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Sam Hamad

Goodbye, Maradona, an imperfect hero

Maradona passed away on Wednesday at the age of 60 [Getty]

Date of publication: 27 November, 2020

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Comment: Maradona was a hero not just to football fans, but Palestinians, leftists and people across the Global South alike, writes Sam Hamad. May he rest in peace.
It was on the 22nd June 1986 that Diego Armando Maradona, who tragically passed away aged 60 on Wednesday, first transcended football. The location was the Estadio Azteca in Mexico City, the event was the 1986 World Cup and the game was a quarter-final against England.

After receiving the ball from teammate Hector Enrique inside his own half, Maradona went on a 10-second 60 yard dash, majestically gliding past four of England's hapless defenders with the ball seemingly stuck to his feet as he scored what would come to be known as the Goal of the Century. 

As was ever the case with Maradona, this was bigger than a mere football match, as can be heard in the passion and emotion of the Argentinian commentary that day.

The goal came four years after the hard right British government of Margaret Thatcher had cynically gone to war with Argentina to recapture the British overseas territory known as the Falkland Islands. 

The islands, known as Las Malvinas to Spanish speakers, are a relic of the British imperialist era, located in Argentine territorial waters but populated by generations of British-identifying settlers.  

Without revisiting old arguments about the necessity and ethics of the war, the British conducted their operations with a typical mixture of arrogance and malice, including the controversial sinking of the warship the General Belgrano, killing 323 Argentinians in one day. 

There was something about Maradona that inspired hope among the world's poor - an almost reflexive mutual recognition and solidarity

This is the context surrounding Maradona's moment of magic - the perception, correct or not, was of a diminutive Argentinian born into grinding poverty in the shantytown of Villa Fiorito, single-handedly taking on and embarrassing England's sneering bully boys. 

Maradona's goal preceding the Goal of the Century was equally iconic but far more controversial. Dubbed the "Hand of God", due to Maradona seeming to punch the ball with his hand into the back of the net as he jumped against England goalie Peter Shilton, it is still bitterly remembered in English football to this day.

But in an era where Thatcher's government had pioneered, along with Ronald Reagan in the US, the global neoliberal "revolution" epitomised by the ethos of "greed is good", Maradona's genius exploits that day seemed to be some kind of cosmic sporting rebuke - a moment when the Global South could momentarily vanquish its self-appointed betters. 

And the Argentinian was aware of the capacity of his talent to tr
anscend the football field. This was a man who referred to himself as the "Che Guevara of football". He was one of the few superstar footballers to embrace the far-left politics typical of Latin America, including elements of the ideologies of Fidel Castro and the Bolivarian socialism of Hugo Chavez, both of whom were his personal friends. 

Read more: Abu Dhabi ruling family member looking to buy 50% stake in 'racist' Israeli football club

Maradona's embrace of this ideology was no joke, with him actively speaking up for and supporting a range of issues concerning social justice in the developing world against what he saw as imperialist and corporate exploitation. 

It's a testament to his combination of his footballing genius and his embrace of issues of social justice that on the day he died, tributes were paid to him by sources as diverse as corporate footballing bigwigs to Hamas. And it's on the latter point that Maradona perhaps took his bravest stance.

Within the footballing world, it's very rare that ethics are placed above profit or convenience. In this manner - and as was recently seen by FIFA's uncontested decision to allow Putin's Russia to host the World Cup despite its domestic human rights abuses and genocidal intervention in Syria - when a figure as globally iconic as Maradona took a stance in support of the Palestinian struggle, he was literally peerless in the West.

FIFA has gone out of its way to accommodate not only Israel's illegal occupation, but also its annexation, with it sponsoring games in Israel's illegal settlements in the West Bank, highlighting why Maradona's support for the Palestinian cause was notable. 

In 2012, during Israel's murderous "Operation Pillar of Defence" against Gaza, Maradona, citing the struggle of his own upbringing, said "I am the number one fan of the Palestinian people," going on to say "I respect them and sympathise with them" and "I support Palestine without any fear." 

He was one of the few superstar footballers to embrace the far-left politics typical of Latin America

In 2014, during Israel's deadliest military assault on besieged Gaza which killed over 2,000 people, Maradona was quick to express fury at Israel, releasing a statement describing Israel's action against the Palestinians as "shameful". 

In 2018, Maradona met with Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas, with the two embracing and the Argentinian saying "In my heart, I am Palestinian."

It's for this reason, as well as his open opposition to the Bush administration during the "War on Terror" that Maradona is loved as more than just a sporting icon throughout the Middle East and North Africa. 

In an article for the The Palestine Chronicle, Palestinian journalist Ramzy Baroud wonderfully sums up both the specific appreciation of Maradona in Palestine and his wider Global South appeal: "In Palestine, you cannot hate Maradona … [he] inspired something in us as a collective - a man of small build, from a terribly poor background, brown like us, fiery like us and passionate like us, making his way to the top of the world. For us, it was not about football or sports. It was about hope. It felt as if anything was possible."

Maradona didn't always get things right, such as his endorsement of conspiracy theories regarding the Syrian revolution, but this was a general affliction of people from his political background and a failure to comprehend a situation where the US was not the main evil, so to speak.

Within the footballing world, it's very rare that ethics are placed above profit or convenience

Regardless, in the forgotten world of liberated Idlib and among the visible vicious destruction wrought by Assad and Russia, a Syrian artist in Binnish painted a little mural of Diego Maradona in tribute to his life. As Baroud says, there was something about Maradona that inspired hope among the world's poor - an almost reflexive mutual recognition and solidarity.

And, yes, in footballing terms, Maradona was perhaps the GOAT - the greatest of all time, but he was much more than that. We've seen in recent times sportspeople in the US taking a knee against institutional racist oppression, something that has now become a global symbol of anti-racism. Maradona in some sense paved the way for this by ensuring that his amazing talents on the field would count for more than just football. 

Football often does its best to suck personality out of the game, reducing its best talents to icons of rampant materialism, but Maradona's character was intertwined with his style of play - adventurous, controversial, at times reckless, but ultimately fearless. 

He is a legend and an icon who will never be forgotten, especially among the people of the Global South - they were his own kind of people.  

May he rest in peace. 

Sam Hamad is an independent Scottish-Egyptian activist and writer.

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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.
 

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