He was hallowed. Even in his battered, bloated state. His face more purple than tan. Almost unrecognizable. Or perhaps all too familiar to anyone who had ever seen him go on one of his binges. But this undertaker–this “cold cook”–was immediately swept away by Maradona’s celebrity. Even in death, he bore the same aura that drove Neapolitans absolutely berserk when they saw him. It was as though to be near him imbued the same sense of swooning and hysteria in a teenage girl who worshipped The Beatles circa 1964. There was absolutely no controlling the reaction–and Fernandez, regardless of the expectation that he should be professional–was no exception to the rule. He was positively smitten, gobsmacked, overwhelmed. All of the feelings, in short, that characterize love at first sight.
One wouldn’t expect that sort of reaction to be conjured by a man who grew up in a shantytown. Those from poverty are so rarely revered–at least not in comparison to those born rich (including, even, and for some still inexplicable reason, Donald Trump). But because everything about him was “representative of the people”–the real people down at heel who buttressed all the rich fucks above them–Maradona fast became a symbol, even in something that was usually as apolitical as sports. Except only the truly naive believe sports is apolitical when, in fact, it is entirely rooted in the nationalism that goes hand in hand with politics. The Olympics were not boycotted by the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. in 1980 and 1984 respectively because sports “aren’t political.” Quite the opposite. And Maradona very much arose at a time when Napoli needed him most of all. Having long been stereotyped as the “uncouth,” “destitute” bastard child of Italy, his sudden presence on the scene was like a shot of, well, cocaine. A way to get back at all the self-righteous cunt rags of the so-called “Northern nobility” that had viewed Napoli as the scourge of the nation. As Maradona said, “I think the national team is everything for a player. There is nothing more important.”
Thus, for him to choose the town most looked down upon was the beginning of his series of saintly acts for a “country within a city” that was not even his own. Yet by the time he left, if it had been as a corpse (and many believed the Camorra would make that a reality), the Neapolitans might have tried snatching his body to take a selfie with it–had such technology then been available. The effect of Maradona was overpowering, intoxicating. Yet only after Napoli. What he did as a Robin Hood figure for the nation was incomparable. One snooty French reporter noted of the monumental implications of Maradona’s transfer from Barcelona to Naples in 1984, “Naples is in the midst of a financial crisis with enormous debts. The poorest city in Italy and maybe the poorest in Europe therefore buys the most expensive player in the world.” Worth every goddamn lira, as any Neapolitan will tell you.
Maradona, perhaps, viewed the whole thing differently afterward. For the only fate worse than not being treated like a god is to be treated like one. Before disembarking from the plane, Maradona was asked what he expected from Napoli. Naively, he said, “I expect peace, the peace I didn’t have in Barcelona. But above all, respect.” At least he got the latter, but at what price? The price of having his corpse so desecrated as to get a selfie taken with it.
Could Fernandez really be blamed? Was what he did so divergent from what all of Napoli did in wanting to cut out a piece of him for themselves? July 5, 1984, Stadio San Paolo. That’s where it all began, davvero? This idea that Maradona was a divine husk designed for the picking apart. Every scrap of him the Neapolitans’ proof that their region was something to be proud of, not ashamed of.
“No Maradona didn’t do it. God did it,” Diego commented of his performance at one point after playing Juventus on November 3, 1985. Fernandez might have said the same of his own hand being driven to snap that photo in Buenos Aires. That selfie. To be honest, a more classic version of a photograph might have been less offensive. At least it would have shown a greater predilection toward an artistic sensibility as opposed to an outright crass one.
When Maradona arrived in football heaven, it was narrated by Gonzalo Bonadeo explaining that the corpse of Number Ten had just been dishonored by a funeral parlor employee. Maradona could only shrug in response. He had always been a man of the people. Why should their obscene attachment to him calm down upon his death? In fact, he seemed surprised that something more shocking didn’t happen in order for someone to graft a fragment of him for themselves. After all, in Napoli, Maradona was disturbed all the time by the odd behaviors of those seeking to confirm to the population that he was their god. Like when a nurse who took a blood sample during one of his physicals decided it was perfectly fine to transport the vial to the church of San Gennaro. Effectively canonizing him. Handling blood all willy-nilly during the height of the AIDS pandemic (what the WHO wants to keep characterized as an “epidemic”). Needles galore in Napoli, where “drugs were everywhere,” surely didn’t add to any sane person’s peace of mind. But who ever said Napoli was a place for the sane?
“I’m fighting every day to make Naples greater. When I got to Naples, I saw that the mentality was about avoiding relegation. This year will be different.” Maradona made this announcement before entering the frontlines called “any match against the North.” Running out onto the field, there were chants of: “Sick with cholera/Victims of the earthquake/You never washed with soap. Napoli shit! Napoli cholera! You are the shame of all of Italy.” The cruelty extended to the banner imagery seen throughout the stadium. Matched the vitriolic jeers, paired with an Italian flag that posited Naples should be part of the nation’s own version of apartheid. Verona fans were no exception to the rule of outwardly displayed contempt when the Napoli team rolled up, showcasing a sign that screamed, “LAVATEVI” (“WASH YOURSELVES”).
Maradona suddenly understood that his attraction to Napoli had been precisely because of its underdog status. He described, “The Neapolitans were the ‘Africans’ of Italy. The unwashed, the peasants. We went up north and wherever we went… it was disgusting.” This accented by the presentation of another banner reading: “CIAO COLEROSI” (“HELLO CHOLERA SUFFERERS”). This was in Milan, where another sign also insisted, “NAPOLI, FOGNE D’ITALIA” (“NAPLES, SEWER OF ITALY”). Absolutely brutal racism with the additional chants, “Wash them, wash them, wash them with fire! Oh Vesuvio, wash them with fire!”
The discrimination was only fuel for Maradona’s own fire, determined to show these smug assholes what Napoli was, with him on their side. “I felt as though I represented a part of Italy that counted for nothing.” With him, it finally counted for something. It was no longer so easy to write the city off. Maybe that’s why five people fainted and two people had a heart attack at the Napoli-Juventus game. Maradona was Jesus come to resurrect their reputation in the eyes of their countrymen. That’s why it was so scandalous to see him turn into Judas when he left to play for Argentina.
In 1986, the groundwork laid for Maradona’s reversal came in the form of joining Argentina in the World Cup (the stage being Mexico City). Their opponent was West Germany (oh, those Cold War days). But before that, it was the match against England that would prove Maradona’s loyalties–as tied to Napoli as they were–could never compare to his devotion to Argentina. This is where the “Hand of God” shot was born (not to mention the “Goal of the Century” roughly three minutes later in the same second half of the game).
Instead, all that was born in Napoli for Maradona was an illegitimate son. One he could only deny until the time was “right” (evidently, 2016, a mere four years before his body would be rendered too, shall we say, immobile to deny taking any unwanted selfies with fans). After winning the ’86-’87 championship for Naples, when asked how he felt, Maradona responded, “The problem is that I didn’t win it in my country, you see?”
And this is why Maradona’s body would always belong to Argentina, not Napoli. “Symbolic homes” (for yes, in the same interview, he said, “Naples is my home”) do not count when the end comes. Yet, one imagines that the semi-pure souls of Naples would never have dared to so crudely handle the remains of their messiah. In truth, Fernandez was starting to realize that he would need to look over his shoulder for the foreseeable future. The Camorra was coming to exact retribution for his egregious comportment with Maradona’s holy body. At the same time, this notion felt strange. Emotionally dishonest. For while Napoli could never deny an undying loyalty to the now dead Maradona, their increased deification of him ignored all the pain they caused one another, culminating in 1990 when Maradona kicked the winning goal to get Argentina into the World Cup finals while playing against Napoli in their own house, San Paolo. Now renamed to Stadio Diego Armando Maradona.
This relationship that started out as a great love affair and slowly contorted into a toxic one is the crux of why someone thought it was perfectly acceptable to take a selfie with his corpse. How could it be any worse than the way the Neapolitans expressed their love for him–and then betrayed him when he himself pulled an Iago maneuver? But no one wants to remember any of that. It’s all about the preservation of the myth. The lore of Maradona as someone holy, despite openly declaring his imperfections throughout his entire life. And someone holy, in the eyes of the people, constantly warrants new forms of vile desecration.