‘Growing up in Ireland, no one knew where Argentina was but everyone knew Maradona’

An Irish Argentinian remembers the man they called Dios – God – a year on from his death

Diego Maradona during the national anthems at Italia ’90 before Argentina played West Germany. Photograph: Inpho/Billy Stickland

Diego Maradona during the national anthems at Italia ’90 before Argentina played West Germany. Photograph: Inpho/Billy Stickland

 

I have found it difficult to explain the heartache to my Irish friends. When the news of his death first broke in Europe it was unconfirmed. The immediate feeling was a panicked disbelief before sending my uncle two words: “Es verdad?” – is it true?

The voice note he returned had the background noise of the Argentinean news and the sound of his tears. “Si Stephen” he said and I was left sobbing as I remembered that my uncle and I had once been together in the presence of the unforgettable hero, Diego Armando Maradona, a legend who transcended football, united a broken society, and offered salvation to many who called him “Dios” – God.

My first memory of him was from 1990. My Irish father and Argentinean mother sat on the edge of their seats in our Cork home, watching the World Cup penalty shootout between Italy and Argentina. I remember him stepping up to take his penalty, my parents chanting his name. He jogged to the ball, chest out, sent the goalkeeper one way and rolled the ball the other, into the back of the net as Mam and Dad embraced in middle of the room, my mother proud of her compatriot’s artistry.

Driving the flyovers from Ezeiza Airport to downtown Buenos Aires was always a stark reminder of that social devastation, the motorway passing over the sprawling shanty towns

Over the decades I have learned that pride does not always come easy to Argentineans. In my mother’s lifetime Argentina has been a nation in conflict with itself, burdened by constant political upheaval and the resulting shame. Her generation rode a particular rollercoaster of national turmoil as power switched between military dictatorships and chaotic democratic governments, leaving social and economic devastation. Driving the flyovers from Ezeiza Airport to downtown Buenos Aires was always a stark reminder of that devastation, the motorway passing over the sprawling shanty towns below.

Those slums have always been a reminder to me that heroes can come from anywhere. Diego came from Villa Fiorito, a shanty town on the southern outskirts of Buenos Aires. My mother used to visit her family in a shanty town near there in her youth. Families were large, children worked to survive, education stopped at a young age, and alcohol-fuelled domestic violence was common. Villa Fiorito featured often on police reports.

Today? A Google Maps review of a tourist visit to his original family home gives a “one star” rating: “One of the best known homes in the world and the family inside don’t even have shoes on their feet. What a shame of a country.”

Stephen Mullan: My first memory of him was from 1990. My Irish father and Argentinean mother sat on the edge of their seats in our Cork home, watching the World Cup penalty shootout between Italy and Argentina.
Stephen Mullan: My first memory of Maradona was from 1990. My Irish father and Argentinean mother sat on the edge of their seats in our Cork home, watching the World Cup penalty shootout between Italy and Argentina.

Diego’s first triumph was moving his family out of Villa Fiorito. Age 11 he signed for Argentinos Juniors and made money entertaining the half-time crowds with his tricks. At 18 he moved his parents and seven siblings into a house with toilets and running water. At 25 he was lifting the World Cup in Mexico as captain of the winning Argentinean team.

It is his undeniable genius on the pitch that is most remembered from the tournament, but what I have always found most thrilling is how he inspired Argentineans. Mexico ’86 saw Maradona drag a nation together to celebrate themselves after the atrocities of the previous decades.

My mother was a young woman in Buenos Aires during the 1970s, living through what became known as the dirty war. Kidnappings, bomb attacks and murders were carried out by left-wing guerrillas. The military government responded with its own terrorism, systematically disappearing or killing what is now estimated to be 30,000 people, supposedly suspected of communist sympathies. Torture, sexual violence, abduction, stealing babies, killing their mothers, and murder by dumping people out of planes over the Atlantic were all hallmarks of the Junta.

“Nobody had any idea what was really going on,” my mother recalls. In 1978, when Argentina hosted and won the World Cup, she remembers going to watch the final in a public park. The feeling was not so much pride but more a sense that this was a distraction from what everyone was afraid to speak of, the people who were going missing.

She recalls one day in church, the pastor pleading with the congregation if anyone had seen a young person who was missing. A childhood friend was arrested. When his mother visited him in jail he told her, “You need to get me out of here now.” The mother returned the next day and there was no record of his being there. He was never seen again.

His life continued in extremes after he retired from playing. The highs and lows mirrored the extremes of his life in Argentina, from slum boy to national hero

Growing up in Ireland, Maradona was the proud link to my second home. No one knew where Argentina was but everyone knew Maradona. Our English neighbour used to give out to me about the “hand of God” and it would make me smile because we both knew who the best footballer in the world was. I was excited to watch Diego in USA ‘94, I remember the joy of the goal against Greece and then the sadness of the failed drugs test. Mam always spoke very graciously about his personal difficulties. I took it personally when people made fun of him.

His life continued in extremes after he retired from playing. The highs and lows mirrored the extremes of his life in Argentina, from slum boy to national hero. When we would visit on family trips there would be regular updates, daily conversations as to how he was doing, his health always the main concern. His ability to bounce back always amazed me. Sometimes you would see pictures of him in the back of an ambulance, or massively overweight in rehab; other times he was the life and soul of the party, presenting his own TV chat show, even holding down some successful managerial jobs while fit and healthy.

In 2005 I was gifted one of most marvellous moments of my life. It was my first solo trip to Argentina. The day I arrived my uncle told me to get ready for a party and not to bring any valuables. He picked me up with my cousins and we drove to la Boca. Men on the streets shouted and directed cars to a space where they would keep the car safe for a few pesos. We ate barbequed “chorizo” sausages cooked on fires in barrels and made our way to La Bombonera – “the chocolate box”, the home stadium of Boca Juniors, to celebrate the club’s centenary.

Diego Maradona in action for Argentina against Brazil at the 1982 World Cup. Photograph: Mark Leech/Offside/Getty Images
Diego Maradona in action for Argentina against Brazil at the 1982 World Cup. Photograph: Mark Leech/Offside/Getty Images

Argentineans know how to party. Stadiums in Europe don’t move like they do there: bouncing, heaving, billowing smoke, endless boiling passion overflowing into the night sky. The pitch filled with drums and “cumbia” dancers. We sang for hours.

And just when I thought it was all over, he emerged, out from the crowded tunnel below, a security fortress around his tiny figure: do not touch! All around me, there wasn’t a single dry eye as his name rang out from the 70,000-strong crowd in La Boca. As he stepped up to the microphone I could feel the tears stream down my own face, my uncle’s arm around me.

Never have I felt so much love in one place. “You are the best fans in the…” but his voice on the speakers was drowned out, as the chants grew louder and louder, and on the big screen we saw him shed a tear. He had risen, yet again.

Today I am reminded of the words on a banner at an Argentina game: “It doesn’t matter what you have done with your life Diego, what matters is what you have done with ours.”