The D10S Phenomenon: Diego Maradona and Modern Latin American Catholicism

By Zachary R. Bigalke

In the summer of 1986 Diego Maradona sealed an eternal place in Argentinian hearts, notching both the most revered and the most reviled goals in FIFA World Cup history in a 2-1 quarterfinal victory over England. “We were representing our dead who were sent to die by their own country,” Maradona has said about the game against England.[1] A rivalry that had been heated for several decades, an already charged atmosphere took on the undertones of proxy war as the two sides waged a physical battle at the Estadio Azteca in Mexico City. Coming four years after the end of the Falklands War, hostilities lingered between the two countries.

The match became even more heated after Maradona stamped his mark on the contest with his pair of goals, the first illegitimate and the second sublime. Pouncing on a misplayed England clearance, Maradona charged toward goal and rose in the air to challenge England goalkeeper Peter Shilton for the ball. Shifting in the air, the diminutive Argentine managed to outleap his taller opponent. Moving in midair to sell a header to the referee, Maradona punched the ball with his left hand past Shilton and into the net for Argentina’s first goal. The wily Argentine soon called his teammates around to celebrate, afraid that their nonchalance would convince the referee to waive the goal. Yet, despite the keeper’s complaints about the hand ball, the goal stood. Maradona would only admit after the match that the first goal was scored “a little with the head and a little with the hand of God,” cryptically admitting nothing but revealing everything with his statement.[2]

Four minutes later, Maradona redeemed his position as one of the most skilled players in history, executing a long dribbling run through half the England team and expertly slotting the ball past an outstretched Shilton.[3] The “Goal of the Century” kept the South Americans alive in a tournament they ultimately won. England may have claimed Las Malvinas, but Argentina had Maradona. At the height of his powers, he had exacted vengeance for his nation through play both fair and foul. Back in Argentina, Maradona was lionized for his craftiness and his panache. By catalyzing the rise of Argentina to the world title, Maradona secured his canonization as both “a gift from God” and “our national treasure” for an Argentine populace that had turned toward soccer as a secular religion.[4]

The veneration of soccer players throughout Latin America synthesizes the religious fervor of local Catholic evolutions and the passion for soccer that grips the region, creating a sanctification through sport via the living beatification of star individuals. Saints became the link between geographic space and patriotic pride, morphing beyond purely religious significance to be identified as “the beacons of glory for the land that saw them born and sheltered them.”[5] In an increasingly secular society, athletes serve as surrogates for the saints and idols that represent traditional faith systems.

Maradonian practitioner with soccer ball crowned in thorns (Source: Angus Barthram, January 2012, via Argentina Independent)

But while soccer stars became popular figures in Argentina especially in the age of professionalism, only one player—Diego Armando Maradona—rose to the level of sanctified veneration among the Argentine populace.[6] The rise of the Iglesia Maradoniana as a spiritual phenomenon in Argentina began when the church was founded on October 30, 1998 in Rosario, Argentina as Hernán Amez and Hector Capomar gathered a small group of people to celebrate Diego Maradona’s 38th birthday.[7] Within a decade, church membership ballooned to incorporate more than 120,000 devoted Maradona fans as baptized adherents of the faith.[8]

At first glance the Iglesia Maradoniana seems merely a spoof of Catholicism. But the veneration goes far beyond that, with the church adapting Catholic baptismal, nuptial, and other liturgical rites into syncretic rituals that express the malleability of local Catholicisms. If anything, it subverts traditional Catholicism by coopting its ceremonial aspects and reconfiguring them for secular fanaticism.

Though Amez does not consider himself Catholic, the denomination which he helped to create follows in a long line of Catholic syncretism that was a hallmark of Spanish colonialism. The Iglesia Maradoniana demonstrates the appeal of saint and idol worship that lingered during the period of spiritual conquest in Latin America, a period in which Catholicism morphed to incorporate large demographics of indigenous practitioners. In a period where nationalism has supplanted indigeneity as the primary motive for these manipulations, the Iglesia Maradoniana fills a niche for a soccer-obsessed nation to pay homage to a local patron saint who has continually risen from the depths of depravity to remain relevant in his native land.

The Significance of Saintliness

Saints were vitally important to the development of Catholicism in Latin America, providing a way of tangibly linking their lived experiences into a broader religious history. Localized cataclysms inspired interaction with the iconography of the liturgical calendar and the prevalence of saints’ days for marking the recurrence of these significant events.[9] From the outset the emphasis on utilizing the proselytizing missions of mendicant orders helped spread this emphasis on Catholic saint veneration in the indigenous communities of the Americas, as each order touted its own canon of saints when introducing Catholicism to new communities. By the eighteenth century, saints had become central to religious life throughout New Spain, with communal and personal saints invoked to intercede on behalf of the souls of believers.[10]

For both urban and rural Catholic populations, saints evolved in the wake of Spanish contact in Latin America to serve not just as protectors and patrons but also as heroes for local consumption. These saints provided “social cohesion and a chance at collective identity” for communities whose traditional patterns have slowly been subordinated during the processes of colonialism and nation-building.[11] In representing the nation through sport, Maradona fills a similar role as local patron saints within Catholic communities. In a modern context, the stadium stands in as a secular version of the cathedral, an important physical space for uniting the community that has developed its own Sunday rituals in the process.[12]

The rise of soccer in states still developing national identities allowed space for the construction of new national archetypes of the athletic ideal. In Argentina, this took the form of the pibe, a freewheeling and childlike character who brings both creativity and chaos to the pitch. This caricature is depicted as short, squat, and self-destructive, marked both by sublime individual talent and a moral decrepitude that threatens team cohesion.[13] Representing a distinctive national playing style developed through the systematic incorporation of new communities into the national project, the pibe is the trope on which this secular faith was built.

Maradona evolved before adulthood into the living embodiment of a specific style that developed in the informal urban playing spaces of the Southern Cone to create a uniquely South American representation of Eurocentric modernity.[14] His chaotic lifestyle served to reinforce the characteristics that made Maradona the quintessential pibe, uniting the nation around their hero even as the rest of the world repudiated his recklessness.[15]

In Argentina soccer has taken on the role of religion as Catholicism has faced a marked decline in church service attendance. Only fifteen percent of Argentine Catholics attend weekly church services, following the trends of declining attendance in Southern Cone neighbors Uruguay and Chile. While Protestants in the region tend to be more active in their practice of faith, this region of South America more generally seems to be drifting away from traditional definitions of piety.[16] Coinciding with the shift of emphasis on soccer, Maradona as an exemplar of the ideal player transcends the sainthood bestowed upon other athletes to serve as the principal deity for this nationalized secular religion.[17]

Maradonian Hagiography

Several points are critical to positioning Maradona as the quintessential pibe and by extension as an Argentine deity. Implicit in the lives of saints are the trials and tribulations that forge their piety, and Maradona’s tempestuous narrative arc provides repeated tales of self-inflicted lows and redemptive highs. His early career successes combine with his otherworldly play at the 1986 and 1990 World Cups and his transformative power at Italian club Napoli to provide the laudatory composition of the dualist narrative. The irresponsibility traditionally associated with the pibe, replete with womanizing, drug abuse, and general immaturity, allowed each new success to carry that much more potency in the eyes of true believers.

Featured on television by age twelve, Maradona was lauded as an unrivaled talent before adolescence and quickly asserted himself as one of the top soccer players on the planet. In his inaugural television appearance, Maradona confidently declared his desire to play first-division soccer, to wear the national colors for Argentina, and to win the World Cup. As he worked his way into the top division as a teenager, first with Argentinos Juniors and then at Boca Juniors, Maradona quickly drew admirers from across the country with his mesmerizing feints and deft left foot.[18] Winning in Buenos Aires courted international talent, and after a stormy stint with Barcelona the diminutive midfielder was transferred to Napoli in Italy’s Serie A.

Maradona came to be associated with clubs mired in mediocrity, and in the process was perceived to fight on the side of the oppressed within society. He joined Boca Juniors at a time when they were struggling financially, rather than joining wealthy rivals River Plate. When he left Argentina to begin his European career, Maradona signed with a Spanish club that served as the unifying force for a Catalan community that had long been subjugated by Castilian leadership. When departing Spain, he went not to a wealthy Northern Italian team but instead helped raise Napoli from the dregs of Serie A to the club’s first two Italian league championships.[19] As a result, Maradona came to be associated with an ability to elevate otherwise unremarkable teams to otherworldly heights, both as a professional and when representing Argentina in the World Cup.

Even his lows are manipulated and repackaged to mythologize Maradona further. “He admitted that he was a coke addict. With all the cocaine he did, a normal person’s body would not have stood it,” spun Maradonian adherent and Fox Sports employee Mariano Israelit about his hero’s drug abuse. “A mere mortal would have died.”[20] Similarly, his suspension from the 1994 World Cup has been framed as a plot by FIFA president João Havelange to silence his criticism of the international governing body.[21] Despite admitting to his years of drug abuse, Maradona continues to remain pure and innocent in the eyes of Maradonian adherents as well as many other unaffiliated fans.

That is not to imply that Maradona is universally loved in Argentina. When he was named technical director of the Argentine national team in 2008, online polls in national newspapers La Nación and Clarín both revealed that three out of every four readers disapproved of his appointment.[22] Lasting two volatile years as the manager of his country, the Asociación de Fútbol Argentino declined to renew his contract after a 4-0 blowout to Germany in the 2010 World Cup quarterfinals, citing irreconcilable differences and unreasonable demands from the living legend.[23] The fact that Maradona was incapable of leading his nation to the same heights as manager that he was able to coax as a player, however, did not appreciably impact his broader legacy.

Syncretized Reverence and Rites

A series of rituals in the Iglesia Maradoniana are modeled on Catholic rites, from the liturgical practices of the church to significant rituals such as baptism, marriage, and holidays. There are even rewritten versions of the Ten Commandments and Lord’s Prayer. Like previous incarnations of local Catholicisms, these rituals incorporate Catholic elements as well as pre-Catholicized aspects to create a dynamic faith that targets specific proclivities among its audience of adherents.

One of the most critical aspects of any religious denomination is a means of incorporating new members into the fold; in Christian doctrine baptism serves the function of entering the faith. The Iglesia Maradoniana incorporates Maradona’s most infamously iconic moment on the pitch as an indelible part of its initiation rites. The initiate dons a number-ten jersey in honor of Maradona and then recreates the “Hand of God” goal from the 1986 World Cup. Staged before a life-sized poster of a lunging Peter Shilton and a goal, a ball is lofted in toward the baptismal candidate and he or she has one chance to replicate the event for posterity. Should the hopeful succeed in recreating the moment and scoring the goal, he or she will have fulfilled the baptismal duties and become a full member of the church.[24]

The influence of mendicant orders in the introduction of Catholicism throughout the Americas is important in recognizing the ability to diverge in approaching a sacred rite such as baptism. The two main orders, the Franciscans and Dominicans, approached the matter of baptism and evangelism in different fashions—the former group of mendicants valued more immediate baptism of converts, while the latter order emphasized a longer period of education before issuing baptismal rites.[25] The later introduction of Protestant faiths throughout Latin America only multiplied the forms of baptism through which individuals were initiated into a given denomination, and thus an Argentine community that was further diversified through waves of nineteenth-century immigration was ripe for modernized secular syncretism.

Marriage ceremony of the Iglesia Maradoniana (Source: AFP/Getty Images, October 2007, via FourFourTwo)

The Iglesia Maradoniana also created its own marriage ceremony, with vows reworded to incorporate aspects of the Maradonian faith and designed to take place on a soccer field. After the newly wedded couple kiss to seal their nuptials, a soccer ball adorned with a crown of thorns is taken off the makeshift altar. The groom throws in the ball, which the bride passes downfield; the ceremony is completed when the groom shoots the ball into the goal, turning to celebrate the sealing of the marriage through the ritual score.[26] Dressed in traditionally formal attire, the couple merges the worlds of Catholic ceremonial and soccer fanaticism through the Maradonian wedding ceremony.

This divergence from formalized Catholic marriage ceremony is not unprecedented given the localized faiths practiced during the period of Spanish colonialism. Even in places where baptism rates were high during the sixteenth century, most marriages were still performed using indigenous practices rather than under the auspices of mendicants or lay clergy. Incorporating extant local religious practices into day-to-day operations was critical as colonial administration worked to Catholicize society.[27] There was significant variation in regional Catholic practices throughout Spanish America, pushing against the notion that the spiritual conquest of Latin America was a top-down affair that instilled a singularly homogenized dogma throughout a vast expanse of territory.

Maradonian follower at altar with replica of World Cup trophy (Source: AP Photo, October 2008, via The Telegraph)

In terms of holidays, the Iglesia Maradoniana repositions the traditional Christmas and Easter holidays around key points in Maradona’s life. In this calendar, Christmas moves from December to October 30 to celebrate the athlete’s birthdate. Easter is repositioned to June 22 as a celebration of Argentina’s seminal 1986 quarterfinal victory over England. Christmastime celebrations are replete with processionals and their own liturgical fundaments, especially in terms of iconography. A staple of services is a soccer ball crowned with barbed wire and streaked with fake blood; soccer boots, World Cup trophy replicas, and rosaries customized with 34 beads to represent each of Maradona’s goals scored for Argentina are also regular objects utilized in the practice of the Maradonian faith.[28]

Just as relics and other venerated objects were a staple of Spanish Catholicism, so too are these objects pivotal to Maradonian ritual. Perhaps most interesting is the detachment from physical space. Operating without a permanent address, the Iglesia Maradoniana is situated paradoxically apart from traditional chapels and shrines that were anchored geospatially to the sites where images and apparitions appeared.[29] This refusal to anchor Maradona in any single space is central to church teachings; the seventh commandment of the Maradonian Ten Commandments insists that adherents of the faith “not proclaim Diego as a member of a single team.”[30] In this fashion the church takes a universalist approach to the celebration and veneration of its deified patron saint.

Conclusions

Just as saints were the “emotional vehicles by which Catholicism would penetrate” the everyday lives of indigenous populations in Spanish America during the period of colonial rule, so too has soccer fanaticism helped to forge the national project in a place where patriotic links are often tenuous.[31] Soccer rose to take the traditional place occupied by Catholicism in Argentina, and the new traditions forged in the process opened the door for a messianic figure to occupy the archetypal role of the pibe in the sport’s mythology.

Maradona rose to fill that position within Argentine society. His ascent to the pinnacle of the sport met the criteria of individual excellence that personified the way that the pibe trope was perceived by fans of soccer, and his off-field exploits further cemented his position as the perpetually-youthful and perpetually-controversial figure represented by the label. Both his brilliance and his foibles combine in the Maradonian hagiography to reinforce his legacy as a transcendent figure within Argentine history.

In the process the development of the Iglesia Maradoniana also follows in a long tradition of local Catholic syncretism. As a modern-day secular saint and as a deified figure, Maradona continues the trend toward venerating local and contemporary figures. Concurrently, the new religion also follows a historical trend of hero-worship that extends far beyond Catholicism to encompass earlier athletic traditions. As a result, Maradona has grown beyond any individual understanding or definition to transcend earthly criticisms among his most ardent supporters.

The Iglesia Maradoniana also fills a liturgical void that had developed as a result toward increased secularization in the Southern Cone. Providing a ritual space that is at once familiar and novel to most Argentinians, the church takes a reverent approach toward a sports figure and challenges perceptions about the significance of athletic competition within society. Ultimately the Iglesia Maradoniana is a natural development that confirms the flexible nature of Catholicism, its continued growth indicative of syncretic practices stemming from a series of religious antecedents introduced to the Americas at the time of spiritual conquest.

Zachary R. Bigalke is a graduate student in the Department of History at the University of Oregon focusing on the impact of immigration and industrialization on the early development of various forms of football in the Americas. He is a regular contributor to the college football website Saturday Blitz and an editor at Sports Unbiased, and can be reached at bigalkez@gmail.com and followed on Twitter at @zbigalke.

Notes:


[1] Maradona by Kusturica, directed by Emir Kusturica (2008; Paris: Wild Bunch Distribution, 2008), DVD.
[2] Simone Magalhães Brito, Jorge Ventura de Moráis, and Túlio Velho Barreto, “Maradona y las reglas del juego: una interpretación sociológica de ‘la mano de Dios’,” Estudios Sociológicos 30, no. 90 (2012): 722. (“… un poco con la cabeza y un poco con la mano de Dios.”)
[3] Scott Murray, “World Cup: 25 stunning moments … No 9: Diego Maradona’s Hand of God,” The Guardian, 8 April 2014, https://www.theguardian.com/football/blog/2014/apr/08/world-cup-moments-maradona-hand-god.
[4] Eduardo P. Archetti, “’And Give Joy to my Heart’: Ideology and Emotions in the Argentine Cult of Maradona,” in Entering the Field: New Perspectives on World Football, eds. Gary Armstrong and Richard Guilianotti (Oxford: Berg, 1997), 39, 48.
[5] Antonio Rubial García, “Icons of Devotion: The Appropriation and Use of Saints in New Spain,” in Local Religion in Colonial Mexico, ed. Martin Austin Nesvig (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2006), 55-56.
[6] Archetti, “’And Give Joy to my Heart,’” 50 (n. 2).
[7] “La Santa Iglesia de Maradona—Historia,” Iglesia Maradoniana, 11 February 2016, http://www.iglesiamaradoniana.com.ar/la-santa-iglesia-de-maradona-historia/.
[8] Rupert Howland-Jackson, “La Iglesia Maradoniana – Argentina’s real religion?,” The Argentina Independent, 1 December 2008, http://www.argentinaindependent.com/life-style/ba/la-iglesia-maradoniana-argentinas-real-religion/.
[9] William A. Christian, Jr., Local Religion in Sixteenth-Century Spain (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1981), 33-35.
[10] Brian Larkin, “Confraternities and Community: The Decline of the Communal Quest for Salvation in Eighteenth-Century Mexico City,” in Local Religion in Colonial Mexico, ed. Martin Austin Nesvig (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2006), 189-190.
[11] García, “Icons of Devotion,” 38.
[12] Santiago Ayala Ubidia, “Del fútbol y las patadas mediáticas” (M.A. thesis, Universidad Andina Simón Bolívar, Quito, Ecuador, 2007), 23.
[13] Archetti, “’And Give Joy to my Heart,’” 37-38.
[14] Ana Pizarro and Carolina Benavente, “El Diego y el dribbling simbólico en el Cono Sur,” Iberoamericana 7, no. 27 (2007): 146.
[15] Bartlomiej Brach, “Who is Lionel Messi? A comparative study of Diego Maradona and Lionel Messi,” International Journal of Cultural Studies 15, no. 4 (2011): 420-421.
[16] “Religion in Latin America Chapter 2: Religious Commitment and Practice,” Pew Research Center, 13 November 2014, http://www.pewforum.org/2014/11/13/chapter-2-religious-commitment-and-practice/.
[17] Marcello Serra, “Maradona entre la tierra y el cielo,” Cuadernos de Información y Comunicación 20 (2015): 14.
[18] Archetti, “’And Give Joy to my Heart,’” 35-36.
[19] Brach, “Who is Lionel Messi?,” 423.
[20] Jonathan Franklin, “’He was sent from above,’” The Guardian, 11 November 2008, https://www.theguardian.com/football/2008/nov/12/diego-maradona-argentina.
[21] Archetti, “’And Give Joy to my Heart,’” 50 (n.5).
[22] Robert Booth and Sam Jones, “El maestro Maradona: football legend to be Argentina manager,” The Guardian, 29 October 2008, https://www.theguardian.com/football/2008/oct/30/argentina-maradona-football-manager-rehab.
[23] “Diego Maradona departs as manager of Argentina,” The Guardian, 27 July 2010, https://www.theguardian.com/football/2010/jul/27/diego-maradona-departs-argentina-manager.
[24] Franklin, “’He was sent from above,’” https://www.theguardian.com/football/2008/nov/12/diego-maradona-argentina.
[25] Sarah Cline, “The Spiritual Conquest Reexamined: Baptism and Marriage in Early Sixteenth-Century Mexico,” in The Church in Colonial Latin America, ed. John F. Schwaller (Wilmington, DE: Scholarly Resources, 2000), 77.
[26] Maradona by Kusturica, DVD.
[27] Cline, “The Spiritual Conquest Reexamined,” 90; William Christian, Jr., “Catholicisms,” in Local Religion in Colonial Mexico, ed. Martin Austin Nesvig (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2006), 260.
[28] Howland-Jackson, “La Iglesia Maradoniana,” http://www.argentinaindependent.com/life-style/ba/la-iglesia-maradoniana-argentinas-real-religion/.
[29] Christian, Jr., Local Religion in Sixteenth-Century Spain, 81.
[30] See Appendix A.
[31] García, “Icons of Devotion,” 40.

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