Once It Was Evita, Now It’s Maradona as a Country Seeks Pride

Times Staff Writer

Once upon a time, there was a poor little onion who worked hard and grew up to be king, a gold ring in his ear and thunder in his feet. The world cheered.

It is the stuff of fairy tales, fuse to national adoration, trigger to jubilation so intense that it suspends time and conquers space.

Diego is numero uno . Argentina is great. Sing loud the synonyms. Mara-DO-na. Ar-gen-TI-na.

There is a soccer game in Mexico this afternoon that will stop all of Latin America as dead as death. But it is more than a game. Justice, irony and a pixie’s sprinkling of improbability will also stalk the field.


Argentines mostly see the justice in the adjectival exhaustion they once reserved for tango singer Carlos Gardel and for the political Perons, Juan and Eva.

King. Master. Magician. Genius. Marvel. Historic. Unforgettable.

What is left to say?

Saturday, the Buenos Aires city council declared Diego Maradona an “illustrious citizen” with the quaint aplomb of a near-sighted professor announcing that an elephant is large.


“He’s like Kennedy was--people talk about Diego in Russia and China,” gushed Cesar Olade, wheeling a rusty taxi through streets emblazoned with banners, flags and his blithering countrymen in jaywalking abandon. “Vamos Argentina, " read a banner on the taxi’s rear windshield.

Diego Armando Maradona, jersey No. 10 in Argentina’s blue and white, the wizard built like a fire hydrant, is the best in the world at the world’s favorite game.

Argentines have known that for a long time. Hardly any of them were there, but all of them now remember that day in 1972 when Maradona, No. 10 even then, led his first team, Los Cebollitas, to a junior championship. Cebollitas means “little onions” in Spanish, but in the smell-of-beef-frying working class neighborhoods like the one where Maradona grew up, it is also slang for “kids.”

Over the last few weeks the world has shared with astonishment Argentina’s prideful secret. Under the Mexican sun, South Koreans, Italians, Bulgarians, Uruguayans, Englishmen and Belgians have learned to their dismay that Maradona is not only as good as his advance billing but also is better.


Good enough, in fact, to have carried to the final a team that, before the tournament began, had awakened at best modest expectations among soccer-savvy Argentines.

After lackluster warmup matches and with Argentina’s hopes ranked at between embarrassing and disastrous, Coach Carlos Bilardo had taken his team directly to Mexico from Europe. Bilardo was by then the object of such scorn that people said he did it for his own safety.

“I must think that there is a certain lack of equilibrium,” Maradona said from Mexico last week after tens of thousands of Argentines surged into the streets here to celebrate Wednesday’s semifinal victory over Belgium.

“Most of those who are cheering now swore a month ago we’d be back after the first round,” Maradona told one of the dozen Argentine magazines that have him on the cover.


Maradona is by now South America’s ultimate public hero. Everything there is to know about him is chronicled with elaborate care and frequent exaggeration: the left-ear gold ring, his ermine coat, his fiancee, Claudia, his unabashed reverence for his mother and her recipe for noquis , potato dumplings .

In Argentina, Maradona is by now so idolized that he can toss off unpopular truths that would cost a politician his career.

“We don’t know how to appreciate things,” Maradona told the magazine Somos, recalling national mourning at the death earlier this month of writer Jorge Luis Borges. “For Argentines, everything north of Uruguay is better than what we have. For Argentines to recognize your value, you have to be dead, there is no other way. “Until a few weeks ago he (Borges) was an old dummy who talked too much. Now that he’s dead they want to make him a monument. . . . We have a great country--I always say it--but we do everything possible to see that it doesn’t work.”

If the plain-talking Maradona is refreshing in a country that is the hemisphere’s premier under-achiever, it is the fancy-playing Maradona who is an apt antidote to national ills. Strikes, inflation, debt, unemployment; they all seem more manageable in victory’s shadow.


In the midst of button-bursting frenzy--bring on the Germans!--the irony attendant at today’s match is all but lost to a nation of 30 million people where everyone is a soccer fanatic.

For millions of fans on both sides of the great oceans, today’s match is nothing less than a quadrennial showdown between the Old World and the New World, the have-North and the have-not South. It is a joust between the comfortable, ordered First World lands of yesterday and the troubled, tumultuous but majority Third World nations of tomorrow.

“Argentina is our only hope,” said a headline in Lima, Peru, after Brazil and Mexico lost heartbreak quarterfinal games, leaving Argentina as the only New World contender.

The irony is that the banner of regional honor now rests with the one Latin American nation that most tries to be something. A nation settled by West European immigrants, Argentina usually finds common cause with its Latin American brothers only in times of distress: a foolish war with England, a regional search for relief from crushing foreign debt.


The rest of the time, the sophisticated portenos of Buenos Aires worry more about what’s new in Paris, Rome and New York than in Rio de Janeiro or Mexico, which their newspapers regularly call “the Aztec capital.”

Argentina’s prodigy, Maradona, in fact, plays his professional soccer for Naples, Italy, having been transferred there to great Italian jubilation from Barcelona, Spain.

“An Argentine is an Italian who speaks Spanish, dresses like an Englishman and acts like a Frenchman,” goes one variation of an old refrain.

Diego Maradona has changed all that, at least for a day. When the whistle blows this afternoon, Maradona is Argentina and Argentina is the New World.