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World Cup Rant, Part 3: Five Reasons Not to Cry for Argentina’s Diego Maradona (and suggested soundtrack)

Unless you count celebrity cephalopods, the only larger-than-life presence at this year’s World Cup was a man standing five feet, five inches. Having barely survived his Fat Elvis phase, Argentine legend Diego Maradona re-emerged from his usual work as a religious icon to coach (or at least cheerlead) his national team to the quarter-finals. This happened when the self-styled Pancho Villa in soccer shorts wasn’t otherwise occupied running over reporters’ feet, directing his players to haze each other, threatening to run naked, denouncing Anglo-American imperialism, or getting bitten by his own dog.

In his recent documentary Maradona, the equally eccentric Serbian director Emir Kusturica describes Maradona as the footballer’s equivalent of the Sex Pistols. But he’s more like a combination of Mozart and Iggy Pop: a contortionist savant driven by instinct, walking the line between genius and madness, aware that he is both a brilliant creator and a really big stooge. While these aren’t necessarily the qualities you’d want in a coach, they are sensational songwriter’s materials. Although Maradona is reportedly despondent over his team’s manhandling by Germany, here are reasons you shouldn’t cry for him, with accompanying soundtrack.

1. He’s still the King of Bongo.

Our Diego
Who art on earth
Hallowed be thy left foot
Thy magic come,
Thy goals be remembered.

    The Church of Maradona

Soccer and music don’t always mix. For every goal-worthy performance—K’naan’s Marleyesque reworking of “Wavin’ Flag” from this year, or New Order’s suave “World in Motion” from 1990—two or three come out deserving red cards (for instance, the Village People’s 1994 musical partnership with the German national soccer team). But Maradona, despite his obvious faults, inspires fanatical devotion. He could fill an entire playlist with musical tributes, some of which verge on greatness.

Maradona is the subject of two songs written by Manu Chao, the wiry French/Spanish troubador responsible for politically charged albums such as Clandestino, as well as surreal classics like “Bongo Bong” and “King of Bongo.” The raucous “Santa Maradona,” recorded with Chao’s old Franco-punk band, Mano Negra, pays tribute to his hero even as it flips the bird to hero worship. “La Vida Tombola” (life is a lottery), from Chao’s latest La Radiolina album, mixes joy and melancholy as it traces the man’s journey from rags to riches to disgrace to partial redemption.

Manu Chao, “La Vida Tombola” (sung to Maradona)

2. Andrew Lloyd Webber will never write a bad musical about him.

Argentina has had a few well-known rock bands, including Los Fabulosos Cadillacs and Soda Stereo, who performed at Maradona’s wedding. But on an international scale, Maradona’s only serious celebrity rock-star competition is Eva Peron. Unlike poor Evita, however, Maradona has no likelihood of having his life turned into a horrid Andrew Lloyd Webber musical. How bad can his musicals get? Well, in a new production of Evita, Ricky Martin will play the role of Che Guevarra.

Maradona, who named one of his dogs Che, would never stand for this abuse. Moreover, Webber, a supporter of England’s conservative party, would never risk his middlebrow credentials on Maradona, whose popularity in the UK ranks somewhere between that of Napoleon and Osama bin Laden. It’s not just that Maradona scored the most famous illegal and legal goals in history to defeat England 24 years ago (respectively, the devious Hand of God goal and the brilliant Goal of the Century). It’s that Maradona viewed each of these as poetic justice that avenged the Falklands War and placed Argentina on the right side of history. You can argue the history, but it’s really hard to be on England’s side when listening to the amazing Atahualpa Yupanqui.

Atahualpa Yupanqui, “El Carrero”

3. He’s responsible for the modernization of Argentine tango.

I don’t mean that Maradona personally did this, of course. But in his memoir, Astor Piazzolla observed that he was indifferent about football until Maradona’s exciting play made him a “furious fan.” In 1986, the same year Maradona led Argentina to World Cup victory, Piazzolla released one of his most daring works, Tango Zero Hour. More than a coincidence?

Astor Piazzolla, “Tanguedia”

4. He’s Springsteen to those who weren’t born in the USA (or England).

Beneath Maradona’s shiny designer suits and fondness for luxury toilet seats is the soul of a populist rebel from humble origins who sometimes lets his big heart show. Just when you’re ready to dismiss him as just another hopelessly obnoxious rich guy, he can pull something that’s a bit more Joe Strummer or Bruce Springsteen than Johnny Rotten. Even as his own life was unraveling, Maradona helped jump-start the career of then-teenager Diego Forlan, this year’s Golden Ball winner from Uruguay, and helped pay medical bills for Forlan’s paralyzed sister.

Below is a clip of Maradona, still bloated and recovering from his drug-addicted wipeout, covering “La Mano de Dios” (that’s right, “The Hand of God”) by the late Argentine cuartero singer Rodrigo. At first he comes on like a train wreck, something like the over-the-hill boxer Robert DeNiro played near the end of Raging Bull. But by the time family members join him at the end, the clip transforms into something weirdly touching and hopeful.

Maradona singing Rodrigo’s “La Mano de Dios”

5. He’s a better metaphor for globalization than anything in Thomas Friedman’s laptop.

Maradona is missing from almost all of Franklin Foer’s fascinating 2004 book, How Soccer Explains the World. Foer, editor for the New Republic, uses soccer as the lens for fairly gentle criticism of Thomas Friedman-style flat-earth thinking about globalization. He portrays soccer as a surreal parallel world illuminating our own, in which rival teams in placid Glasgow re-enact a centuries-old holy war between Protestants and Catholics, Nigerian players lose their cool in the icy Ukraine, and Iranian women dress up as men to sneak into the world’s largest stadium. The global game, despite its liberalizing potential, still hasn’t come close to overcoming regional, ethnic and religious strife or the power of corrupt oligarchs.

Foer views the tolerant ethos of his favorite team, FC Barcelona, or Barça (which currently includes Maradona’s protégé, Lionel Messi), as a hopeful sign that patriotism and cosmopolitanism can be compatible. The World Cup victory of a graceful Spanish team, largely on the strength of its Catalans and Barça players, with assists from the Basques, might be viewed as supporting this hope. But even that is a bit of a stretch. The victory came just a day after protests in Barcelona over a Spanish court ruling on Catalan autonomy. Outside official circles, Catalonia has its own national team, as do the Basques. And the ethnic and economic divisions in Spain pale next to others in Europe, which pale in comparison to those in other continents.

If you had to pick a soundtrack for cosmopolitan nationalism, what would you choose? Barça’s unofficial theme song last year was…drumroll please…“Viva La Vida” by Coldplay–because nothing motivates athletes quite like moderately paced middle-of-the-road rock. That may be a bit harsh. Barcelona is one of my favorite cities. I admire its tolerant reputation and its team’s storied history (the soccer field was one of the few outlets available for Catalan expression during the bleak Franco years). I also have nothing against Coldplay’s signature song, or the half-dozen others that share its lilting melody. But I think the hopeful parts of Foer’s thesis may play a little too much like a Coldplay song—meticulously constructed and catchy, but lacking a willingness to push beyond the comfort zone at the risk of looking ridiculous.

Maradona, who is all about pushing beyond the comfort zone, inspires either revulsion or religious devotion (and yes, there’s a Church of Maradona with more than a hundred thousand members). While his fanatical devotees vary widely, many never got Tom Friedman’s memo about how the latest internationally-distributed gadgets will help level the playing field. They understandably would like to believe that every once in a while, they might have a turn to rule the world, if only for the length of a game. They want to believe David can still slay Goliath, even if it requires the Hand of God.

Scenes from the Church of Maradona

South Korean singers summon the hand of God in 2002

From → Diatribes, Slow Jams

One Comment
  1. Scot Hacker permalink

    Phenomenally well written post Roger. What an amazing world we live in.

    Though I do have to say that this bolsters my belief that sports and religion are two sides of a coin – twin forms of (beautiful) mass hallucination.

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