Argentine legend Diego Maradona is a controversial idol, worshipped as a god for his World Cup-winning exploits but whose life of excess has left a tormented public back home torn between veneration and derision.
The 57-year-old hit the headlines in Russia this week when he was filmed making two-handed middle-finger gestures to fans during Argentina’s narrow win over Nigeria in their final World Cup pool game.
How to take his attention-grabbing outbursts is a recurring theme back home in Argentina.
“He thinks that the love that Argentines lavish on him is so great that when he behaves badly we’ll look the other way,” said 55-year-old businessman Bruno Sollner.
Daniel Carballo, 56, agreed that Maradona “is not an example, at least not for me and most of my friends and my family, no.”
“There are things that are not acceptable, but well, he’s like that,” Carballo added.
Other South Americans tend to perceive Argentines as arrogant, and Maradona’s cockiness and public anguish seem to personify a nation’s suffering at its team’s stuttering performance in Russia.
“He is arrogant, he gets out of control because of arrogance,” said Sollner.
Maradona got adoration for his goals against England in the 1986 World Cup, both the cheat goal he scored with his hand — he called it the “Hand of God” — and another, when he danced past five English players to score what is widely acknowledged as one of the greatest goals of all time.
In Buenos Aires that day, he became a god. It was almost as if he had avenged with a football Argentina’s painful defeat in the Falklands War against Britain four years earlier.
Idol of a new generation
Irreverent, charismatic and provocative, Maradona remains an idol in Argentina, even for a generation too young to have seen him play, when his name became synonymous with footballing genius.
Paula Garcia Paz, a teacher, was six when Maradona lifted the World Cup in 1986.
“I’ll never forget it, that goal against England is something so memorable for Argentines,” she said.
Sollner said “we love him because he has stood up to the powerful, because on the pitch he never gave up, and you can see how much defeat hurts him.
“That devotion for a soccer fan is vital, it’s called sweating for the shirt,” he added.
The antics at the World Cup have been amusing and disturbing by turns, but for Argentines a distracting sideshow to the main event on the pitch.
Carried out of his seat in the VIP box after the match, he was forced to deny rumors he had been hospitalized, saying the next day that he was “very alive.”
“In Russia he’s caused a stir, he’s a guy who retired decades ago and who won things 30 years ago, but if he sneezes. we’re all on tenterhooks, waiting. That’s unique. That’s Maradona,” said Sollner.
Diego, to the Nth degree
Those who know Maradona describe him as having an explosive personality while keeping his feet on the ground, despite having reached a sporting Olympus.
“Diego was a kid in the slum, with a kite, on which he wrote the name Maradona. He started to run and the kite took flight, but he stayed on the ground,” is how biographer Guillermo Blanco puts it.
Blanco said Maradona “just like everyone else has goodness, badness, ego, solidarity… but when he does something, he’s unlike others who are considered ‘balanced.’ He does it to the Nth degree.”
Angry with his daughters, in a legal battle with his ex-wife, scammed by a relative or banned for doping at the 1994 World Cup, Maradona’s turbulent front-page life makes him a figure of pity for many Argentines, particularly the middle class.
They still deride him for flaunting his friendships with late leftist leaders Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez.
He insists he no longer takes cocaine, a habit that began in his heyday with Italian team Napoli, but his behavior during the Nigeria match has given rise to some concern.
“He needs to continue getting attention like in former times, but by giving an even worse example,” said Laura Orsi.
“He is an icon of another time, but he erased all the glory with his behaviour: drugs, alcohol and fame went to his head,” said the 56-year-old systems analyst.
More than Messi
There are inevitable comparisons between Maradona and Lionel Messi, but until the younger man wins a World Cup, Maradona remains a cut above for most Argentines.
“Messi is a phenomenon, but the world of football, until now, has not seen a player like Maradona,” his old teammate Claudia Caniggia said recently.
Another contemporary, Julio Olarticoechea, agreed: “Seeing him, not only in games, but in training, was something else. Diego was magic. That’s the word.”
“Messi still hasn’t managed to give us the happiness Diego did,” said Garcia Paz, the teacher.
“He thought he was a god and made many mistakes, but I know that the day he leaves this world, Argentina will be paralyzed.”