God is Argentine (and his name is Maradona)
Un Dios Salvaje (A Savage God), gathered photographs and texts about November 25, 2020, when Diego Armando Maradona left the plane of mortals to become a myth. Adrian Cangi and Kala Moreno Parra, coordinators of the project, and Gisela Gere, designer of the collective book, talk about the controversial figure of the Pibe de Oro and why these images of mourning and popular devotion must have a place in the Argentine memory.
By Alonso Almenara
Maradona was a contradictory character even in the intimacy of his physical appearance: he had a Che Guevara tattooed on his right forearm, but he also wore two limited edition Hublot King Power watches, one on each wrist, with two different world times. “If, on the one hand, he seemed to represent the needs of an egalitarian left,” says Argentine philosopher Adrian Cangi, “on the other hand, he was an individual with an anarchic autonomy, unstoppable by any state.” The controversies followed him to his death: accused by his ex-partners of sexual violence and abandonment, Diego died on November 25, commemorating the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women.
This grim coincidence did not prevent that on that date in 2020, during the pandemic crisis, the neighborhoods of Buenos Aires and many other Argentine cities were ablaze with spontaneous demonstrations of devotion. “There was an uncontainable ebullition of expressions of affection all over the country,” recalls photographer Kala Moreno. “A lot of people went out to the streets to set up altars or to do activities with a performative tinge. There were official acts, and the whole country was in shock”. The international press reported that the procession accompanying the idol on his last journey was two and a half kilometers long. For designer Gisela Gere, “it was impossible not to associate this mobilization towards the Casa Rosada to bid farewell to Diego with the funerals of Argentine political figures such as Eva Perón or Néstor Kirchner.”
Tomás Francisco Cuesta
What made Maradona such an irresistible myth? What connected him -beyond soccer- with the feelings of the majority? And what do those expressions of affection tell us about the Argentine people? These questions led Cangi and Moreno to conceive the project of documenting that day marked by a mixture of pain and celebration. Hundreds of photojournalists and amateur photographers went out to record what was happening. The idea of gathering that material was as attractive as Maradona’s character. “What interested us, in the first place,” says Moreno Parra, “was to safeguard those demonstrations as an exercise in memory. And secondly, it seemed to us that gathering and organizing those creations would multiply their potency.”
“Un Dios Salvaje” began with a national call for photographers to record the event. In addition to composing a book designed by Gisela Gere, this collection is already part of the Photo Library of the sociación de Reporteros Gráficos de la República Argentina (Association of Graphic Reporters of the Argentine Republic, ARGRA), which has been operating since 2008 at the National Memory Archive. The volume includes a selection of 90 photographs, as well as texts by eleven Argentine authors, including Horacio González, Gabriela Cabezón Cámara, and María Pía López.
Maradona’s appeal is not only related to what he did on the field. But what distinguishes him from other sports idols? And what made him so magnetic for the crowds?
Adrian Cangi: Maradona is a myth: that is to say, an emotional sediment that is in the sensibility of a collectivity. He is a character who comes from the most profound poverty of the Argentine tradition and who reaches worldwide recognition, to the point of holding dialogues with leaders of powerful nations and participating in public discussions on the North-South opposition and its political logic. Someone with these characteristics moves populations because he has something that allows identification. It may be because his affectivity, even his soccer playing, was inseparable from public debates about the popular classes’ future, a political position on the global left, or a substantive discussion of the FTAA. Diego joined forces in very opposite directions.
He also had a sovereign intelligence, not only on the playing field. He is the inventor of many phrases in our popular language, and he could place the right word at the moment of a political drama. One would not expect someone with spatial intelligence on the playing field to have an intelligence of political intervention in the public debate field. Maradona paradoxically brought together these two issues.
The book compiles some of Maradona’s interventions that reveal that intelligence off the field.
Adrian: Maradona’s recognition of old age is a crucial intervention for the Argentine tradition. In a precise interview, a journalist asked him about the pensioners’ claims. Diego not only defended the right of retirees to have access to a more dignified pension, but he directly discussed the issue with an Argentine president, Carlos Menem. Maradona also addressed the right of soccer players not to be a commodity. He discussed it with every FIFA president. Maradona defended the possibility of autonomous soccer players from the clubs, managers, and the production conditions of integrated world capitalism. He was a very complex character in the density of layers and social and political commitments.
Adrián Cangi: “Maradona is still an anarcho-capitalist in a certain way, and nevertheless, with political principles of a collectivist society. Finding a soccer player, a sportsman, who can separate from this condition is tough. The same thing allowed him to say: I am guilty of taking drugs, but not the ball, not soccer. What does this game, which is the art of many, have to do with my substance consumption?”
And yet, that was overshadowed by an enormous amount of controversy.
Adrian: Maradona had a highly libertine life. No one is in a position to judge that life, but it has already been judged. It is a life that went beyond common sense and the moral sense of the communities without ceasing to produce unpredictable openings of the right of the bodies. Maradona used to participate, for example, in carnivals of transvestites. He was part of the popular party that is not divided by identities and not fixed by gender; this was what Maradona felt. You see, there are no genders, no identities, and no positions before that. First of all, it is the common party; it is the sharing of a collective.
But Maradona was also the manager of a Dubai soccer club and was paid fortunes from the same integrated world capitalism he despised. That paradox is absolute of interest. That is, Maradona is still an anarcho-capitalist somewhere, yet with a collectivist society’s political principles. It is tough to find in any soccer player, in any sportsman, someone who can clearly separate this condition. The same thing allowed him to say: “I am guilty of taking drugs, but not the ball, not soccer. What does this game, which is the art of many, have to do with my substance consumption?” This idea of ‘the ball does not stain’ is almost a glorious formula.
Gisela Gere: Maradona was always living on the edges, in every sense: in the game, in his private life, in his public life. That inhabiting the edges, the pure excess, makes him attractive. In addition to all his personal history, which, at least here in Argentina, generates a situation of love, devotion, and everything that was seen in the wake. Also a lot of class hatred and constant finger-pointing: Maradona is a drug addict, a rampaging, rude, a Peronist.
Pablo De Paola
Gustavo Wimpy Salgado
Recently, many of these remarks have come from specific sectors of feminism.
Gisela: In the book, this issue is dealt with in some texts: the idea that Maradona cannot be vindicated because he was involved in sexual situations with minors; he was a wife-beater, a macho man all his life. But there is a fascinating text by María Pia López that argues precisely that we can not think of Maradona from that paradox. He is that character who, in Cuba, snatched a girl. Still, he is also the character who stood up to the FTAA and the neoliberal governments and publicly manifested himself in favor of the most oppressed sectors.
Adrián: What is true is that if one makes a history of Argentine popular sports, our great myths, from boxers like Gatica el Mono or Carlos Monzón, to soccer players like Garrincha or Maradona, there is not one of them who has not been accused of gender violence. This violence has many faces: it can be linked to mistreatment, abandonment, or direct crime, as in the case of Monzón. And it can be fundamentally linked to a type of overflowing sexuality, as in the case of Gatica el Mono, who lived among drunkenness in the brothels of La Boca. These are conditions that obviously can be looked at historically, and Diego is not outside these conditions. Let’s think that all these characters emerge from the social underworld, and to a great extent, they earn the right to belong to another world, either by their fists or by their feet. That is, they are people who were outside the formal reason for the right of speech and the usual sentimental education of public education.
How was the photo-selecting process? What do those images reveal, in your opinion, about Maradona himself or the Argentine people?
Kala: This was an open call disseminated through the ARGRA, the social networks we created for this project, and various graphic media that echoed this call. What interested us was receiving images from professional and amateur photographers, even from people who do not recognize themselves in the category of photographers but were there and saw something that moved them to photograph it. We received about 1,300 images that were selected by a jury composed of six photo editors: Res, Mariana Eliano, Juan Travnik, Eduardo Longoni, Victoria Gesualdi, and Julio Pantoja. The first selection of 250 photos was donated as a collection to ARGRA’s Photo Library, as we consider them to be of immense value for the memory of our community. Of these images, we included 90 in the book, organized in a sequence that responds neither to a chronological nor traditional narrative order.
Adrian: What I find interesting is the coexistence of all these records of diverse origins, which reconstruct from private altars inside the houses themselves, to public murals of enormous sizes that appeared in neighborhoods such as La Boca, from tattoos on the body itself linked to life stories, to collective interventions of the soccer fan, a fundamental figure behind these events. In those days, people effectively transformed the public space into a public cemetery, but a living cemetery, because nobody abandoned neither their jerseys, crying, laughter, candle, or dedication.
Maradona’s impact, however, went far beyond Argentina. Let’s talk about what Diego meant to the world and how it is reflected in the book.
Adrian: In other locations worldwide, like Naples, people made pizza bread with Maradona’s signature. That is, people ate Diego like they ate a host. So Maradona talks about more than just the Argentine. He says of the Argentine something that is very correctly Argentine, but he also speaks of something that is very proper in southern Italy. It’s a curious thing: not many soccer players, athletes, or sportspeople have been able to awaken those feelings because, generally, they represent a nation. Maradona is local popular culture, but at the same time, it can universally replicate in resonance in other popular cultures.
Gisela Gere: “The book deals with the idea that Maradona cannot be vindicated because he was involved in sexual situations with minors. He was a woman beater, a macho man all his life. But we can not think about Maradona from that paradox. He is that character who, in Cuba, snatched a girl. Still, he is also the character who stood up to the neoliberal governments and publicly manifested himself in favor of the most oppressed sectors.”
This is another of the paradoxes that crossed us in the book. Maradona is still from Villa Fiorito, that small city in the south of Greater Buenos Aires where he was born, but for him, Naples was also Villa Fiorito. And for the Neapolitans, he was a kind of Roman demigod. In the Lower Roman Empire, every daily action corresponded to a small statue: a divine presence that assisted people in crossing the street, establishing a senatorial bond, settling a lawsuit, and starting a love affair. Well, Diego became just that, a statue that accompanied the public life of the Neapolitans. In the party, in the meeting, in the love stories.
What we recorded in Buenos Aires and the rest of the country also happened, although on a smaller scale, in other parts of the world. We decided to restrict this project to the Argentinean memory because it seemed to us that opening it to the world was unmanageable: it required a greater depth in the approach to each of the cultures that were reflected in Diego.
Tackling such a controversial character must have brought certain complications when it came to putting the book together, especially as it was a collective project. How did you go about that process?
Gisela: The first thing we thought about in terms of how the book should look, in terms of typography and spatial layout, was that it should be something dirty, trashy, with an aesthetic linked to the fanzine. But going down that road was too literal, and the best thing to do was to take inspiration from what Diego meant in terms of spatial construction on the football field. I then came up with the idea of creating a grid where the columns exceed the rule of editorial design: instead of a consistent format, the grid varies permanently. The width of the columns changes from page to page, creating different spatialities and reading rhythms, and this, at the same time, respond to the needs of the images concerning the text.
I remember telling this to two friends who are editorial designers by trade -I am a graphic designer, and although I have worked in editorial design, it is not my specialty- and they thought what I was doing was a crime. But he is Diego, someone who was on the edge of the rules, and what interested me was using his own game logic when it came to conceptualizing the book.
Finally: how do the dialogue of the text with the images?
Adrián: Actually, we were interested in making both series relatively autonomous: neither the images are an illustration of the texts, nor the texts prolong the stories presented by the pictures. The book is what is called a disjointed composition. The texts, however, dialogue with each other. There is a balance between authors and authors: those who come from literature and those from philosophy. There are philosophers such as Alejandra Gonzalez, who writes a beautiful text on the medieval figure of the two bodies of the King. There is also an excellent text by María Pia López, an author with a long tradition in essays but also one of the founders of the contemporary Argentine feminist movement. There is a text by Gabriela Cabezón Cámara, a great writer who poeticizes the figure of Diego as a famous river, something of that dimension. And there is a significant essay by Horacio González, the former director of the National Library and a great Argentine essayist and specialist in Peronism.
González wrote the text that opens this book shortly before his death. And indeed, we decided to dedicate the volume to him because he lived very close to La Boca. Every time Diego played, he remembered that the neighborhoods around La Boca vibrated to the rhythm of “Maradó, Maradó, Maradó”… That became a rhythm with which he began to think of Diego as a social-political figure.
Other essays present Maradona as a choreographer or dancer of political actions. Some are more linked to the tradition of scientific thought of CONICET, which is an enormous curiosity that Diego has come from Villa Fiorito to scientific and technical centers to be thought to theorize the contemporary world in countries like Ireland, England, or Germany.
There are eleven essays in which the feminine voice coexists with the masculine voice and the soccer passion with the passion of the mythical figure. What we try to go through in the order of the texts is the emotional substratum of a revolt that comes from below. Maradona is just that, a revolt; a tragic revolt insofar as he is always on the verge of death, but also epic insofar as he always gave the people the joy of having won.