It is Maradona's influence beyond the realm of football that might have played a major role in creating the pedestal on which Malayalis keep him.

Diego Maradona with a beard and mustache and a black sweatshirt Diego Maradona/Facebook
news Monday, November 30, 2020 - 18:47

Maarikkaar vanil vithaykkumo, engalkkay, 
Maradona ninte marivil kickukal

When Maradona walked away from the playgrounds of the earth, Malayalis prefer to think that he has just shifted his game to the heavenly courts; for God he was to the Malayali, and gods never die. As in Subhash Chandran’s couplet from the ghazal, Maradona has just gone up to draw for us rainbow kicks in the cloudy skies. People who haven’t seen him play, people who don’t even know the rules of soccer, hold him close to the heart for reasons manifold.

Maradona is worshipped in Kerala almost as much, and sometimes even more than cricket legend Sachin Tendulkar. Sachin has wielded the bat before Malayalis and broken records in the reverberating galleries of Kochi. At the same time, Kerala has never witnessed any of Maradona’s legendary career moments live. However, it is his influence beyond the realm of football that might have played a major role in creating the pedestal on which Malayalis keep him.

The symbolism of the 1986 World Cup

According to renowned football writer and columnist N S Madhavan, Malayali psyche is further emotionally attached to the footballer due to his ideological stand as an individual against imperialistic forces. Kerala was following football for the last many decades and they used to love Brazil. It was after the World Cup in 1986, which Argentina won, that people here started adoring Argentina. Following this, football fans in Kerala were split between Argentina and Brazil,” he says.

Maradona’s career-defining performance at the 1986 World Cup was considered as a symbolic revenge for Britain’s war with Argentina. Just four years earlier, Argentina and England had gone to war over the sovereignty of the Falkland Islands off the Argentinian coast, in the South Atlantic Ocean. Argentina surrendered to the UK after ten weeks of conflict with 649 Argentinian military personnel left dead.

“The quarter-final match of the World Cup between Argentina and England was not just a match. It was a country’s fight against a colonial power. The victory of Argentina over England had a strong message and it was the only way Argentina could have given a befitting reply to a superpower like England at the time. England’s war against Argentina was seen as unjust. The anti-imperialistic mindset of Kerala also added fervour to its admiration of Argentina,” explains Madhavan.

Subhash Chandran, an Academy Award winning Malayalam writer, says, “We love other legendary footballers such as Pele, Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, etc. But Maradona has an image that goes beyond the status of a footballer. We had no political or other youth icons to highlight and we relied upon international figures like Che Guevara to attract the youth. We were frantically searching for a leader or youth icon. After the 1986 World Cup, Malayalis embraced Maradona as a hero who stood up against the oppressors. We managed to accept him as a hero, as Malayalis had already taken a liking to Latin American politics and literature. His open political statements also made Malayalis more affectionate towards him.”

His appeal within and beyond football

Maradona also had relationships with most of the prominent left-wing political leaders in Latin America like Cuba’s Fidel Castro, Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez and Bolivia’s Evo Morales. This created ripples in Kerala, which is one of the strongholds of communists in India. And so, Maradona’s left-leaning ideology was widely used by left organisations, especially student organisations across the state. He even had Fidel Castro’s face tattooed on his leg and Che Guevara’s face tattooed on his arm. The legendary footballer had settled in Cuba for a few years to recover from his drug addiction.

Communist Party of India (CPI) leader and ardent football fan, Pannyan Raveendran also emphasised the role of the Malayali anti-imperialist stand which spurred their love of Latin America and its heroes. “Kerala is a football-crazy state and politicisation of the Kerala community is one of the major reasons that made Maradona a favourite footballer here. The state has a long tradition of football. We had a team named Malabar Eleven in the beginning of the 1960s. Kerala had enjoyed a special position in Indian football and people of Kerala started learning international developments related to football. As they observed the changes in Latin America, Maradona became their hero.”  

However, renowned sports journalist Ravi Menon disagrees with the argument that Malayalis were influenced by factors beyond Maradona’s football performance. “Only the performance of a player on the ground is of concern to football lovers in Kerala. They like players who offer them magical moments in a match like dribbling. People of Kerala became fans of Maradona after they watched him perform exceptionally in the 1986 World Cup, and they still continue to be. Soccer lovers in Kerala always like players who are showmen. They don’t like players who aim only at scoring goals. They need tricks and dribbles that please them. Maradona gave them that,” he says.

Not a copy book personality

Malayalis also have an affinity towards people who are not copy book personalities. We are interested in discussing the lives of Mohanlal, John Abraham, Vaikkom Muhammed Basheer, etc. We also create a halo around them, giving them an iconic status, and gradually even mythifying them. The same is with Maradona. 

Malayalis could also connect with the poverty-stricken childhood of Maradona and the troubled political atmosphere of Argentina. It has made Maradona a hero among people here, beyond the status of a footballer, says novelist Ashokan Cheruvil, who has written for the film Argentina Fans Kattoorkadavu.

Malayalis rarely got a chance to watch a live performance of Brazilian footballer Pele. But they got a chance to experience Maradona's performance live with the popularity of television during the 1986 World Cup season. These live matches also paved the way for the deification of Maradona in the hearts of Malayalis.

“It was watching the live matches of the World Cup in Mexico in 1986 on TV that made me an ardent fan of Maradona. His game still stands out as unique even though we have many other heroes in football such as Messi and Ronaldo. While Pele is treated as a king, Maradona is called god,” says former Indian footballer I M Vijayan.

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