Maradona – hero, redeemer, martyr, god

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Russell Holden
In the Zone Sport and Politics Consultancy | @russinthezone


Pablo Brescia & Mariano Paz (eds.)
Diego Maradona: A Socio-Cultural Study
265 pages, paperback
Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge 2023 (Critical Research in Football)
ISBN 978-1-032-05209-0

Although perceptions of Argentinian football has long been framed by the tenacity, speed and creativity combined with skill and the tendency towards ill-discipline, the advent of the stupendously skilled Diego Armando Maradona took football into a new realm. Though not in the more traditional hero mould of figures such as Pele, Puskas, or Cruyff, Maradona’s play and antics made him familiar to a greater share of the global population than any of his famous predecessors. He elicited love and admiration across the globe whilst also stirring controversy and enmity most notably in England, following the infamous “Hand of God” moment in the 1986 World Cup final.

With the memory of Argentina’s victory at the Qatar 2022 World Cup still fresh, Maradona, A Socio-Cultural Study is a timely and fascinating read. This ground-breaking work contextualises the position of football in Argentinian popular culture, whilst at the same time endeavouring to place and critically analyse Maradona’s role in articulating and conveying Argentine national identity. This is a task that the editors undertake through an examination of his status as a sporting hero and place as a socio-political figurehead.

Pablo Brescia and Mariano Paz strive with the assistance of a range of largely Latin American academics, writers and football experts to distil the essence of Maradona and how this has been represented, reproduced and at times manipulated across the globe through a range of media, images, film (fiction and documentary) literary texts and music. This they accomplish with some aplomb in producing a truly systematic study whilst also being ground-brakers in providing the first English academic text on this extraordinary sportsperson. By the same token they are offering a valuable insight into the study of sporting icons which has long been overlooked in academic discourse as an issue deemed unworthy of in depth study, even now in a climate that projects and promotes sporting heroes as never before.

This, it has to be remembered, occurred in a time when football was not fully globalised and the players were free of some of the perils of global marketing and possible exploitation through the misuse of social media.

Thirty six years on from Argentina’s last World Cup success, when Maradona was in his  playing pomp, his legacy looms astonishingly large, despite the role of captain and leader having been absorbed by Lionel Messi, arguably the greatest footballer of contemporary times. Although Messi is an individual of a totally different hue, he and his generation of playing colleagues have been substantially influenced by Maradona’s sublime playing skills and his capacity to generate extraordinary adulation as a hero, redeemer, martyr and in some cases even a god.

Maradona’s playing career which straddled the years from 1976 to 1997 is detailed with great care and involved time building a reputation in his home country before plying his skills in Spain and Italy. During this time he also played in three World Cups whilst his managerial career took in time in Argentina, Mexico and the United Arab Emirates and a period as national coach of his homeland. Each of these episodes shaped his life, but equally critically in far broader terms extended his impact well beyond the football field, contributing to his idolisation,  and the celebration of his skills and personality, despite the latter being riddled with multiple contradictions.

Working from the premise that a discipline entitled “Maradona Studies” can be constructed around the mass of work (primarily in Spanish and Italian), Brescia and Paz seek to show the complexity of the man. Their case for developing this specialised field of study rests on an interweaving of Maradona’s actions and behaviour with elements of cultural studies, cultural sociology and sport studies and by implication contemporary Argentinian political and socio-economic history in which Maradona now occupies a central role.

Organised into three blocks of chapters, the volume seeks first to establish the global nature of Maradona’s influence, before moving on to wider issues concerning his representation. The latter section considers Maradonian discourses, some produced by him whilst others speak of him from a range of perspectives that include justice, autobiographical and biographical tropes, feminism and religion. The feminist critique is especially interesting whilst the writings on religion is amusingly entitled Deifying Diego.

Naples, Italy, 2017(Shutterstock/Julian Schlaen)

One of the best ways of attempting to understand the essence and impact of Maradona is by adhering to the guidance of the acclaimed cultural sociologist Raymond Williams. As Tomlinson, the British sport historian, suggests in his contribution, to perform an effective cultural analysis it is essential to work with three levels of culture – the lived culture of places and times, the recorded culture of a period, embracing everyday facts, and the level that connects the first two, namely the culture of selective tradition. It is this approach that underpins the volume and helps to understand the various manifestations of Maradona studies and the reality that in many respects he was something of an artefact made for exploitation and the expanding commodification of football. This, it has to be remembered, occurred in a time when football was not fully globalised and the players were free of some of the perils of global marketing and possible exploitation through the misuse of social media. Despite this, Maradona became the first and biggest football media celebrity and one who once his playing career ended became more willing to proclaim his political views, notably his admiration of Fidel Castro, Che Guevara and more latterly Hugo Chavez.

As a study the first two sections of the book are the most fascinating and revealing, and without wishing to question the value and worth of the final section of the volume, the last block of chapters is so specialised that maybe it would have been better served by being incorporated in a wholly separate text as it would appeal to a more distinct set of readers. In its place, it may have been very revealing to have included some reflections from some of the players, managers and administrators that played a part and possibly crossed swords with Maradona during his illustrious career. This would have added further to this excellent assessment of the significance of this giant of a player and his part in often drawing his nation together in times of political and economic adversity.

This text offers much to the academic specialist, the armchair sports watcher and those also interested in the broader issue of fandom and celebrity. With especially strong chapters on the Spanish and Italian dimension of Maradona’s career by Garcia Cames and Russo as well as  Boyle on Maradona and Britain, the work is destined to have a wide and long-lasting appeal. Brescia and Paz have also opened an avenue of investigation and analysis that could prove valuable in the assessment of other major historical sporting figures most notably Shane Warne, Mohammed Ali, Arthur Ashe and Colin Kaepernick, with respect to gaining a deeper insight into wider manifestations of popular culture and the growing impact of sport in moulding a key component of  evolving national identity, socio-political priority and nation-building.

Copyright © Russell Holden 2023

Table of Content

Introduction: The Cultural Significance of Maradona
Pablo Brescia and Mariano Paz

Part I: Global Maradona

      1. Maradona and Argentina: Four Takes
        Pablo Brescia and Mariano Paz
      2. Maradona and Spain: Mythologies of the Hero Narrative
        David García Cames (Translated by Muireann Prendergast)
      3. Maradona and Italy: The Rise and Fall of the Man on His Own
        Pippo Russo (Translated by Dolores Gadler)
      4. Maradona and Mexico: The Ecstasy and the Agony
        Fernando Segura M. Trejo and John Williams
      5. Maradona and Britain: An Unforgettable Affair
        Raymond Boyle

Part II: Representing Maradona

      1. Maradona and Literature: God Is Only Human
        Pablo Brescia
      2. Maradona and Cinema: Biopic, Documentary, Art Film
        Mariano Paz
      3. Maradona and Music: Soundscapes and Echoes of the Maradonian Song
        Martín Virgili (Translated by Dolores Gadler)

Part III: Reading and Writing Maradona

      1. Spectres of Maradona: Chronicle/Fiction/Autobiography/Film
        Ksenija Bilbija
      2. The Maradona Story: Tropes in Biography and Autobiography
        Alan Tomlinson
      3. Argentinian Feminisms in the Light (and Shadow) of Maradona
        Gabriela Garton and Julia Hang
      4. Deifying Diego: The Church of Maradona and Beyond
        Luca Bifulco
      5. Writing Maradona:
        One and All
        Martín Kohan (Translated by David Atkinson)
        God, the Era, and the Epic
        Ana María Shua (Translated by Allison Febo)
        Language and Tears
        Edgardo Scott (Translated by Ana Terrazas Calero)
        Saint Diego Maradona?
        María Rosa Lojo (Translated by Allison Febo)
        M and M, to See or Not to See
        Patricio Pron (Translated by Emma Byrne)
        Number Ten in Ten
        Pedro Palou
        Children of Maradona
        Beatriz Sarlo (Translated by Ana Terrazas Calero)
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