The recent death of soccer legend Diego Armando Maradona, who rose from the slums of Buenos Aires to stardom, made headlines all over the world. Argentina declared three days of national mourning, and there was a global outpouring of grief among fans of the world’s most popular sport. Maradona, who died of a heart attack at age 60 on Nov. 25, was also a controversial figure. Fans worshipped him for his extraordinary skills on the field, his charisma, and his championing of the poor. Critics pointed to his life of excess, including his drug addiction, philandering, paternity suits, his support of leftist leaders such as Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez, and allegations of domestic abuse of a girlfriend. The Gazette spoke with Mariano Siskind, professor of romance languages and literatures and of comparative literature, to understand the social and cultural phenomenon behind Maradona, his larger-than-life persona, and his legacy.
GAZETTE: Why does Maradona, in life and death, stir such devotion and unconditional love?
SISKIND: I think that the closest comparison to the collective grief over Maradona’s passing in Argentinian history was the death of Eva Perón in 1952. Millions of people cried at Maradona’s public wake at the Government Palace in Buenos Aires. I personally cried three days straight. I was surprised by my own reaction. I wasn’t so surprised about the public display of sorrow, but when crying is at the center of the public sphere it has to be interrogated: What exactly are we crying about? What are we mourning with our deep sadness?
At an individual level, people cried to mourn the death of a public figure whom they loved deeply. But they were also mourning their own youth, their past, because Maradona’s presence in our lives is tied to very happy moments of our lives. Maradona’s death also has an important social and political meaning because when he was at his best in the World Cup of 1986, and Argentina was at the beginning of its democratic transition with Raúl Alfonsín as president, he was able to create, for brief moments, a sense of community, a community of people in awe of what Maradona was doing. It was not necessarily a nationalistic feeling, at least not for me, but the possibility of a being in common of sorts, something that is rare if not impossible in a place like Argentina, a country always in contradiction with itself.
The other meaningful thing about Maradona, particularly for people like me who are very, very secular and non-religious, is that when he was on the pitch, he created something that was similar to a secular divine experience, an experience of what Hegel calls the Absolute. For people like me, this only happens through art, but then again soccer is a performing art, at least when Maradona was on the pitch. For me, Maradona is Beethoven; John, Paul, George, and Ringo rehearsing at Abbey Road Studios to record the White Album; Picasso painting “Guernica”; he is Shakespeare, Cervantes, Joyce, Borges; or Miles Davis and Bill Evans playing together; and a little bit of “Antigone.” Watching Maradona was akin to an experience of transcendence.
GAZETTE: How do you compare Maradona with Pelé, the Brazilian striker from the 1970s, and Lionel Messi, the best player in the world right now? Who is the greatest of all?
SISKIND: This is an endless debate among soccer fans all over the world. It’s very hard to establish an objective argument in favor of one or the other two. Pelé and Messi are absolutely incredible, in terms of skills and talents. I don’t think anybody else gets in the conversation. But both Pelé and Messi have played on teams with other amazing soccer players. When Pelé played for the Brazilian national team in the World Cup in 1970, arguably the best team in the history of all World Cups, he played with five or six of the best players of the world next to him. Messi, as much as I love Messi … his greatest accomplishments in Barcelona were surrounded by Xavi, Iniesta, Busquets and other incredible players. But Maradona in 1986 won the World Cup by himself. Argentina’s team had effective role players, but that’s it. In Mexico ’86, Maradona performed the most remarkable individual performance in the history of the World Cup. Many people said that whichever team Maradona played for in 1986 was going to win the World Cup. When he went to play in Napoli, Maradona led the team to their first-ever Italian championship. Back then, the teams from the north of Italy had the best players. Again, Maradona was pretty much alone in Napoli except when they won that first Scudetto. And he would go on to win another one as well as a European UEFA Cup. Napoli had never won either before, did not win again after Maradona left in 1991. He always played on teams which were rather mediocre.
But that alone doesn’t explain Maradona’s mythical figure. There are other elements: his charisma and his qualities as a leader combined with an aesthetic quality that that was superior to that of Pelé or Messi, who are incredible soccer players, but Maradona played a different sport, a form of art. Watching Maradona one experienced something akin to what Immanuel Kant defined as the sublime. The experience of the sublime destabilizes our subjectivity, and for a moment, we are undone; we lose ourselves. It is something that surpasses what is merely beautiful.