Forgotten: ‘Diego’ the left-winger

By Siddy Shivdasani

On July 7, 1647, a Neapolitan fisherman’s son led a revolt in his city against oppressive taxes imposed on its traders by the Spanish rulers.

Former career criminal Tommaso Aniello came to be known as “Masaniello”, Italian for “agitator” or “revolutionary”, depending on your politics. A fruit market protest turned into a full-scale riot and the police were overwhelmed by a mob of nearly a thousand rebels, mainly street urchins.

They ransacked the armouries and opened the jails, leaving Masaniello in charge of the city. Just nine days later, his head was paraded on a pike to Naples crowds who had rapidly become indifferent to him due to his fleeting, new sense of self-importance before his gruesome demise.

On July 3, 1990, an Argentinian factory worker’s son led his country’s football team to knock the World Cup host nation and his personal host nation out of the tournament in a dramatic semi-final penalty shootout in Naples’ San Paolo stadium.

It was of almost biblical proportions that the build-up was dominated by Diego Armando Maradona, who plied his trade as the saviour of the southern city’s football club, Napoli.

His crime was appealing to his Italian fans to support his native Argentina, causing bitter divisions in the fanbase. The context was the country’s north–south tension at its peak. The Neapolitans are still regarded as “the blacks of Italy”.

It was a world away from when Maradona was presented as a then world record £7,000,000 signing to 75,000 mesmerised Napoli fans inside the San Paolo on July 5, 1984, in what was one of Europe’s poorest cities.

Before his arrival, Napoli had never secured the Italian league and only won two knockout competitions in their entire history. But with the diminutive Argentinian in their ranks, they secured two titles and won three cup competitions between 1987 and 1990.

Then came the Italia 90 World Cup and England’s own little genius Paul Gascoigne wasn’t the only one crying. Maradona followed suit after Argentina were defeated in the final by West Germany, who prospered thanks to a dodgy penalty.

During the following week — wearing an Italy shirt — Maradona tried to laugh off his pre-match plea regarding the San Paolo chapter on TV. But the interviewer aggressively accused him of “Machiavellian” tactics, asking the player if he’d ever heard of Masaniello.

He hadn’t.

Maradona became the most hated man in Italy.

On 26 April ,1991, he was arrested after a federal sting operation for “distributing drugs and drug possession”, the former charge because he had given cocaine to prostitutes he had hired.

The world had known what he’d been up to for years but he was said to be “owned” by the feared Naples mafia, the Camorra. The irony is that they preferred to operate in the shadows and Maradona was inadvertently shining a light on their activities. They hung him out to dry when the going got tough.

He was handed a 14-month suspended sentence and banned from football for 15 months. The disgraced superstar left Italy in 1992 and, in many ways, his days at the pinnacle of the footballing world were numbered, bar a few cameo performances.

On November 25, 2020, that factory worker’s son died at the relatively tender age of 60.

Regarded by many as the greatest footballer of all time, he best showcased his skills captaining his country to World Cup glory at Mexico 86. His death was met by tributes pouring in from around the globe. Dozens of TV documentaries were dedicated to aspects of his incredible life.

But on reflection, more than six weeks since he passed away, it’s curious that his politics were barely mentioned.

The British media largely concentrated on paying tribute to his considerable talent, with particular focus on Argentina’s 1986 World Cup quarter-final defeat of England. The clash perfectly illustrated the two sides of the little magician.

Maradona’s first goal was scored with his left fist, which he described post-match as “the hand of God”. The second saw him take ownership of the ball in the centre circle before dribbling past half the England team before poking it into the net. It was later voted the goal of the century.

In reference to his cheating, he said in 2000: “Although we had said before the game that football had nothing to do with the Malvinas [Falklands] War, we knew they had killed a lot of Argentine boys there, killed them like little birds. And this was revenge.”

The reality was that he was always a street urchin at heart. Maradona was standing up for the little man from when he was still just a boy.

He even got into a row with Pope John Paul II in 1987, recalling: “I argued with him because I was in the Vatican and I saw all these golden ceilings and afterwards I heard the Pope say the Church was worried about the welfare of poor kids. Sell your ceiling then, amigo, do something!”

As his career petered out, Maradona became close friends with Cuba’s leader Fidel Castro, who personally invited him for treatment on the Caribbean island, where he stayed for four years. The revolutionary icon would call on his young friend in the mornings to talk about sport and politics and encourage him to break his addiction.

Maradona said: “I feel Cuban, they have given me a lot of love during my illness and the fact that today I can get up every morning and I can play sport, I can talk with you, with my brothers or I can do an interview. I owe a lot to Fidel.”

Castro said: “Diego is a great friend and very noble, too. There's also no question he’s a wonderful athlete and has maintained a friendship with Cuba to no material gain of his own.”

But there was a gain for the Number 10, who said when Castro’s died in 2016: “He opened the doors to Cuba to me when Argentina was closing them on me.”

Maradona added: “He was a second father to me.”

He had a portrait of Castro tattooed on his left leg as well as one of the leader’s protege and Maradona’s fellow Argentinian — Che Guevara — on his right arm.

In 2004, Maradona joined a protest against the US-led war in Iraq, which he saw as imperialism. During the Summit of the Americas in Argentina the following year, he railed against the presence of US president George W. Bush, wearing a T-shirt labelled: “STOP BUSH.”

The “S” in “BUSH” was replaced with a swastika.

He also referred to the US president as “human garbage”, adding: “I hate everything that comes from the United States. I hate it with all my strength.”

Maradona was also close to late former Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez. The player said he came to meet a “great man” but had instead met a “gigantic man”. He added: “I believe in Chávez, I am a Chavista. Everything Fidel does, everything Chávez does, for me is the best.”

He was also the president’s guest of honour at the opening game of the 2007 Copa América, which was held in Venezuela. Maradona also gave a message of support to the people of Iran that year. And the Argentinian voiced support for Bolivia's ousted leader Evo Morales.

In 2013, he urged Venezuelans to elect Chávez s designated successor, Nicolás Maduro. Maradona attended the candidate’s final campaign rally in Caracas.

He consistently supported the establishment of an independent Palestinian state. And he condemned the carpet bombing of Gaza in 2014, saying: “What Israel is doing to the Palestinians is shameful.”

Fittingly, Maradona was left-footed.

He was usually in a different league to his peers on the pitch and the toughest opponent he faced was himself: “Diego” versus “Maradona.”

“Diego” was sweet, cheeky, playful, affectionate, caring, insecure and, of course, passionate. “Maradona” was a cokehead, a prolific philanderer, a party animal, a mafia associate, a cheat and, of course, a world class footballer.

He had married long-time fiancée Claudia Villafañe in 1989 and they had two daughters before divorcing in 2004, although they remained on friendly terms.

In 2016, “Diego” acknowledged his 29-year-old illegitimate son, who the product of an extra-marital affair in his Naples era. There was  a lingering hug and kiss for Diego Jnr from his ever-tactile father on the doorstep of his Buenos Aires home.

Despite a multitude of flaws and sins, Diego Snr was a man of love. He loved his family, friends and fans. But the key to his sporting prowess was being in love with football. The pitch was the only place he could escape his troubles. The price he paid for everything that was bestowed upon him was too much.

RIP Masaniello.

RIP Maradona.

RIP Diego.