Argentines mourn their favourite son – Maradona

By: AFP      Published: 11:21 AM, 26 Nov, 2020
Argentines mourn their favourite son – Maradona

Stunned Argentines were plunged into grief Wednesday by the death of the country's favourite son Diego Maradona, a sublimely gifted sporting hero they saw as "the most human of gods."

The news fell like a hammer blow a nation beaten down by months of economic crisis and the coronavirus pandemic, but one where soccer is seen as a panacea for all ills.

At 10:00pm Buenos Aires exploded in cheers, horns, sirens and lights for the man who famously wore the number 10, after a viral social media message called for "one last applause."

The homage resounded throughout the night in all the neighborhoods of the Argentine capital, AFP correspondents said. 

At the Diego Maradona stadium, home to the Argentinos Juniors club where Maradona played as a child and made his debut as a professional player, fireworks were launched as a large crowd flooded into the field to the cry of "Maradooo, Maradooo."

Earlier, fans searching for a place to grieve gravitated towards the Obelisk landmark in downtown Buenos Aires -- and, of course, the Bombonera, the steep-sided cauldron of a stadium that is home to Boca Juniors, where Maradona's genius was forged.

"I can't believe it. It's incredible. One thinks one gets through any storm, but no, everyone ends up being mortal. It feels like a bad dream. A joke," Francisco Salaverry, 28, told AFP. 

"Today's a bad day. A very sad day for all Argentines," President Alberto Fernandez summed up in an interview with sports channel TyC, after declaring three days of national mourning.

All around the city, the mourning had already begun as fans stood forlornly beside banners in homage to the Number 10, showing Maradona -- who died aged 60 of a heart attack -- in his dashing prime. 

Many of the banners simply said D10S, a play on the Spanish word "dios" for "god" that includes Maradona's jersey number.

- 'Wandering, dirty and sinful god' -

If soccer is a religion in Argentina, then Maradona really was its god -- especially for the founders of the Maradonian Church, a mostly internet-based group that uses religious language to venerate the player.

Around 1,000 people answered the "Church" call for fans to gather in his honour at the Obelisk at 6:00 pm, a traditional rallying point in central Buenos Aires for soccer celebrations.

"I prefer not to speak. I'm going to the Obelisk today," said Guillermo Rodriguez, a lifelong fan who gave himself a tattoo of his idol on October 30th to celebrate Maradona's 60th birthday.

Rodriguez, 42, couldn't hold back his tears, saying he now knew he would never be able to fulfill his dream of hugging his idol. 

"I'm totally shocked, grief stricken," said Gabriel Oturi, 68. "I'll be honest with you. I thought he was a great guy who didn't have very good people around him, who was taken advantage of a lot."

"The first thing my 12-year-old son said to me was: 'Mum, Maradona died.' I couldn't believe it. And I didn't adore him particularly, but I felt sorry for him," said Marcela Rodriguez, 52.

"Few times in my life have I felt the pain that invades me today," wrote Maurico Passadore on social media, thinking about the famous World Cup tie against England in Mexico in June 1986, when Maradona scored the infamous "Hand of god" goal.

"Few times have I felt as much joy as that June 29, when we touched the sky with our hands, the same sky that today is darkened and fills us with tears."

Some pointed out that Maradona died on the same date as his hero Fidel Castro, the Cuban revolutionary leader he referred to as his "second father".

Maradona's struggles with drugs throughout his career were part of what made Argentines so protective of their hero. 

An anonymous social media user went viral with a message saying Maradona "was a wandering, dirty and sinful god. The most human of gods."

Maradona 'shone a very bright light', says former agent

Diego Maradona "shone a very bright light" despite his well-documented struggles off the pitch, his British former agent told AFP.

Jon Smith, who pioneered the role of "super agent" in the world of football, said the player who almost single-handedly drove Argentina to the 1986 World Cup title was a Jekyll-and-Hyde character.

On the one hand there was a "lovely boy" from Buenos Aires and on the other there was the party animal whose life spiralled out of control.

Smith secured Maradona as a client after the 1986 World Cup finals by luck after two cancelled meetings, when he happened to be at Ossie Ardiles' house.

Ardiles, a 1978 World Cup winner with Argentina who had joined English club Tottenham, was on the phone to Maradona, who was looking for an agent, and the rest is history.

Smith said he was able to wield some influence over Maradona but it was limited as he was London and his client was in Naples, where he played his club football at the time.

Maradona's penchant for late-night parties, cocaine and women was almost as famous as his magical displays for Napoli.

"He had interesting people around him, shall we say," Smith said. "We supplied him with financial deals like Coca-Cola but there were a lot of other influences."

Smith said the Argentine, who died at the age of 60 on Wednesday, fitted the archetype of the "flawed genius".

"People talk about him being a flawed genius. Well I have met several geniuses and they all have flaws," he said.

"They have immense talent in their world but when you have done everything then what?

"Elvis (Presley) gets into drugs, Diego got to that point where his physicality had reached its peak and was going south.

"There were too many temptations, but for all the dark corners he shone a really bright light."

Clash of characters 

Smith said the Argentine was a fascinating mixture of characters.

"He was two people really," said Smith. "There was Diego the lovely young man from the slums of Buenos Aires and he never lost that.

"He was a lovely boy and too nice in a way -- he could never say 'no'."

"Then there was Maradona who was the antithesis of that. He was the performer, the showman, the party man. He was everything little Diego was not.

"He was a complex character."

Smith, who initially forged a successful career in the music business, signed Maradona after he become the villain in the eyes of English football fans for his "Hand of God" goal in the 1986 World Cup quarter-final. 

"The 'Hand of God', I did not spend a lot of time articulating about as it was not in my interest to do so," he said.

England goalkeeper Peter Shilton remains upset that Maradona never apologised for cheating by using his hand to score. But Smith said others were more than willing to meet the Argentine.

"When he was in London one time we had dinner with Gary Lineker and a few other people and they got on well," said Smith.

Maradona "was very charming but obviously there was a bit of hurt and angst," he added.

"It was hard, it was tough but it happened and life was moving on."

Smith said life was never boring with his illustrious client in five years as his agent, until his contract was suddenly terminated: "In 1991 the powers that be in Naples thanked me for a fantastic job but my services were no longer required."

One story sums up the mania that surrounded Maradona.

"When he was in Naples he liked collecting Ferraris," recalled Smith.

"One time I was there pre-lunch he took me downstairs to the garage to show me his latest.

"He had several and I noticed a few were badly beaten up. One looked like someone had walked all over it.

"In his worst English he said 'the problem is when I stop at red lights fans clamber all over them'.

"I think perhaps the best deal I ever did was convincing the Naples police to give him special dispensation to drive through red lights."