were a Mount Rushmore of international soccer, Diego Maradona's
face would be on it. In 2000 he was named by FIFA (the Fédération
Internationale de Football Association), along with Pelé,
as the greatest player in the history of the sport. But in his
native Argentina, Maradona is a lightning rod for love, hate,
brutal criticism and passionate defense. He is Muhammad Ali in
1968 - if 1968 lasted for 20 years.
was in the eye of a media storm last weekend, as he participated
in a rally against George W. Bush and US trade policy while Bush
met with Latin American leaders at the Fourth Summit of the Americas
in Mar del Plata, Argentina. Surely many wondered why this stocky,
five-foot-six former athlete was so adored, so incendiary and
so intimately involved in a protest against the American President.
went from soccer superstar to Argentine folk hero during the 1986
World Cup, when he avenged the 1982 British defeat of Argentina
in the Falklands War. Argentina trounced England four years later
with two Maradona goals - one with his foot and one with the sly
help of his hand, a score that has become known as "the hand of
on the pitch inspired Latin American writer Eduardo Galeano to
write, "No one can predict the devilish tricks this inventor of
surprises will dream up for the simple joy of throwing the computers
off track, tricks he never repeats. He's not quick, more like
a short-legged bull, but he carries the ball sewn to his foot
and he's got eyes all over his body. His acrobatics light up the
field... In the frigid soccer of the end of the century, which
detests defeat and forbids all fun, that man was one of the few
who proved that fantasy can be efficient."
Maradona (left) with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.
nicknamed El Diego Dios, struggled with hard drugs. He
was suspended from the sport for 12 months in 1991 after testing
positive for cocaine. Then he was banned for another 15 months
for taking the banned substance ephedrine during the 1994 World
Cup. In 1997, he tested positive again, and eventually slouched
to retirement ashell of drug dependency and obesity.
sin, however, at least in the eyes of the soccer authorities,
was a tendency to speak truth to power. He agitated for international
labor standards to be applied to soccer and asked team owners
to "open the books" so players could know the profit margins inked
with their blood and sweat. Corporate media treated his drug addiction
like a national spectacle. When arrested for possession in 1991,
it was played live on Argentine television.
the media for drug dependency (they called him "Maracoca"), weight
problems and psychiatric distress, Maradona has come back after
on-and-off stays at Cuban health clinics for much of the past
four years. Now clean and sober, he has experienced a public resurrection
as the host of a popular Argentinean talk show, La Noche del
re-emerged on the world stage this weekend, challenging Bush's
global agenda with the same kind of daring that once defined his
real sin, however,
at least in the eyes of the soccer
authorities, was a tendency to speak
truth to power. He agitated for
international labor standards to be
applied to soccer and asked
team owners to "open the books" so
players could know the profit margins
inked with their blood and sweat.
In the weeks
leading up to the summit, Maradona had urged his viewers to join
protests. This included airing parts of a five-hour interview
with Cuban leader Fidel Castro, who said, "We are in solidarity
with you and with Argentina. We have fought for decades, and we
will be happy knowing that you are there."
then arrived at the mammoth stadium protest wearing a "Stop Bush"
T-shirt and said, "I'm proud as an Argentine who can travel in
this train to oppose the human rubbish that Bush is." Maradona
also sat shoulder-to-shoulder at the packed rally with Venezuelan
President Hugo Chávez, who had come to the conference vowing
to "bury" Bush's proposed Free Trade Agreement for the Americas
(FTAA). Maradona embraced Chávez to rapturous cheers as
he shouted into the microphone, "Argentina has its dignity! Let's
throw Bush out of here!"
opened him up to criticism. John Tierney, conservative op-ed columnist
for the New York Times, slammed Maradona as a hypocrite
who benefited from lucrative endorsement deals with global corporations,
yet now condemns the excesses of global capitalism. But what Tierney
and his ilk don't understand is that this only endears Maradona
further to his people. The poor of Argentina know from bitter
experience that, unlike Maradona, they will never taste the fruits
of globalization. The fact that El Diego Dios now stands
alongside them only cements his greatness.
Argentina last weekend embarassed, off-message and without a trade
deal. That's hardly surprising. When a former Major League Baseball
owner like Bush squares off against a soccer deity in Latin America,
you don't need the sports pages to discover who has the greater
claim to the hearts and minds of the people. The Fourth Summit
of the Americas will be remembered as a moment when a certain
frat-boy smirk was wiped off the face of the American President
by those who oppose US trade policies - with a little help from
the "hand of God."
Dave Zirin's new book, "What's My Name Fool? Sports and Resistance
in the United States," is now in stores. You can receive his column,
Edge of Sports, every week by emailing edgeofsports-
[email protected]. Contact him at [email protected].