Diego Armando Maradona died November 25. One of the most universally known people in the world, Maradona passed away at age 60 while recovering from surgery.
Maradona, who wore number 10 on the Argentinian national soccer team, is widely regarded as one of the greatest soccer players of all time. At his peak he led Argentina to a 3-2 World Cup victory in 1986 over West Germany. And he nearly accomplished an incredibly rare back-to-back World Cup victory in the 1990 World Cup, leading Argentina back to the finals in a rematch between Argentina and West Germany. In that game Argentina lost to West Germany 1-0 on a late penalty kick.
The iconic Argentinian soccer star rose from the poor shanty towns outside of Buenos Aires to a global icon. People around the world identified with Maradona’s rise to stardom while maintaining his rebellious spirit and staying a ‘man of the people’ who never forgot where he came from. In the inevitable debate over his legacy, in Argentina the saying “Diego belongs to the people” spread quickly. People identified with his glorious moments on the soccer field, but also identified with his iconoclastic personality as well as the struggles in his personal life off the field. Maradona struggled at times with serious issues including drug addiction, and he was the father of children with several women who he did not acknowledge until later in his life.
Maradona was as passionate about politics as he was about the beautiful game. There is much pressure on athletes to avoid controversial political positions that could alienate some fans. Maradona ignored that pressure and was outspoken in support of anti-imperialist and socialist movements, including those that are most demonized by Washington.
The most iconic game in Maradona’s career was the quarterfinal game between Argentina and England in the 1986 World Cup. This game brought together Maradona’s incredible ability on the field with anti-colonial politics, as he scored both of Argentina’s goals in their 2-1 victory over England. Argentina’s victory, and Maradona’s performance specifically, were seen as revenge for Margaret Thatcher’s England’s 1982 war against Argentina over the Malvinas, or the Falkland Islands as England calls them, off Argentina’s coast. In that war Argentina tried to exercise their sovereignty over the islands off their coast, while England aimed to maintain their colonial control over the territories from across the ocean.
After England won the war and reimposed their colonial control, anti-colonial resentment was strong. Maradona’s play in the 1986 matchup personified that, with his first infamous ‘Hand of God’ goal and his second goal where he blasted past five British players to score and secure Argentina’s victory. The second goal of that game is considered by many to be the ‘goal of the century’. That performance cemented Maradona’s iconic stature by defeating the colonial power that Argentina hadn’t been able to defeat on the battlefield.
Maradona was outspoken in support of socialist Cuba and was personal friends with Fidel Castro, visiting Cuba many times. He had Che Guevarra’s image tattooed on his arm and Fidel Castro’s image tattooed on his leg. At low points in the 2000s, Maradona flew to Cuba for drug rehabilitation treatment because of Cuba’s world-class health care system.
Upon Maradona’s death, Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel Bermúdez wrote on Twitter, “Sad news, Maradona, the ‘kid of gold’, singular player, friend of Fidel, has died. Cuba mourns and will always remember the sincere friend and soccer virtuoso that he was.” Because of Maradona’s strong support for Cuba and friendship with Fidel Castro, who he called a “second father” – it didn’t escape notice that he died four years to the day after Fidel Castro had died in 2016.
Maradona was also a staunch defender of Venezuela’s Bolivarian socialist movement and was personal friends with Venezuela’s Presidents Hugo Chavez and Nicolás Maduro. In one well known photo, Maradona sits next to Hugo Chavez as they both laugh, while Maradona is wearing a shirt declaring U.S. President George W. Bush a war criminal. Chavez had also infamously mocked Bush when he spoke right after Bush at the United Nations, saying the podium “smelled like sulfur,” metaphorically tying the figurehead of U.S. imperialism with the devil in a way that resonated around the world.
When Hugo Chavez died in 2013, Maradona said, “What Hugo left me was a great friendship, an incredible political wisdom. Hugo Chavez changed the way Latin America thinks. We were bowed to the United States and he showed us that we can walk by ourselves.”
Maradona strongly stood by President Nicolás Maduro as well, as Maduro fended off increasing attacks from U.S. imperialism. Maradona had said about Maduro, “Don’t give up. In soccer it doesn’t matter if you lose three to zero, never give up. You never gave up and you’re giving everything for Venezuelans. Long live Maduro! We’re soldiers of Nicolas, I came here to give him my support.”
Upon Maradona’s passing, Maduro wrote on Twitter, “The world is mourning for our brother Maradona, the best soccer player of all time. A man who was simple, loving and a rebel against social injustices. The people of Argentina, Venezuela and the world love him and will always remember him. ¡Viva Diego!”
Beyond Venezuela and Cuba, Maradona was a supporter of left movements throughout Latin America, also developing friendships with leaders like Bolivia’s Evo Morales and Brazil’s Lula da Silva.
Evo Morales, former Bolivian President and head of the Movement Toward Socialism (MAS) party, described Maradona as, “a person who felt and fought for the humble, the best football player in the world,” and “Diego was a great defender of football in the highlands, and he loved Bolivia very much. He was a great friend of just causes. Not only the world’s football mourns him, but also the people of the world.” Current Bolivian President Luis Arce, also of the MAS party, wrote on Twitter, “We deeply regret the sad passing of the great 10 of football and Latin American brother Diego Armando Maradona. The world mourns his irreparable loss – our condolences to his loved ones and the entire football family.”
Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega and Vice President Rosario Murillo of the Sandinista party said in a statement, “We are losing another giant, an exalted militant of the revolutions of love.”
Maradona didn’t just side with anti-imperialist movements in Latin America. For example he spoke out against the U.S. war in Syria, saying, “You don’t need to go to university to know that the United States wants to wipe Syria out of existence.” He also declared his support for the Palestinian struggle, famously saying in 2018, “In my heart I am Palestinian.”
Through Maradona’s struggles on the soccer field and off, he was a rebel who sided with the poor and with struggles against imperialism. His legacy will live on the field as well as in the streets among people struggling against injustice.