“He Made us Happy”- How Diego Maradona lifted a broken nation

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Cahal McAuley talks with Lucas Tapia San Martin from Diego Maradona’s hometown of Buenos Aires, about the legacy of one of football’s most talented and intriguing characters.

On November 25th, Argentina mourned the passing of their most beloved son, Diego Maradona. Three days of national mourning, announced by President Alberto Fernandez, and the former captain was placed in state at the Presidential Palace in Buenos Aires - physical indications that the country’s reaction to his death was more akin to that of a royal than a footballer. 

These tributes go some way to showing the reverence possessed in the national conscience towards Maradona, who, although a controversial figure, has cultivated an almost God-like image through the memories he has given to his people, particularly his role in the legendary World Cup victory in 1986.

In 1986, Argentina was still reeling from the effects of the U.S. backed military dictatorship which was in power from 1976 to 1983, a period called the Dirty War and their humbling defeat to the United Kingdom in the short but violent Falklands War in 1982.

Somewhere between 9,000 and 30,000 people were killed or disappeared under the dictatorship and a further 12,000 prisoners, many of which had not been legally convicted, were detained in 340 secret concentration camps throughout the country.

In an attempt to bolster the reputation of their crumbling government, Argentina’s dictatorship moved to occupy the British-controlled Falklands Islands in April 1982. The 74-day conflict resulted in a British victory, cost the lives of 649 Argentine military personnel and although democracy was restored in 1983, a decade of political violence, human rights violations and conflict left the country reeling.

Lucas Tapia San Martin, a 26-year-old tax lawyer from Maradona’s hometown of Buenos Aires sums up the effect this chaos had on the Argentine people of the time; “they were pretty much a generation who saw people get killed by the dictatorship, saw their brothers and sons get killed in the war”.

With the horrors of the last decade still fresh in the minds of the people, the Argentine team set out to raise the spirits of their nation at the 1986 World Cup in Mexico. Maradona, though still approaching the peak of his powers, was already recognised as one of the world’s best, becoming the first player to break the world transfer record twice, with high-profile moves to Barcelona and Napoli. 

Maradona was certainly not far removed from the struggles of his nation’s people as Lucas gives some insight to his humble background in the Villa Fiorito slums; “And then this man comes around in the 1986 World Cup. This guy who literally came from nothing. From one meal a day on a good day, seven siblings, no plumbing, that kind of situation.”

“He came from a neighbourhood you couldn’t even imagine. I’ve been to neighbourhoods like that in Argentina, it puts life into perspective.”

“Nobody can make anything out of themselves and then this guy comes around who plays the game like no one has ever seen, who’s humble, who shoots straight, who tells it like it is and who’s loyal. He respects his country, his family, and his mother and he puts that first”.

After a draw against Italy and wins against South Korea and Bulgaria in the group stage, Argentina moved on to the quarter-finals with a second-round win over Uruguay. This set up the legendary game with England in which Maradona was to cement his god-like status in the eyes of the Argentine people. 

Six minutes into the second half, Maradona leapt with England goalkeeper Peter Shilton to score the ‘Hand of God’, one of the most infamous goals in football history and four minutes later dribbled past five England defenders to double Argentina’s advantage with his mix of deception and pure skill serving as a revenge of sorts against England.

“He gets the chance to play against the English, and he steals from them with a handball, he steals just a little bit from them. On the only stage where a country like us could get a win over them.”

“But that’s not it, not five minutes later he scores the greatest goal ever seen in a world cup, just to prove that he doesn’t need to steal to win. He stole, yes, he cheated because he was stealing from the thief.”

“He stole from those who stole from him, from us, from the Argentines, but now he does it fair and square just to prove a point and of course knock England out of the World Cup and that day, and that day only, Argentina laughed and England cried.”

In the space of four minutes, Maradona showed that he could win in any way it took and won the hearts of his people forever. The definition of a flawed genius, Maradona was never far from controversy, be it his well-known drug problems, family issues, or even his links to the Neapolitan mafia. 

Even so, history will likely be kind to Maradona and turn a blind eye to his shortcomings, because of the way he raised a beleaguered Argentina to the status of World Champions. As Maradona said so himself after his 2001 testimonial; “I made mistakes and I paid for them. But the ball is never stained.”

As Argentina continues to come to terms with the death of their hero, Lucas sums up the feelings of the country towards ‘El Pibe de Oro’ (The Golden Boy). 

“He gave joy to the Argentine people like no one ever did and no one has since. He was a God amongst men and of course he goes on to win that World Cup because it couldn’t have been any other way.”

“The guy who came from literally nothing becomes the king of the world, that little guy from Villa Fiorito who didn’t have food on the table beat a world superpower and amended a war. He gave a victory back to Argentina, just that little, poor kid, he gave it all back to the people and that’s poetry.”

“That’s why we love Diego and that’s why Diego will always live in the Argentine people’s hearts, he made us happy.”