The life of Diego Maradona is set to be honoured by a match seemingly arranged by people who don’t understand his life or principles.
When Diego Maradona died at the age of 60 in November 2020, the entire football world mourned as one. For an entire generation, Maradona was the greatest of all time, a player who could weave magic on a football pitch, who came through a brutal childhood and savage treatment at the hands of opposition players to near single-handedly win the World Cup and leave a legacy which transcended mere silverware.
By the standards of the modern game, his club career was surprisingly modest in terms of silverware, but that never really seemed to matter. For those of us who grew up in the 1980s, Maradona was the greatest of all geniuses, a player who made the impossible seem not just possible but certain, a player who redefined the very idea of what it meant to be a ‘superstar’ footballer.
The first anniversary of his passing is now approaching, but with a degree of bone-headedness that it sometimes feels only modern football can manage, it has been decided that this should be marked by a match that it seems far from certain that Maradona would even have wanted to attend. On December 14, Barcelona will play Boca Juniors at Mrsool Park in Riyadh, and almost every part of that sentence feels like something that the legend himself would strongly object to.
For starters, it would be a stretch to say that Barcelona was anything like the defining point of his career in Europe. He was transferred to the club for a world-record fee of £5m after the 1982 World Cup, but his two-year stay at Camp Nou was not especially happy. He won the Copa del Rey with them in 1983, but he was subsequently stricken by hepatitis, and in September of the year his career was almost ended by a horrendous tackle from Athletic Bilbao’s Andoni Goikoetxea – the Butcher of Bilbao. But Maradona returned after just three months and was involved in the infamous battle against the same club at the 1984 Copa del Rey final. He transferred to Napoli that summer for another world-record fee, this time of £6.9m.
The decision to to invite Boca Juniors makes a little more sense, but not a great deal. Diego Maradona had two spells with Boca near the beginning and at the very end of his career, but still only played a total of 71 games for them. Maradona is at least closely associated with Boca, but he only spent four seasons playing for them in total, and he only made six appearances throughout his last two seasons in 1996 and 1997. The only trophy he won with Boca was the 1981 Argentine Primera División, and neither did Boca ‘discover’ him as a player. He’d already played 166 games for his first club, Argentinos Juniors, before his transfer to La Bombonera in 1981.
To say that Maradona is more closely associated with Napoli is something of an understatement. He spent seven years in Naples between 1984 and 1991, winning the Scudetto with the club twice, in 1987 and 1990, and finishing as runners-up in the two seasons in between. He made 259 appearances for Napoli over the course of seven seasons, and when he died the club changed the name of their stadium, the Stadio San Paolo, to the ‘Stadio Diego Armando Maradona’. They retired the number ten shirt as long ago as 2000, although they have been made to use it for regulatory reasons again since.
And then there’s the small matter of his politics. Whether you agree with those politics or not, Maradona was a committed socialist: he had tattoos of both Fidel Castro and Che Guevara, and was outspoken in his support of Palestinians and socialist leaders in South America, and against the invasion of Iraq, amongst many other things. The idea of playing the match in Riyadh, the capital city of the theocratic, conservative Saudi Arabia seems equally at odds with the life of a man whose lack of conservatism in just about every respect was one of his defining personality traits, even if this did happen in 2001.
The only prisms through which any of this makes sense are those of big names, big money and big sportswashing. A tribute to Maradona that was in any sense representative of his actual life would surely have to feature Napoli, as well as Argentinos Juniors, and it would surely have to be played either in Buenos Aires, the city of his birth, or in Naples, at the stadium which bears his name. Barcelona and Boca, however, are bigger names, and we can only presume that there are financial and prestige reasons behind the decision to play this match in Riyadh instead.
The benefits to the Saudi Arabian government are clear. Any tribute to Maradona will always be an extremely high-profile affair. But this doesn’t really feel like a tribute in any meaningful sense. It feels like an exercise in money-raking and reputation enhancement, to which his name has been clumsily attached to boost its status still higher. Everybody knows that Barcelona, for reasons related to their own financial incontinence, are desperate for money at the moment, and the cynics among us might consider it darkly appropriate that a man whose tax avoidance in Italy led to his earrings being confiscated by the police should involve a club who’ve been fined for tax evasion themselves.
Diego Maradona’s life was complicated and often chaotic, and there were contradictions running throughout. But fallibility is inherent to the human condition, and this is core to the understanding of a player who was capable of such brilliance while making the mistakes which ended up costing him his life. Considering all of this, two global super clubs battling it out for 90 minutes in the heavily sanitised atmosphere of New Football’s home doesn’t feel very much like a fitting tribute to the man himself at all.