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Diego Armando Maradona, the controversial and brilliant Argentine football star, died on Wednesday, November 25, 2020 in a Buenos Aires hospital. One of the defining figures in international soccer during the 1980s, Maradona is the stuff of legend. In his performance against England in the 1986 World Cup, he invoked divine intervention for one goal illegally scored with his hand, and then demonstrated his own divinity with one of the most remarkable goals in World Cup history:
Maradona was born in a shanty town to a poor family in 1960 with a father of indigenous Guaraní descent and a mother of Italian descent. Maradona was discovered by a talent scout at eight and made his debut with the Argentinos Juniors before he turned 16. He signed with Barcelona in 1982 for what was then a record sum of $7.2 million. Maradona achieved international fame and fortune, spending the best years of his career playing for Napoli in the Italian Serie A. Despite, or perhaps because, of his failings—his alcoholism, his drug-taking, and his womanizing—the masses of his soccer-mad homeland adored Maradona. When he died, the Argentine government declared three days of national mourning. Maradona’s wake (there was no funeral) was a state event held at the Casa Rosada, the national executive mansion located on the Plaza de Mayo in Buenos Aires.
Curious to see what was being said in Argentina about the man and his passing, late on Thanksgiving morning, I went to the homepage of Pagina12, an excellent left-wing daily. Along with countless commentaries, Maradona’s wake was livestreamed, and I soon found myself mesmerized by what I was viewing. At first it seemed like a bizarre version of slow TV: instead of the silent images broadcast from a train traveling from Bergen to Oslo, they were instead being broadcast from three low-quality fixed cameras of a wake, interspersed with the occasional drone shots. The stream went on for just under eight hours. The more I watched the more the human, social, historical, sociological, and anthropological spectacle I was witnessing fascinated me. The steady stream of people raised questions for me about what national grief is, about how sadness is both real and manufactured, and about who crowds choose to mourn publicly.
What initially astonished me most was how non-funereal this act of public mourning seemed. No soldiers stood at attention next to the remains, and the army didn’t line the streets. It was shockingly informal and almost disrespectful: in all my hours of viewing, I saw just one woman dressed in a black dress. On a day when the temperature was just under 80 degrees, shorts, T-shirts, sneakers were the rule. It looked like a waiting area at LaGuardia for a flight to Florida—all that was missing were neck brace pillows. Some men wore the jerseys of the two Argentine teams for which Maradona had played, Argentinos Juniors and Boca Juniors, or the sky blue and white of the Argentine national jersey.
That’s when I got it: the mourners were dressed for a soccer game. They were dressed as if going to attend a match at La Bonbonera, the Boca Juniors stadium where Maradona had played, where his spirit would forever live. They were showing not disrespect but the greatest and most appropriate form of respect by honoring Maradona in this way. Yes, they had lined up for hours for a wake at the Argentine equivalent of the White House, but they were paying homage to a man who had become a member of the country’s elite but who had always remained one of their own.
Soccer being all but a religion in Argentina, these mourners were in their version of church attire.
Describing this hybrid event as sacred is not an exaggeration. Throughout the day Maradona’s name was replaced with D10S – 10 being the number he wore as a player, incorporating his soccer identity with “Díos,” the Spanish word for God. The deification of Maradona was completed late in the day when his body was removed from the Casa Rosada and taken to the cemetery where the legendary athlete would be buried alongside his mother and father, simple folk whose names are commonly prefaced with the honorifics “Don” and “Doña.” The news feed that streamed the road to the cemetery displayed the words “Camino de D10S,” or “God’s path” as it followed the cortege.
Much of the day was taken up with observing the crowds that filled the streets outside the Casa Rosada and entered the building in pairs, wearing masks due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Some stopped to have pictures taken or to take selfies before entering, and I noticed something truly unheard of: pairs of men were entering with one wearing the jersey of Boca Juniors, the other that of River Plate, their mortal enemies. Riots are a common occurrence when the two teams meet, and fans commonly attack each other’s team buses. And yet, here they were, united in love: Maradona was bigger than a rivalry that, on any other day, would be irreconcilable. Later, Pagina12 would feature a photo the two teams’ supporters embracing, consoling each other.
Mourners entered somberly, giving way to grief as they approached the flag-draped (and jersey-draped) casket. As people filed past the closed coffin, their emotions exploded and were caught by the cameras. Fathers held up infant children so they could get a clear glimpse of the coffin. One man after another wept and pounded on his chest, just over his heart, shouting words of adoration and farewell at the casket. Two men blew their noses into a cap or perhaps a jersey or a cloth in some team’s colors and tossed it onto the pile. Men and women alike crossed themselves, tossed flowers, caps, and jerseys. President Alberto Fernandez placed a kerchief from the Madres de la Plaza de Mayo, who still march weekly to remind people of the 30,000 disappeared during the period of state repression, on the lid.
This was truly a final farewell, one that came from the heart of the Argentine masses. There were brief glimpses of the political populism that Maradona had also tapped into as a man tore off his shirt and threw it towards Maradona’s coffin. The guard standing behind the barrier admonished the man to move on, and he did – shirtless, or “descamisado.”
This was doubtless an unintentional reminder of another national outpouring of grief almost 70 years ago, when working-class followers of Juan and Evita Perón had streamed by Evita’s casket at the Casa Rosada. With supporters who were dubbed “descamisados” at one of the General’s rallies, Evita had risen from the common people, like Maradona. They served as the base for her work, and in return they worshipped her. Though there is debate as to whether Evita was on the right or the left, Maradona was unquestionably a man of the left, a friend of Cuba’s Fidel Castro, and of Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez; he had tattoos of Che Guevara on his arm and Castro on his leg.
But more importantly, Maradona had been born poor and, like Evita, never forgot it. Born at the Policlinico Evita, he was even a beneficiary of her vision. He bore within him the daily and political struggles of the average Argentine. He was a “descamisado” made good.
In fact, although Evita’s wake was more formal and held at the General Confederation of Labor—to emphasize her connection to the workers rather than the state—the days of mourning were strikingly similar
The crowds of common folk stretched for three kilometers, sheltering from a downpour beneath umbrellas or newspapers. Tears flowed as mourners reached the casket. When they were almost able to touch Evita’s face through a window in the casket, expressions of grief erupted. People touched the casket and kissed the glass. And, though they were poor, the men wore suits and ties and the women dresses. If Maradona’s mourners were dressed for their civic religion, football, Evita’s were dressed for church. The military pomp, the soldiers marching in strict files were there for her husband the general and were a minor theme: the people who filled the streets to bid her farewell were her real family.
Similarly, the fans were Maradona’s official mourners, and perhaps it was not surprising that, in the end, they did what football fans do. By late afternoon, although people were still lined up for blocks, the entrance to the Casa Rosada was shut down by the authorities at the scheduled 4:00 closing. Chaos and outrage erupted. Those still waiting refused to disperse and the police fired tear gas and rubber bullets at them. Nevertheless, the crowd broke through the police barrier on the Avenida de Mayo and the Plaza, and climbed over the closed gates to the Casa Rosada to get to their hero.
Whatever dignity the day had had evaporated. But had it? In the background of the scenes streaming from the Avenida 9 de Julio, where the crowd had refused to disperse, could be seen one of the steel images of Eva Perón that decorates the top of the ministry of health She’s talking into a microphone, gesturing passionately, and still addressing her descamisados.
The people had taken possession of the day.
Mithcell Abidor is a translator and poet.