Diego Armando Maradona: Interplanetary cosmic kite

Diego Maradona existed in between.

It is an existence indicated by the distinction his personal trainer, Fernando Signori, made between Diego and Maradona in Asif Kapadia’s 2019 documentary; “For Diego, I would go to the end of the world…But with Maradona, I wouldn’t take a step”.

The characterisation of Good Diego and Bad Maradona comes easily in a culture accustomed to taking a Manichean view of events and is a well-trodden entry point for opinion pieces on Armando (as his friend and 1986 World Cup teammate Oscar Ruggeri calls him — perhaps a telling sign?), but can maybe lead us to conclusions other than the frequently retraced banalities about his ‘flawed genius’.

In one sense he lived an exalted existence: El Pibe de Oro from Villa Fiorito, Dieguito was lifted onto the shoulders of the subjugated, the oppressed and the exploited as their Dios. But, in another sense, still subordinate: the tool of the dominant for whom he was a walking simulacrum; Maradona — an ikon to be displayed, paraded, marketed. A face on a t-shirt. His ‘value’ extracted.

Pulled one way and then the other by the strength of their gravitational forces he was nevertheless kept in suspension between these two worlds, never fully present in nor fully absent from either. A barrilete cósmico (cosmic kite) fluttering in the solar winds, he was visible from both planets.

As the prophesied Parousia, it was not long before he was thrust into his lifelong role as the messianic embodiment of a nation’s self-image. He took the strain of acting as a vessel for the hopes and dreams of a population whilst he bore the responsibility of providing for his family from the age of 16. Yet Diego’s dancing feet, somehow unburdened by the heavy load, delivered Argentina’s greatest (sporting?) moments and brought meaning to the life of millions.

At the same time Maradona seemed to embody the superficial excess and shallow materiality of postmodern culture under late capitalism. Undoubtedly a carasucia and his own worst enemy, the world’s most expensive player was nonetheless easy and naïve prey for media, PR and mafia men alike. Maradona was a brand and a lifestyle choice, his fetishized image never long absent from the feeds of 24-hour corporate-owned TV news channels and newspapers. An absence, though, that implied a presence.

Despite the relentless here-and-now ontology of that postmodern world, its’ insistence on the transient, on Maradona, could never efface the presence of Diego — always present even in his absence. Diego cannot and could not be separated from Maradona.

Perhaps this was his greatest achievement. He was a rare thing — a global superstar recognised in every corner of the world that nonetheless was never fully engulfed by the stultifying world of simulacra. Diego, whether through sheer force of personality or maybe just by dint of an ingrained, indelible sense of identity and origin, could never be reduced to an image on a t shirt.

Dieguito retained a visceral meaning for Argentinians as the incarnation of a national identity — as the cunning pibe with a devious glint in his eye that rose to success in spite of it all and, in a wider sense, he achieved a greatness that should have been the fate of a nation which once figured among the richest in the world before a century spent in relative decline, hamstrung by forces originating both within and without (not the least of which included a violent US-sponsored dictatorship).

United by grief [Juan Ignacio Roncoroni/EPA]

But, further still, Diego was also a messenger. Propelled by his genius out towards another world, Maradona brought Diego with him onto the global stage.

As the forever young, wide-eyed cabecita negra from a Buenos Aires slum, Diego is the reminder of a backstage, of what the spectacle tries to obscure from the perception of a willingly complicit audience. Behind the stage curtain and away from the studio lights is the grinding everyday poverty experienced by billions in the Global South who are poor because others are rich.

Diego haunts the world that wants only to see Maradona, to discuss Maradona, to display Maradona.