By Marcelo Ballve
Pacific News Service
Whether to pity him, damn him, bless him or worship him, the media have always pursued Diego Armando Maradona. After the Argentine soccer legend was hospitalized suddenly on April 18 in Buenos Aires for respiratory and heart problems, there was an outpouring of concern in the Spanish-language press, which recalled his meteoric career.
The stocky, swarthy Maradona was the preternaturally talented soccer bad boy of the eighties; mega-fame was his cross to bear. In his day, the media trailed Maradona relentlessly, as they do now with Britain’s David Beckham. And even today, as a patient in intensive care, the 43-year-old Maradona can’t evade the paparazzi.
Maradona may not exactly be a household name in the U.S. heartland but he definitely is among the millions of immigrants in the country who were born in other areas of the world including the Middle East, East Asia, Europe and Africa where watching the World Cup every four years is virtually compulsory.
Maradona’s path through fame has been star-crossed, but his sickness puts things in perspective, says an article Silvia Garnero in the April 24 edition of La Opinión, a Spanish-language daily in Los Angeles.
“Everything that has been said on Maradona’s turbulent life will not darken the love that people have for him nor the pain that they would feel if they lost him,” Garnero writes, after referring to the Argentine’s bouts with cocaine addiction, marital problems and his temperamental outbursts.
Soccer fans know that Maradona scored what is widely considered the best goal in World Cup history against England in 1986. He dribbled around a half-dozen players and danced across more than half the field before scoring.
Characteristically, though, Maradona had clouded his own accomplishment with an earlier score in the same match, arguably the most infamous goal in World Cup history.
Jumping for a ball, Maradona illegally punched in a goal with his fist. He then aggravated British fans by claiming it was “the hand of god” that scored the goal.
Indeed, for some, the perpetual spotlight on Maradona has morphed into a halo. In Argentina an adoring fan, Hernán Amez, founded the “Maradonian Church,” which claims thousands of members globally. The group quite earnestly devotes itself to hagiographic speculation on Maradona’s soccer “miracles,” celebrates “Christmas” every October 30 (the date of Maradona’s birth) and engages in good works in Maradona’s name.
Interviewed by online Brazilian publication UOL Tablóide last month, Amez says that Brazilian soccer legend Pelé might be “king” but “Maradona is God.” Asked what contact the church has with “God,” Amez states: “We have an opportunity that other religions don’t have. We see god on television, we have his videos, we listen to his interviews on the radio …”
Maradona’s has always struggled to bear the crushing weight of Argentina’s sometimes unhealthy obsession with its most famous son. After he fell sick, the Financial Times quoted an Argentine social scientist, Eduardo Archetti, who said in 2000, “If Maradona doesn’t die soon, people will be very disappointed. It’s an almost Catholic idea: Maradona gave his flesh and blood for the nation and now he must die for our sins.”
Despite the difficulties, Maradona’s great joy has always been communing with supporters worldwide. When he was at his peak in the mid and late 1980s, he relied on the media to arbitrate that relationship, then cast mostly in reverential terms. In the last decade, the media implacably focused on his weaknesses, faded glory and missteps.
Writing of the media frenzy that surrounded Maradona’s hospitalization April 18, Argentine writer Diego Bonadeo in Buenos Aires daily Página 12 criticized the “obscene voraciousness” that fans and “hangers on” have for “everything that has to do with Maradona.”
But as Maradona struggled to stay alive, it became clear that the media in Argentina and elsewhere had rallied to him. In fact, the torrent of world media coverage dealing with Maradona’s hospitalization has, in the eyes of some, symbolized a collective prayer for the player’s recovery, according to Orlando Barone in Buenos Aires daily La Nación.
“We (Argentines) came to feel that the adoration of the idol was not only a national sentiment but a feeling that was shared by the universe,” Barone writes.
In semi-rural Porterville, California, the Noticiero Semanal Spanish-language weekly devoted half its April 23-29 sports section to Maradona, with the headline, “Be Strong, Diego!”
Even former enemies felt charitable. South Africa’s Sunday Times published a commentary by a member of the English team Maradona defeated in that famous 1986 World Cup: “He was electrifying on the park, as slippery as an eel and with great vision. Simply a breathtaking footballer.”
By April 27, Maradona was off the mechanical respirator and eating and talking of his own accord. His first words were dedicated to the thousands of fans that kept permanent vigil outside the clinic incessantly chanting “Maradó, Maradó, Maradó, Maradó…” affectionately shortening his name.
Maradona’s first conscious request: to be able to watch Argentina’s national soccer team play Morocco on television in a friendly game scheduled for the next day.