Whatever the perception of Diego Maradona elsewhere in the world, whatever might be written about him, all is forgiven in Argentina. There, el Diez is akin to a fairytale character, a child born into extreme poverty who grew into a man of unimaginable fame and fortune, a hero who has always dared to challenge the powers that be. This is the story of a man who started out with raw sporting talent and ended up becoming synonymous with his country’s sense of nationhood.

Since he retired fromthe game, Diego has gone through different situations and personal stages. However, his knowledge and constant passion for football has opened a new door for this challenge as the coach in a country where football is practically a religion. But Diego is not your average coach.

National pride
Pride is probably Argentinians’ single most distinguishing character trait, and that goes a long way to explaining just why Maradona came to be idolized by his people. Born in Villa Fiorito, one of the poorest slums in Buenos Aires, Diego had to overcome formidable obstacles throughout his childhood. “If I were asked to sum up Fiorito in one word,” he once said, “it would be struggle”. “If there was food you ate it, and if there wasn’t then you went hungry.” Yet with a mixture of sacrifice and perseverance, Pelusa (a reference to his curly hair) was soon to discover a world far removed from the one in which he grew up. He was soon to represent the hope and dreams of a forlorn people.

Though considered boorish by many in his homeland, Maradona came to embody the essence of being Argentinian. His tears after losing the FIFA World Cup™ Final in Italy in 1990, his insults to the Italian public as they booed the Argentinian National Anthem, and his scream into the camera after scoring against Greece at USA 94 were all experienced by millions of Argentinians as if those emotions were their own.

More than anything else, Maradona will be remembered for the ‘hand of God’ goal he scored against England at Mexico 86. In Mexico City’s Aztec Stadium, the now infamous goal, punched past the outstretched hand of the England goalkeeper Peter Shilton, was seen by many Argentinians as sweet revenge on their old enemies.

“The goal I scored with my hand was much more enjoyable than the second, even if that was voted the best goal ever in the World Cup finals. At the time I put the goal down to the ‘hand of God’. What ‘hand of God? It was the hand of Diego,” he wrote years later in his autobiography.

One life, a thousand enemies
The Pope, the Vatican, the US government’s foreign policy, Argentina’s ruling classes, Italian Silvio Berlusconi and AC Milan have all been in the player’s firing line at one time or another. And inevitably, the Argentine people immediately make Maradona’s causes and pet hates their own.

Pablo Alabarces, the respected Argentine sociologist, carried out a study on this phenomenon which he published in a book called Cuestión de Pelotas.(A Question of Football). In it he said: “We see Maradona as fighting the third world’s corner against inequality, injustice and the concentration of power and money in the hands of the few. He is seen as a Father Christmas-type figure, capable of making all our wishes come true.”

In a country where political and social standards are sometimes noticeable in their absence, Diego Maradona became a spokesperson and a role model for the masses. Not always consistent, but authentic, Pelusa always fought for his countrymen. In the past, it was on the pitch. Now, he’ll have to do it from the bench.