Diego Maradona: The Last Preacher of Poor Man’s Soccer

In an era of technology, big data and performance analysis, who would take notice of a lean, barefoot, disruptive kid like Maradona?

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Maradona in the World Cup Championships, 1986. Credit: DPA / AFP

The death of Diego Armando Maradona marks the end of an era. In large measure it’s also the end of the soccer we grew up with. It’s not the football (as most of the world calls the game) that we watch today, glitteringly packaged and strikingly branded, with electronic refereeing devices, players who wear GPS tracking bras, and slow replay, broadcast packages, streaming sites and heavily scripted docuseries on Amazon and Netflix. It’s not the engineered, commercialized, mechanized product that targets us through the cellphone like all other contemporary cultural consumer goods.

The soccer of the Maradona era was wild, simple, passionate, dirty, unpredictable. Sometimes boring, vulgar or appalling, at other times exciting, hypnotic and incredible. It was a soccer that can’t be taught or fit into the templates of working plans, statistical software and graphs. That was Maradona and that was soccer back then. A soccer of poor people.

Anyone who watched Maradona knew that he wasn’t a professional athlete – in fact, he was barely an athlete at all. He was first and foremost a soccer player, during an era when people valued the magic and the drive for the ball above data, contracts and public image. In fact, more than being a soccer player, Maradona was a soccer fan, even a lover of soccer, just like his fans. He loved the game more than anything and behaved accordingly on the field and off it. Anyone who tries to examine and understand Maradona today through the prism of commercial, professional soccer of the 21st century completely misses the point. He is not comparable.

Maradona connected with soccer from exactly the same place where most of his fans connected with it. He was the refuge and the hope of the weak and the downtrodden, and he always identified with them. When he played for powerful, rich clubs, he usually wasn’t successful, but when he played for the poor of Naples or Buenos Aires, he shone bright.

Maradona wasn’t strong, fast, tall or especially smart. He wasn’t good at giving interviews and he didn’t manage social-media accounts or hold press conferences to launch lines of designer clothes. What he had was a pair of solid legs and a never-ending passion for playing the game. Sometimes it seemed that as far as he was concerned, even winning wasn’t the most important thing. What drove him was the game itself and the opportunity it offered him to be larger than life. Exactly like those “fanatic” ultra-fans who can be seen in the stands chanting, with their backs to the playing field and their faces to the frenzied below them. In today’s consumer culture, that has become a rare commodity, almost ludicrous. Identity, community, symbol – everything that made soccer the most popular sport on the planet – has been turned into consumer goods, marketed by tycoons bent on “maximizing profits” and the club’s worth.

In that sense, the timing of Maradona’s death was fraught with symbolism. In his world, soccer had no right to exist without the fans. Years after he had retired, he went on attending the games of the clubs he adored, Boca Juniors and Argentina’s national team, cheering them on from the stands like any other fan. But in the year in which his life ended, when he turned 60, the leagues everywhere were playing to empty stadiums, with automated refereeing aids that stop the game and disqualify goals, and with canned applause in the background. Today, Maradona’s “hand of God” goal against England in 1986 would naturally be disqualified.

But beyond that specific historic game, it’s very possible that in times like these, there would be no chance for a rare talent like his to reach the highest levels of the game or to become a huge star. In an era of technology, big data and performance analysis, who would even take notice of a lean, barefoot, undisciplined kid like him?

Long before the onset of the corruption investigations and the trials of the chiefs of world soccer, and before fans everywhere imagined that an electronic refereeing system would become the major rival uniting them, Maradona had already given the finger to the heads of FIFA (the international governing body of association football), and to the modern soccer they’re selling to the masses. In contrast to today’s stars, who go through a well-oiled system of branding, imaging, marketing and PR, Maradona represented a generation in which love and passion for the game were all that counted. It was a period in which everyone got an equal opportunity, and if you were talented and obsessive enough you could reach the world summit. Maradona was the last survivor and preacher of “poor man’s soccer,” and with his passing, the process of turning soccer into merchandise and the fans into consumers has been completed.

At a time when popular culture is undergoing a relentless process of commodification and monetization, not only are we denied the possibility of other “Maradonas” who don’t answer to the strict requirements of contemporary soccer, but we lose something else far more essential and important: the ability to enjoy the game itself and to identify with it and its universal simplicity and beauty, which know no borders. These are the things that can make a child feel, if only for a moment, that maybe he too can become larger than life.

Edan Ring is a lecturer on media, technology and social change.

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