon by accident, honouring a long-standing engagement to interview the Minister of Economy. “Someone just called me a peanut head,” he said, “in English. Very bizarre. What does it mean?” I suggested boffin: a head full of graphs and pie charts. We looked it up. “peanut head: A socially inept or foolish person; a dweeb or dork.”
“Told you,” I said.
The rolling chyron on the TV now read, “Unsuitable content for boys, girls and adolescents.” Surrounded by a vast shotgun-wielding security detail, the hearse shot out of the Palace gates, skidding up the city’s backstreets towards the highway. Chasing behind it were numerous civilian motorbikes, weaving around the police vehicles, packed like circus acts with pyramids of passengers, all reaching out to touch the heavily decorated funeral coach, which now two-wheeled it up the ramp onto the overpass. To freedom? Don’t be ridiculous. On the highway, hundreds of vehicles stood abandoned, parked at all angles like there’d been a miles-long pile-up, discarded by drivers wishing to cheer one last time for Diego and jump out and touch the hearse which raced past them towards the bright, melting sun at 80mph. I watched the insane spectacle through my fingers, waiting to see how many mourners were ready to join their irreplaceable hero in the afterlife. Then the speeding motorcade missed its exit off the highway, because of course it did.
The hasty funeral was broadcast live via a drone, which hovered above the walls of the private cemetery, guarded by yet more police in riot gear. The commentators were weeping. Somebody shouted something from a balcony in my square, before breaking down. My phone was flashing with messages. “What were they hoping to achieve?” asked a friend in South Asia, who’d woken to scenes from the Plaza de Mayo on the news. “What did they think they were they doing?” my sister in Leigh-on-Sea wanted to know.
But these were questions that assumed a certain rationale. A rationale that doesn’t seem to exist here, in anything. “Oh, you know…” I said. Though I didn’t, not really. And now nor did they.
The newspapers were lamenting the chaos, embarrassed about how bonkers it made Argentina look to the wider world
I’d written an article in the immediate aftermath of Maradona’s death and been surprised by the visceral reactions it received from various corners of the globe. According to many, I’d been way too much of a fanboy for Maradona, who was, in the words of one eloquent reader, “a proper cunt”. Diego’s support for Fidel Castro hadn’t endeared him to those who’d escaped Cuba. His “Hand of God” goal in the 1986 Mexico World Cup apparently broke the hearts and ruined the childhoods of at least half a dozen still-bitter Englishmen. His well-documented relationship with the Neapolitan mafia left a pair of justice-warrior Italians deeply unimpressed. His decades-long cocaine habit did little for his standing amongst the clean-living crowd. His unacknowledged paternity of multiple children hadn’t won him the respect of those trying to be good fathers. His alleged beating of various women certainly wasn’t being chalked up in the plus column. His unpaid taxes, his populist politics, his shooting at journalists: there were no shortage of charges being levelled against him, via me.
And then there were the bewildered and the profoundly indifferent, who were mostly based in the United States. “When I saw the original headline online it read in my mind as “Madonna dead at 60”,” one reader wrote to me from the Land of the Free Refill. “It shows you how far removed I am from the world, but I am certain that many Americans will have clicked on the link with the same hurried misunderstanding. Now Madonna will get to make public appearances to prove that she has not in fact died. It’s an ill-wind, as they say: especially for a publicity whore like her.”
Meanwhile, in Argentina, a campaign was launched to put “D10S” on the ten peso note.
“Ten pesos?! That’s crazy!” said an Argentine friend, staring into the distance and shaking his head.
“And yet, somehow, perfectly fitting,” I suggested, remembering that a ten peso note is currently worth about ten new pence.
“Goddamnit,” sighed my friend, not listening to me, “can’t we do anything right?”
I didn’t know what to say to that. The newspapers were lamenting the chaos, embarrassed about how bonkers it made Argentina look—once again—to the wider world. “D10S” was supposed to unify the nation, but his death had managed—once again—to divide it along conflicting tribal lines.
Anyone not showing an appropriate degree of emotional distress was swiftly castigated
The government stood accused of politicising Maradona’s wake, while recriminations flew back and forth between rival federal and metropolitan officials, predictably blaming each other for the bedlam and the heavy-handed police response. The paramedics were charged with “criminal idiocy”—i.e. not turning up in their ambulances fast enough. Maradona’s doctor, who’d wept like everybody else on national television, was all of a sudden under investigation for involuntary manslaughter, his home and private clinic raided and overturned by the authorities. Meanwhile, Maradona’s lawyer vowed to take revenge against the “scoundrel” at the funeral parlour responsible for photos of grinning employees posing with their thumbs up next to the icon’s open casket. “I won’t rest until he pays for such an atrocity,” were the lawyer’s exact words, while the manager of the funeral home pleaded his defence. “My father is seventy-five years-old and he is crying, I am crying, my brother too, we are destroyed!”
“The whole world weeps for D10S,” said the TV stations, days later, and it surely seemed that way. I was still feeling a little snivelly myself. Of course, that could have been Covid-19. Opposition leaders were accusing President Fernandez of criminally favouring the spread of coronavirus by organising the chaotic public wake. The government, said the complainants, had violated its own social health rules, prosecutable under its own executive decree. One father, who had been banned by those very rules from saying a final farewell to his cancer-stricken daughter, was all over the media. He talked of “two Argentinas: Argentina for those who have a last name, and Argentina for us, the common people”.
“I really didn’t think things could get any worse here,” said my friend who’d thought putting “D10S” on the ten-peso note sounded cheap. “But then Diego died, and…”
He didn’t finish his sentence, so I did the right thing and bought him a beer.
Maradona’s life was a show, and events over the past few days here in Buenos Aires have proven that
Tributes to Maradona continued to flood in from around the world, some of which weren’t considered heartfelt enough, while anyone not showing an appropriate degree of emotional distress was swiftly castigated. The national rugby team, Los Pumas, were under fire for not throwing themselves to the turf when, in a gesture of respect, the New Zealand captain laid a number 10 All Blacks jersey on the pitch before a game in Australia. A belligerent English rugger-bugger let me know in no uncertain terms that he was against the whole spectacle entirely. I asked why and he said, “Maradona was a cheat, for one thing. But for another, I just don’t think that it’s sincere. You think they’ll do the same for Gascoigne when he finally overdoses in some whorehouse?”
I told him that was a ridiculous comparison, but he didn’t seem to care. And for a moment, I wondered if maybe he had a point.
“Maradona was a cheat.” Well, yes, sure. But what are we saying? That the men who spent their careers trying to break his legs because they couldn’t match—or even cope with—his talent were gentlemen? Fuck that shit. Even Mandela said, “I’m no angel.” Maradona was a cheat, yes: like Aladdin was a thief; like the Artful Dodger picked a pocket or two. Gentleman amateurs, with their honourable displays of sportsmanship on the playing fields of Eton, tend not to be born in one room, tin and cardboard shacks in shanty towns, and they sure as shit don’t spend their childhoods collecting scrap metal and the foil from discarded cigarette packets.
Diego Maradona was cunning and streetwise and he embodied Argentina’s national characteristic of viveza criolla, or “creole cunning”: otherwise known—yep—as cheating. So what? He was also blessed with divine, unimaginable talent; and holding a lifelong grudge against him for knocking England out of the 1986 World Cup is a bit like hating Mozart because God chose not to speak through Salieri.
Maradona’s life was a show, I heard someone say, somewhere, and events over the past few days here in Buenos Aires have proven that. “D10S” is inescapable. There He is on a TV in the butchers, massively obese and singing into a microphone. There He is on a poster pinned to the wall of the greengrocers, sitting in a special throne at the side of a football pitch. There He is depicted in yet another mural, juggling a ball impossibly with his shoulders. There He is in the newspaper, partying with the Camorra. There He is, on his knees, thanking God, on a billboard visible from my balcony.
“Diego would have gone to the Falklands (Malvinas), if he had the chance,” Wanchope Abila, the Boca Juniors striker, said in an interview on Sunday following a sombre 2-0 victory. “He was so Argentine that no one would have taken that part away from him.”
After the match had finished, I sat and watched a sports talk show from 2005 that I’d also watched two nights previously, as it’s playing on a loop on ESPN. Diego Maradona is a guest in the studio, along with “El Ángel” Gabriel Batistuta, the great centre-forward for Argentina. Towards the end of the show, a replay is shown of the second goal Maradona scored against England in 1986, often described as the greatest goal ever scored. The Argentine commentary from the game is everything you’d want it to be, and we get to watch Maradona’s reaction to footage he must have seen a million or more times.
He seems to relive every moment, his troubled, expressive face absolutely beaming with pride. His darting little eyes sparkle and he nods to himself, acknowledging something we’ll never know as he devours each millisecond of the glorious memory. But then, as the video footage extends, the crowd and the commenters hardly believing what they’ve just witnessed, Maradona’s expression changes, his face falling, from beaming pride to introspection and something like loss.
In the clip, Diego points up to Heaven, then it fades, and we are back in the studio. Everyone breathes out. “D10S” swivels in his chair, his thick little legs dangling, too short and damaged to reach the floor. He turns back towards the camera, and we now see that his big wide face is streaked with tears. They are very real, these tears, and they are very happy, and they are heartbreakingly sad.
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